When being fixed can be broken

I had a teacher in high school who handed back our tests in descending order. He would work his way around the room handing each student their test, usually without any comment. There were about 20 of us in the class and as you can imagine, the same three or four students almost always received their tests first and another quartet inevitably received their tests last. Once, one of these student’s tests was in the top 25% and the teacher asked, “Get lucky?” and kept working his way around the room.

I can not remember the class or teacher’s name where this occurred, but I distinctly remember the practice.

I can only imagine the impact it had on some of my classmates, both the ones at the top and the ones at the bottom.

The LaGrange Academy faculty read “Mindset” this summer. In it, author Carol Dweck, discusses how, “a simple belief about yourself . . . guides a large part of your life.” To Dweck, and her Standford research team, many people believe intelligence, artistic, emotional, or athletic ability is set and can not be drastically changed. The hand one is dealt at birth is the hand one plays. Dweck calls this mindset “fixed” and is the way my former teacher viewed students.

By comparison, others feel the hand one is dealt at birth is a starting point, not the terminus. People with this “growth” mindset see their abilities as somewhere along a spectrum and they feel they can improve their abilities with work and effort.

During the first few inservice days this year, the faculty and I talked about the book and its impact on us as individuals, parents, teachers and administrators. Many of us talked about ways we hope to utilize what we learned in our role at the school. For me, that means sharing the books message with our parents. This fall, I will schedule 30 minute meetings with parents in each grade level. These meetings will start at 8:05 and meet in the Commons. I hope to explain a bit more about the book and hope many of you will find it a worthwhile read as a result of these meetings.

Here is the board schedule for these meetings:

August – Pre-K, 6th Grade, and 12th Grade

September – Kindergarten, 7th Grade and 9th Grade

October – 1st Grade, 8th Grade, and 11th Grade

November – 2nd Grade, 3rd Grade and 10th Grade

December – 4th and 5th Grade

I will be emailing each grade’s parents with specific dates and look forward to these opportunities to talk about this book.

 

Pick two.

Strong. Light. Inexpensive.

Pick two.

I have heard and uttered the above innumerous times in my 20 plus years as a cyclist. The idea behind this saying is that all of the parts that comprise a modern bicycle can be made to conform to any two of the words in the first line, but not all three. Inexpensive box store bicycles are fairly strong machines, but can weigh over 35 pounds, which is a great deal of weight the bicyclist has to expend energy to move down the road or trail. On the other end of the spectrum, modern technology has created a situation where professional cycling teams have to work to keep the pros’ bikes at the minimum weight for racing bikes, which is 6.8 kilos, or just under 15 pounds. A pro level racing bike can cost over $5000.00 and is a marvel of modern engineering made up of carbon fibre, titanium, electronic shifters and even disc brakes.

I’ve never owned a “cost is no option” bicycle, but have seen some that could easily be lifted with just two or three fingers of one hand, and doing so always brought a smile to my face. I’ve also ridden heavy, inexpensive bikes and while they got the job done, they were not as efficient or enjoyable to ride.

There are some parallels in education with this cycling maxim.

One of the main reasons many parents choose a school such as LaGrange Academy for their children is because the classes are smaller. A student who visited last week as part of the admissions process commented at the end of the day that some of his classes at a local elementary school have up to 32 students in them , and most have around 25. He spent the day with a class of 18. That class will very likely split into two sections next year, and will probably have a total of 24-26 students. We believe that students learn better when the student teacher ratio is lower, especially for those students in lower school and middle school. If we know we will not be able to split a grade into two sections, we cap enrollment and have done so in three grades this year at the Academy.

Splitting a grade into sections at anywhere from 15-20 students because it provides a better learning environment for students comes with some costs for the school. Our growth over the last few years has nearly maxed out our use of our available space within the school, and that is what has led to three grades with waiting lists. In addition to classrooms, schools make big investments in technology and ancillary programs to strengthen the educational experience of the student. By far, the biggest investment in any school is the faculty, and that is the way it should be. Overall, teachers in this country are terribly underpaid and largely unappreciated. Georgia pays its teachers less than the national averages and Troup County falls below the state average. Those observations are for public schools. Independent school teachers almost always earn less than their public school counterparts and the benefit packages in private schools are also smaller. Yet, a typical independent school budget earmarks anywhere from 70-80% of the entire budget to salaries and benefits. We are not the first business to realize that our most valuable asset walks out the door every day.

