Edgility: Leadership Spotlight With Rachel Skiffer

Khan Lab School
October 4, 2019 / 5 mins read

Khan Lab School was founded in 2014 by Salman "Sal" Khan (founder of Khan Academy). Khan Lab School has a unique model as a laboratory school, dedicated to research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education. Their mission is to empower each student with the right combination of knowledge, skills, and experiences to fully engage in the world and create their own meaning in it.

This summer, I had the pleasure of visiting with 2018 Edgility placement Rachel Skiffer, Head of School at Khan Lab School in Mountain View, CA. Rachel's experience has encompassed leadership, strategy, law, admissions curriculum, financial aid, and college counseling. To learn more about Rachel's compelling work and vision for The Khan Lab School, we asked her a few questions and captured her responses, below.

Serena Moy (SM): You were placed in the Head of School role in July 2018. Since that time, tell me about some of the things you have worked on.

Rachel Skiffer (RS): Our enrollment at The Khan Lab School is now at 174 students. When The Khan Lab School was originally founded in 2014, they started with just 30 kids. We will have our first class of high school graduates in 2021.

There is much more communication around happenings than there had been in the past.

We are now going through accreditation, implementing A-G standards for our high school, and it's making things much tighter programmatically. We did a pilot program for math and mapped out for students everything they would cover. This helped them with self-pacing since they could see how the curriculum mapped out.

As a lab school, we are always thinking about how we assess our work--systematizing it, establishing rubrics before launching a new initiative, and already having a sense of what success would look like and how to measure it. We are constantly thinking about what personalized learning looks like from a student and teacher perspective and how technology is a tool but not a panacea.

SM: What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment so far?

RS: I think all the students know who I am and feel comfortable coming and talking to me like any other adult. I am getting a better sense of the skills and habits of mind that are a good cultural fit for the school, teaching wise. The students know KLS feels their most important trait is integrity, and that our goal academically is for them to be learned people with no gaps in their foundational knowledge.

I have brought in new team members and we are working on getting everyone galvanized around a mission and vision for pedagogy and the organization, but this is always a work in progress. We are supporting staff on the administrative side to have more space to play and be creative.

We established a teacher task force around the role of teaching and learning at KLS, and our math teachers meet weekly to talk about K-12 pedagogy and what it means for KLS. We brought in more math teachers to provide that support.

SM: Are there any DEI initiatives you want to highlight within your organization or any DEI initiatives you have spearheaded?

KS: There was a DEI conference at Stanford University and we had 10 teachers attend. They came back and presented to the team. Some of the projects that students did this year were around gender and race. I would not say I spearheaded that but I did support it.

I would love for us as a staff to do more personal DEI work. That is the best point of departure before we can do the work through content and experiential learning. For admissions, we need to do more pounding of the pavement in terms of outreach to find families who may not know about us.

SM: What has been challenging?

RS: We have an incredibly passionate parent body here with a high tolerance for innovation. They really embrace the lab part of this school. We have an incredible wealth of resources in terms of their professional expertise. Open rates for newsletters and emails are high. We have a robotics program where parents and kids are here at night and weekends.

Now this is amazing, but I think one of the greatest challenges is how to best incorporate parents into a school that respects everyone. To have such problems...!

SM. What have been your greatest areas of professional development since you started this role?

RS: For me it's been learning the finance side and the details with which I need to understand the budget. Next year is the start of our 6th year and we are a lab school for everything, including how to run a school. This year we have a break-even budget, which is a big deal for any independendent school. This was a collaboration of the Board's finance committee, myself, and the office of admissions to get to this goal.

SM: What are some things you would still like to accomplish or areas where you would like to grow, professionally?

RS: I want to work on the communications piece of how to tell the story of the Khan Lab School externally and internally. These are things we need to build as an institution. We don't have a Development Director and asking people for money in a K-12 school has its challenges. I also want to continue to do the DEI work. It's like going to the dentist; you need check-ups to stay healthy - the work is lifelong.

SM: What advice would you like to share with individuals who are looking to move into a leadership role such as yours?

RS: Gain a good sense of what kind of leader you are. Are you quiet or extroverted? Do you like to lead from the side or the front? I think it's about knowing what your style is. Have multiple mentors in areas where you are trying to grow. Everyone should have a coach for their first year (at least!). I have a mentor who is a Head of School in the Bay Area and it's been super helpful.

SM: Tell me how working with Edgility compares to working with other search firms. What did you find useful of helpful during your job search?

RS: I was not really on a job search. You found me. The first email that was sent out was very personal and exciting.

SM: What is something you enjoy doing in your down time?

RS: Relaxing and hanging out with my kids (4 and almost 2 yrs old). I do preschool pick up so it makes me leave the office. This gives me time to reflect and unplug for a little bit each day. I would like to find a choir in the area.

To Learn More about Khan School and the great innovative work they're doing, check out their website for more information.