Well Being: 'Walks and Talks' rev up bodies, ideas

Priscilla Sands, president of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, takes daily 41/2-mile walks around the neighborhood with school trustees, parents, anyone willing to keep up. "We have different conversations than we would have in an office," says the school's CFO.
Priscilla Sands, president of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, takes daily 41/2-mile walks around the neighborhood with school trustees, parents, anyone willing to keep up. "We have different conversations than we would have in an office," says the school's CFO. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 21, 2011

Priscilla Sands comes from a family of hard-charging athletes, but she has always considered herself more the poetic, literary sort. Nevertheless, she played rugby in her 30s and admits to a fierce competitive streak.

She also relishes a challenge, such as the daunting one she faces now, merging the traditions and cultures of two esteemed private schools into the recently created Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

Sands is president of the combined institution, and if she was busy before as head of the formerly all-girls Springside, her responsibilities now have multiplied. She is not only creating a new kind of school but also trying to envision new ways of educating boys and girls for the 21st century.

She's eager to hear fresh ideas but she's not so keen about sitting around a table sipping Diet Coke while conversation rambles and lethargy spreads. Instead, she has become a peripatetic multitasker, a model of functional fitness who blends the physical and intellectual. In short, if you want face time with Sands, you have to earn it by taking a brisk walk.

She calls them "Walks and Talks" and she began the practice a little over a year ago. Every day about 4 p.m., she breaks out of her office and strides the byways of Chestnut Hill and the trails of the Wissahickon Valley. Her companion may be a member of her staff, a teacher, a parent, a trustee. She does not dally. During a typical hour-long walk, she'll cover about 4.5 miles, a pace of about a mile every 13.5 minutes.

"I compete with myself in terms of speed and time," says Sands, who keeps track with an app on her smartphone. "I'm not a saunterer. I really sweat." (Her fantasy: to be able to keep up with Frank Steel, SCH Academy's head of school and a serious runner.)

For a long time, her principal mode of exercise was walking on a treadmill, but Sands found it to be a "boring slog." Her daily outdoor walks are more enjoyable, and better exercise. The results show. At 64, she is enviably trim, and she supplements her walking with weightlifting and yoga.

"It has completely changed my life," she says of the Walks and Talks. "We have worked through more issues at school than at any other time. Amazing ideas have come out of these walks."

Frank Aloise, the school's chief financial officer, has accompanied Sands on several walks.

"The first one was a shocker," he recalls. "I thought we'd be taking a stroll around the football field. I was wearing a jacket and tie and dress shoes. Priscilla marched into the woods along a rocky trail. She was practically running, and I could barely breathe."

Since then, Aloise has grown to appreciate the walks and the focused, intimate discussions free from interruptions and distractions.

"The brain works differently when you're exercising," Aloise says, "and we have different conversations than we would have in an office. We sometimes get into philosophical issues and touch on things we might not touch on if we were looking at a spreadsheet."

Jenny McHugh, the school's codirector of institutional advancement, walks with Sands as often as three times a week. The conversations tend to be more wide-ranging, cosmic and visionary, she says. Sands is also goal-oriented and determined, McHugh says. She walks in all kinds of weather, including snow and rain. McHugh remembers getting caught in a deluge. Despite the soaking, Sands insisted on finishing the full course.

Liz Pearson, president of the parents association for the Cherokee Campus (formerly the Springside School), took her first walk with Sands on a hot August day. "It was probably 95 degrees, and the humidity was high. She was trucking along, and I was definitely pushing myself to keep up."

The walks, Pearson says, encourage "free-flowing dialogue" and "increased accessibility to her and her thought process."

Trustee Mims Zabriskie lauds the walks for fostering honesty, trust, and creativity. "An office is not as conducive to open brainstorming," she says. She has also learned a trick for dealing with Sands and her wicked pace. "The key is to have her start talking when you're going up a hill. She's a good storyteller. The pace remains the same, but she's doing the talking, and you're able to catch your breath."

The other day, I joined Sands for an abbreviated walk, which was conducted at a slackened pace that enabled this scribe to scribble. Her mind, though, was in overdrive. She spoke admiringly of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen and his belief in the importance of disruption for both businesses and schools.

She expressed the hope that SCH Academy will produce leaders who are intuitive, creative, and entrepreneurial, and who will harness the connective power of new technology to understand and engage the world empathetically. Her mantra: "Social media for social good."

What do the students think of her daily walks?

"They wave and cheer me on," she said. "They probably all think I'm 95, but life can be wonderful when you're 64 if your body is able to do what you want it to do."

Contact Art Carey at acarey@phillynews.com. Read his recent "Well Being" columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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