Independent schools in the US have a very interesting business model, and it doesn’t sound like one that would be well received at any MBA program. Almost every independent school across the country charges(tuition) the customer less than it costs to provide a service(teach a student). The average rate charged for independent schools across the country is about 80-85% of the actual cost to run the school. In other words, a typical school charges around $8,500 in tuition for every $10,000 it spends to educate the students. Schools balance the budget each year through several means. One is pulling money from the school’s endowment, or savings account, to cover the amount of tuition assistance offered to families that can not afford the full tuition amount. Independent schools also have various fundraisers during the year such as the annual fund or gala/auctions. At the Academy, tuition covers around 84% of the expense of running the school each year and we utilize several activities to help bridge that gap. We do not have a large enough endowment to be able to pull any funds from it to help defray financial awards, but have been able to utilize Georgia’s GOAL program to help underwrite out financial budget. The board of trustees and the school’s administration are committed to helping make the Academy as affordable as possible for the families of Troup County.

We all want great facilities, well paid teachers, small classes and low tuition. The difficult part is keeping all of these in balance. If the school keeps tuition low, which it has done for the last several years, then class size has to increase in order to help ensure the facilities are kept up to date and the faculty and staff are compensated on a level that keeps and attracts the best teachers in the area. If teacher salaries climb faster than any other consideration, needed updates and repairs to the facilities lag while class size climbs to a point that the School finds untenable. If we invest heavily in upgraded technology, textbooks and the physical plant, then tuition and class size must both climb to keep pace.

Over the last four years, the Board of Trustees and Administration have worked closely to help ensure each of these factors have worked with each other and at a pace that has benefitted the students. If you have any questions about these topics and would like to speak in more depth about them, please do not hesitate to reach out by email or phone.

 

 

 

Well said

Last Tuesday, LaGrange Academy alumnus Chase Wardlaw and I sat in the stands watching the boys basketball team roll to an early and insurmountable lead against Flint River in the first round of the region basketball tournament. Chase was a stellar basketball player for the Warriors and is currently a member of Oglethorpe University’s basketball squad.

As we watched the game, Chase asked how the school is doing, noting there were many new faces on the team he had led just a few years ago. I told him about the school’s growth since his graduation and he nodded his head saying, “You wouldn’t want your children anywhere but here.”

I ran through some of the particulars about our enrollment growth, noting the overall increase of over 70 students since the fall of 2013, waiting lists in two grades, and multiple sections in five more. He seemed thrilled with his alma mater’s success in that area and said again, “You wouldn’t want your children anywhere but here.”

After we talked about the school’s growth, Chase asked how the students were doing and I told him about the state championship won by the boys soccer team last fall and a state literary title won by the school the year after he graduated. He had heard about these accomplishments, and between the two of us, we were able to build a fairly comprehensive list of individual student and team accomplishments on the athletic field, on stage and in academic competitions for the last few years. And he said again, “You wouldn’t want your children anywhere but here.”

I told him about what several members of the faculty have been up to since he graduated, especially the teacher who spoke for him at graduation, Mrs. Jennifer Smith.

No matter how long I am at the Academy, I will always remember that speech and what it said about Chase, Mrs. Smith and the school itself. Many of the speeches are funny, most bring forth tears and hugs, and all of them are touching and heartfelt.

Mrs. Smith had Chase in several classes during his high school career and very early on realized he was a kinesthetic learner. She gave him a Rubik’s Cube to play with during class. Mrs. Smith said it best in her speech.

“I want to tell you about the Chase I know.  Chase is that student who is so full of energy he can’t always sit down.  Trying to contain this much Chase in the classroom has been, at times, a daunting task.  Sometimes you just need to give him something to keep his hands busy….like a Rubik’s cube.  Here Chase – play with this while I keep talking.  What you all probably don’t know about Chase is that he can solve this puzzle once, or maybe twice before I finish speaking.”

Chase completed two Rubik’s Cubes during Mrs. Smith’s speech. While the audience and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him, Mrs. Smith’s words riveted my attention.

“It is a well-known fact that Chase cannot (or will not) keep up with his possessions. . . .But when I can get him, and all his assorted belongings, into my room for class he turns into the Chase who is the scholar, not just an athlete.”

Mrs. Smith continued, “Not everyone knows that this boy can REALLY play the piano.  If you ever get the chance, just stop and listen when he is playing.  He is AMAZING.  He also has an extremely gentle heart, especially when it comes to the younger students.  It is not unusual to see him giving basketball pointers to the younger players – taking the time to share his breadth of knowledge.  I’ve also seen him in the stands, before a game, talking and joking with the Pre-K students.  I’m not sure who enjoys it more, but it is so gratifying to see. If there weren’t a 3 and ½ foot height difference I’m not sure I could tell who was the senior and who was the four-year-old.

As his advisor I’ve had quite a few heartfelt talks with Chase, some of them good and some of them serious.  And right now I want to do my last duty as your advisor.  Chase, I want you to realize that you have so much potential.  You have the ability to do great things in college – both on the court and in the classroom.   Please make wise choices, and as Big Daddy would say, ‘Play the Game.'”

