When Brian Yager reflects on his seven years as the head of Keystone School, he doesn’t present a list of accomplishments, institutional initiatives, or student achievements. He talks more about the culture of Keystone, which he claims to have inherited more than shaped.

“My goal since I first got [to Keystone] was not to screw it up,” Yager said. “My job has always been to be a supporter and a nurturer of the work that’s going on, not an originator of it.”

The Monte Vista private school, founded in 1948, is known for rigorous academics and students whose achievements extend beyond high test scores and athletics.

“There are not a lot of schools in the country where the kids are learning and growing and doing impressive things as much as at Keystone,” Yager said.

As our interview began in his office, we were interrupted by a young child standing in the doorway, holding a handmade card. In crayon, she had written “Thank you, Mr. Yager” across the top of what appeared to be a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Yager gave her a hug and sent her back to her teacher, who was waiting in the hall.

Yager has mixed feelings about his upcoming move to the Harker School in San Jose, Calif., where he will be the head of school starting next school year. Keystone provided everything he valued professionally – a fulfilling environment, visible impact, and good people to work with.

“The mixed feelings are pretty simple, actually,” Yager said, “I just love this place. The only thing that could make me move from Keystone is geography.”

Other schools had attempted to recruit Yager over the years, but Harker had geography on its side when they approached him about the position. The California native was ready to be back home, closer to family. And the job is a great opportunity in itself. Harker has 2,000 students, compared to Keystone’s 500, and has “gone from good to great” in recent years, said Yager. 

Keystone School Head Brian Yager walks through Keystone School.
Keystone School Head Brian Yager walks through Keystone School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

While sad to leave the community, both at Keystone and San Antonio, he is confident that he leaves the school functioning at top speed. All members of the core staff have indicated that they will stay on, Yager said. The interim head of school, Jim Lindsey, currently the assistant head of school and business manager, has led the school before, during another head of school search.

Keystone’s reputation is well established. The school is known for its rigor, creativity, and highly motivated students. While Yager values that local identity, he is wary of some of the wider acclaim the school has drawn. In 2006, the College Board named it “the best school in the world.” Keystone consistently finds itself on the Washington Post’s list of “America’s Most Challenging Schools.” When Keystone topped the list for private schools in 2015, Yager turned heads by dismissing the accolade.

“Unfortunately, we are sheepish about the Post’s placement of Keystone at the top. … The ranking is based on data that is an extremely poor indicator of school quality or challenge, and, frankly, the methodology behind the rankings is extremely troubling,” Yager wrote in a letter posted to the school’s website.

Rather than measuring AP tests taken or SAT scores, Yager measures success by growth. While the school is able to select from a large pool of bright and motivated applicants, Yager explains that they are looking for more than a kid who will test well and boost school stats. The admissions process is meant to ensure that the student loves learning in a way that will allow them to thrive in a rigorous environment. He knows that his students are more motivated than most, and likely to do well in whatever they set their minds to. Their amassing of trophies, honors, and championships, as well as admission into elite colleges has led many to assume that Keystone is simply good at recruiting. Yager refutes that assumption.

”[Our staff] are not talent collectors, we’re talent creators,” Yager said. “If we’re just identifying the smart kids but not adding to it, what are we doing?” 

He does, however, acknowledge that the student’s tendency to succeed (often wildly), validates the school’s culture and alleviates pressure to conform to more test-oriented methods. Taking motivated Keystone students from bright to brilliant, or from high-achieving to innovative, Yager has been able to identify some of the sources of the school’s “magic.” He remains convinced that these best practices translate into any setting, whether moving a student toward the White House Science Fair, or simply toward graduation.

Yager is a vocal advocate for public schools. Like his contrarian attitude toward ranking systems, he also rejects the trope of the “failing public school.” Such a bleak assessment, he insists, comes from measuring the wrong things and focusing on the wrong things.

The negativity is draining for teachers in the public system, he said. Teachers in traditional schools should be encouraged as they welcome a greater diversity of students into their classrooms than system architects ever anticipated. Yager feels that, with shifting demographics and changing technologies, today’s teachers are far more well-prepared than any previous generation.

What’s missing, says Yager, is the culture of growth and learning.

Instead of further empowering and celebrating educators, lawmakers and education reformers accept the universal assessment of “failing schools” and try to implement fixes that may actually make things worse, Yager said. These fixes often use inadequate tools like testing to measure narrow goals, like reading and math. Even if reading and math are accepted as national priorities, Yager said, standardized testing isn’t necessarily the best way to measure them. However, to say reading and math are national priorities is not totally accurate. Yager sees a total absence of clear goals.

In that vacuum, the conversation has focused on workforce preparation, not citizenship, Yager said. “Education should be about a fulfilling life, a life of meaning, and a life of contribution.”

Schools have historically played a large role in the advancement of society, and by limiting their role to test preparation and pipelines into the workforce, the country runs the risk of losing ground. The stigma of “failing schools” disproportionately affects inner-city and minority populations, and is reinforced by over-reliance on test scores.

The infrastructure and curriculum at Keystone are pretty standard, Yager explains. They are not creating unique learning spaces or test driving experimental courses. What they do have is steadily evolving excellence in teaching. One statistic Yager is proud of is the school’s inclusion among the San Antonio Express-News’ “Top Workplaces.” Fulfilled, motivated teachers make magic happen.

Yager’s goal has been to give the teachers “tremendous latitude” to reach the goals set by the school. He keeps the school’s administration lean and bureaucracy to a minimum.

Looking at the most celebrated school systems in the world, Yager mentioned Finland, where teachers are highly regarded professionals, expected to pursue excellence just as any doctor, architect, or entrepreneur would. Keystone teachers are encouraged to pursue professional development that suits their needs, whether it’s an intensive reading regimen or a national conference. 

Teachers are free to try new things, which keeps the school steadily moving forward. They don’t run after new trends in education, but as teachers discover new tools and technology expands the information available to them, Yager sees steady transformation occurring.

The happy teachers contribute to Keystone’s other secret ingredient – a “precious culture” of learning. Words like “celebration” and “joy” come up again and again with Yager. He watches out the window as a mom uses her phone to film her beaming, elementary-aged daughter reciting a poem during afternoon pick-up. Keystone celebrates these moments, along with the trophies.

Keystone School Head Brian Yager stands outside of the Jary Theatre.
Keystone School Head Brian Yager stands outside of the Jary Theatre. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“There is a danger in only celebrating the quantifiable stuff,” Yager said.

While he does celebrate achievement, such as the school’s reigning national champion Academic WorldQuest Team, a quiz competition hosted by the World Affairs Council, he mostly praises the effort the team put into preparing. It’s a careful balance for the overachievers, but a valuable balance for any student.

Keystone sees itself as a haven for students whose unique interests and deep love of learning might put them outside the mainstream culture at traditional public schools or even other private schools. This has given Keystone students like junior Nia Clements, who went to the White House Science Fair her sophomore year with a potential breakthrough in holistic cancer treatment. It has also generated creative and growing students with less impressive grades. Yager would like to see every school be a haven for learning, however students do it best.

“Keystone wants to be a beacon of what good work, good energy, and good culture can accomplish for everyone,” he said.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.