We had the good fortune of connecting with Christy Durham and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Christy, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
It is rare to hear someone in the field of education say that they have started their own business (in this case a school). Most educators work for public, charter, or established private schools where our focus is primarily on our students’ learning and well-being. The rest of our time is swallowed up by endless amounts of paperwork and cumbersome grading and reporting. All of our time and focus is on ensuring that our students are growing academically. This leaves little time to ponder the system to which we are enmeshed and have the energy to do something about it!

I too was on this treadmill for more than 14 years. I started my career (the third career change since graduating college) in 2000. I was committed to finding a job that had the potential to make an impact. I loved teaching from the minute I stepped into the classroom, and I cared deeply about my students and their future. It was at the turn of this century that the educational community began to talk about “21st Century Skills.” (Strangely, this is still a term that we have thrown around for almost a quarter century.) At that time, I was excited to read about the skills needed to thrive in a quickly evolving and highly connected world. Most of these skills had little to do with the curriculum that we as educators hold sacred. The shift seemed to make perfect sense. The goal of education in this new era was no longer to have kids memorize and be tested on a bunch of subject-specific facts, which were now readily available within seconds on the smartphones most Americans carry in their pockets. The new goal is to get kids to become good communicators and collaborators. They must be effective and creative problem solvers. They must be adaptable and innovative. I was excited to dig in and get down to the hard work of reimagining what these new goals meant for schools and for the curriculum that we teach. Sadly, it seemed that the majority of the educational community focused on justifying what they have always done rather than reimagining and redesigning what learning could look like.There seemed to be a reluctance to make observations and ask questions. I was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm to change to a system that had remained relatively the same for over 200 years. I knew that I needed to take action.

Revolutionizing learning has been an arduous journey, but I cannot imagine a more vital and a more rewarding life path!

Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Education has remained mostly unchanged for over 150 years. Established schools and school systems are unwilling to make substantial pedagogical shifts, instead relying on outdated traditional methods. Schools do this despite the fact that the world is a vastly different place than it was when the system was established. I could no longer, in good conscience, follow the status quo. With my two partners and fellow co-founders, I embarked on opening a school that would better prepare students for their futures. We were fortunate enough to find a generous funder and small campus in Malibu, and we opened Sycamore School (www.sycamore-school.org) in the fall of 2015.

The crusade to change education has been a challenging yet rewarding journey. As President Kennedy once famously said, “we do it not because it is easy but because it is hard.” That quote defines what it means to start a school with the specific goal of shattering the norms of an obsolete system. Instead, we at Sycamore champion an education that is engaging, relevant, and future-focused. It is centered on the learning and skills that develop self-driven, autonomous, ethical thinkers and creative problem solvers. The education industry has been slow to make the necessary changes so that students can learn and grow in a fast changing and ever-evolving world. I hope to be able to inspire educators to rethink their curriculum and to challenge administrators to give space for teachers to make these requisite changes.

Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Although not a native-born Angeleno, I’ve loved exploring this amazing city since I moved here in 1996. The first stop for anyone looking to learn about the history of LA must check out Olvera Street, the birthplace of our city. I enjoy exploring the colorful markets, eating traditional Mexican food, and soaking up the sights and sounds of this downtown spot.

A “must eat” stop can be found at the world famous Din Tai Fung restaurant in Arcadia. I, like everyone else who makes the trek from all over the city, loves their famous Xiao Long Bao (steamed pork stuffed dumpling). While in the area, I like to go to 99 Ranch Market to pick up some bakery treats and my favorite Zongzi (sticky rice dumpling).

For hikers, campers, and mountain bikers, a visit to Malibu Creek State Park is a must. This park feels like being a million miles away from the bustle of the city and yet it’s close to home. The mountain bike trails in this area are world-class, and visitors can see the location where the television series MASH was filmed and swim in the beautiful rock pools.

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
In his book A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink says that it is imperative that we educate kids based on their future and not based on our past. He states, “In an age of abundance, appealing only to rational, logical and functional needs is woefully insufficient – mastery of design, empathy, play and other seemingly ‘soft’ aptitudes is now the main way for individuals and firms to stand out in a crowded marketplace.” Reading this book was my “aha moment” which set me off on the journey to start my own school.

I also had two incredible and courageous partners alongside me on my journey to revolutionize education. I met Tedd Wakeman in 2013 when he was working at the PlayMaker School. Anyone who meets Tedd is welcomed by his warmth and enthusiasm. But beyond his positive, glass half-full attitude is a champion for students and for education. He is a fervent advocate for change in education and is he “heart” of our school.

The course of my professional life shifted when I met my other partner, AJ Webster, in 2001. AJ and I started our careers in education at a well-established K-12 college preparatory school. From the beginning, we clicked. We both knew instinctively that learning should be engaging and relevant. That education should be humane and student-centered rather than unnecessarily stressful and content-focused. We soon began to make radical shifts in the approach to our curriculum and in our expectations for our students. We took seriously the call to prepare our students for the 21st century, and we have collaborated to make that happen for over 20 years. AJ is an unwavering warrior in the fight against the industrial model of education and the “master architect” of our revolutionary school.

Website: www.sycamore-school.org

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