October 2020 Board meeting

Chris Agnew
6 min readOct 9, 2020


All indicators tell us the coming months will only bring more of the instability we have experienced in our country over the last seven months. Volatility, uncertainty, and polarization are exhausting in any context and are particularly devastating when overlaid in a pandemic. Our faculty and instructors are a shining light in all of this making our mission come to life with our learners every day. As the academic year has begun over the last month and a half, they walk into our indoor classrooms, our outdoor classrooms, or our classrooms on four wheels with courage and commitment to providing our young and old learners with essential educational experiences. While technology is a powerful tool, we know education is more than plugging into a YouTube video. Through modified in-person, hybrid, and virtual means our educators are creating the community and heart that are core to a TSS learning experience and some sense of normalcy we all crave. Thank you, faculty. Thank you, instructors. Thank you, educators.

As we know, our first goal is protecting the health and wellness of our students, staff, and community. This does not mean no identified cases within the TSS community. All learning and working protocols are built with the assumption that everyone is positive. As cases rise again in both Wyoming and Idaho, health and wellness protection means limiting spread within our community. This is enabled by a contract with our community of good organizational protocols and responsible individual behavior. Our first goal of health and wellness is then supported by the following goals of 2) ensuring the integrity of TSS, 3) stewarding faculty and staff through uncertainty, and 4) evolving our learning delivery and opportunities as conditions change.

While the above is within a TSS context, for those living in the American west over the last six weeks the hue of light seems to send a broader message. The world is there…and something is different. We are seeing bigger than generational change right now — racial justice, climate change, and education delivery. The jury has not returned in which direction we’re headed. Will virtual learning experiences in the spring push our country and world to get real on equity in education? Are we able to reinvent energy, transportation, food, and housing to positively navigate our changing climate? How are our historical structures of systemic racism dismantled to embody a more socially just and inclusive community and country?

It’s these big questions that tell us why a return to normal is not our goal at TSS. We can identify and plan for what we can anticipate and control but in a world where we can anticipate fewer things, we are building adaptable systems to enable greater resilience long term. Investments we made in education innovation beginning five years ago helped TSS adapt to virtual learning more quickly and effectively this spring. Integrating our independent school as one school across two campuses enabled a more effective pandemic response over the last seven months. Clarifying our definition of a TSS donor over the last three years has led to more financial resilience through uncertainty. Resilience has two definitions. One describes an ability to return to an original size and shape after stress. The second describes an ability to adjust to change. The first definition is static — stress and bounce back. The second allows space for evolution and responsiveness. It implies learning, change, and adaption. Resilience is one of our Community Leadership principles in the TSS Framework and is our guide as we look to the “next normal” for TSS.

You will notice two changes in this Board report. First, we are now reporting all enrollment in a centralized place with the addition of a Marketing and Sales section. In one place you can find total year to date student numbers across TSS. Comparing year over year, we can clearly identify the different shape of TSS programming due to COVID-19. Centralized reporting is a structural representation of our priority to improve recruitment and retention of students and partner schools/organizations across TSS. The second change you will notice is the Board meeting flow stretching over two and a half days. Generally, the Board meeting begins on a Monday with an opening session, has Committee meetings over the following day and a half for more focused priorities, and then concludes with a Board closing session on Wednesday evening. The goals in changing the flow of the meeting is to have less in-person report outs, more engaged work at the Committee level (based on Committee expertise and topic), have fewer agenda items for full Board sessions with priority to long term topics and depth over breadth, and to create the time and space for the Board to meet as an intact group and build their team.

We ended our last strategic plan two and a half months early due to COVID-19. Building a more resilient TSS in an increasingly dynamic world doesn’t mean we are headed towards another multi-year static strategic plan. At the same time, we have a direction with known needs and priorities. It’s important that as the big levers of change in our world right now shape both TSS and our landscape, that we synthesize our big priorities towards what “emerging strong” looks like beyond just survival or financial integrity. At this Board meeting we’ll explore both how our next articulated strategy will take shape and remain adaptive for both the uncertainty of now and our increasingly dynamic world. The big themes relevant to TSS before COVID of investing in our team and talent and institutionalizing DEI remain important today. COVID is also pushing us to learn and think hard about how and who we deliver a TSS experience — virtual, in the Tetons, and in home communities of schools. How does learning at TSS emerge stronger post COVID as well as a business model that matches our organizational complexity and goals?

We know many investments we made with our previous strategic plan are helping TSS better navigate uncertainty right now. What investments we make in TSS in our next strategy will determine where we are in 2025 and 2030. We have many reasons to be optimistic. Our faculty and instructors continue to create extraordinary learning opportunities through challenging circumstances. This summer was likely the first where TSS summer camp enrollment reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of our community. It is an organizational priority for the TSS Board to add black, indigenous, or people of color with the next Board slate (voted on in April 2021 to begin June 2021). Place-based education is unifying and if anything, the experience of schools over the last seven months has underscored the importance of learning anytime, anywhere, embedded in the community.

Our timeline is not just looking towards the next three+ weeks until the election. Neither is our timeline when we “get back” or a vaccine enables us to resume high volume residential programming. Regardless of the results of the election we can expect continued instability. Our challenge is to look to the future and build resilience because reaching back for the past won’t serve us well. We know our COVID response must help us step towards a more resilient TSS investing in talent, DEI, and more accessible place-based learning. As we look to the future, let’s also be sure to be present and be kind to each other. Each person, the organization, and the world are carrying a heavy load right now.

All of this a tall order. It is beyond the reach of any one person or organization. For the last 53 years, I do believe TSS has been preparing for this moment. Grounded in science, nature, and the earth. Codified into a replicable approach of education grounded in the local culture, economy, and ecology of any place. We are small enough to be nimble in dynamic times yet big enough to reach across our country and across the world. The ending has not been written yet but we believe place-based education is the path to a more environmentally sustainable, socially just, and economically vibrant world for all.