I am happy to report Chase is realizing that potential, doing great things in college and we are sure he will continue to do so after he graduates in a few more years. And I couldn’t agree with him more.

You wouldn’t want your children anywhere but here.

The most important ingredient is balance

“Stressed” does not begin to describe most students’ feelings as they are tied into the climbing harness by a trained guide and look up at the imposing 40 foot wooden structure above them, a tipi of telephone poles securely bolted together and possessing dozens of possible routes to the platform at the top by means of ropes, nets, and strategically placed climbing holds. They usually pause for a bit, take a few deep breaths and stNOC 061art to climb. Many reach their personal limit before the top of the tower, but a large percentage of them also complete the challenge and get to sit at the top of the Alpine Tower enjoying the view before being lowered to the ground.

I get to witness this each spring as part of  LaGrange Academy’s middle school trip, where students go on an experiential education based trip to celebrate the end of another year of school and to explore new activities. The aforementioned Alpine Tower is one challenge by choice activity that many choose each year. Trained guides belay each climber to help ensure safety and more importantly, to offer encouragement and tips that can help the Academy’s students reach the pinnacle of the activity. For many of our students, this is the highlight of the trip.NOC 072

The Alpine Tower, and similar challenge by choice initiatives, provide many lessons for those of us in traditional educational settings. One of the most important lessons involves the stressful nature of the activity itself.  Stress is increasingly coming under scrutiny in education, and is rapidly becoming a word with only negative connotations. That concerns me.

Stress itself is not the killer of a happy childhood and positive school experience. Constant and excessive stress is the enemy.

A recent New York Times opinion piece argues that school has become so stressful for so many that the physical and emotional health of many student is compromised in many ways.

Click here to read the NYTimes article

The problem is real and in many schools and communities, it is endemic. During my time at LaGrange Academy, I am pleased to say that the school and community do not seem to fit that model of an environment that is so stressful as to be unhealthy. We are by no means perfect, but we strive to offer an educational setting that is balanced with the other expectations placed on our students.

Our students experience stress, but we aim for it to be age and grade appropriate. Students take tests and have homework, but the homework is designed to be maintained at a manageable 10 minutes per grade per night maximum. Many teachers also regularly build time into the daily schedule to allow students to complete homework before leaving school. As a faculty, the school’s divisions discuss what they are doing on a daily basis and each year changes are made to the system to better meet the students’ needs.

We know how busy our students are once they leave our classrooms. The school day starts at 8:00 and ends at 3:10. After school gets out, there are extracurricular commitments for many, in addition to involvement in community based arts activities. Those often end around 6:00 on a good day, maybe as late as 8:00 on a busy one. On top of these obligations, students have family and social lives. Now the clock is getting close to 10:00 or possibly even later. With all that they have going on in their lives, it is very easy for students to feel too much stress, which is not healthy for anyone. At the same time, some external stress helps to keep us growing and improving. Keeping that balance is the key, and we are committed to that balanced approach to education.

 

 

The evidence is overwhelming

One of our seniors, Will, works at Publix. He is unbelievably patient each week when Sophie runs to him shouting “Willie!” at the top of her lungs with her arms outstretched for a quick hug before we do our shopping. A few weeks ago, Will helped Christie and Sophie with the groceries. As he pushed the cart towards the car, he pointed to his nametag and asked, “Sophie, can you read one of your sight words that is on my nametag?” She looked at it, pointed to his name and said “Will.” She then pointed at the top of the nametag and said, “Publix.” He chuckled and said to Christie, “I thought she would get the sight word, but the other one surprised me a bit.”

I do not regale you with this tale to make a larger statement about Piaget’s prescience, but to offer yet another example of how special LaGrange Academy is as a school and a community.

Most people who know the school are aware that we actively foster relationships between our youngest and oldest students. Many upperclassmen volunteer as teacher’s aides in academic and elective classes as well as during lunch each day. We feel this is beneficial to all of the students. The older ones have the opportunity to give back to the community and genuinely seem to enjoy the interactions they have with their younger counterparts.

At the same time, our lower and middle school students have wonderful role models who exemplify what is expected at the area’s premier college preparatory school. Last year, one of the seniors volunteered in Sophie’s PreK class. As we drove home one afternoon, Sophie told me, “Miss Brandie is going to Samford next year. That’s where we used to live in Birmingham, isn’t it?” I told her it was and went on with our afternoon. I really appreciate that from the time a student enrolls at LaGrange Academy, the conversation begins with the premise that college is the ultimate destination and we operate as an extended family. If you aren’t familiar with the school and want to learn more about how your family can become part of our family, please give us a call.

The wheels are beginning to turn

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of working with a cross-section of the Academy family on the first step of the school’s brand development. Andy Fritchley and the rest of the team at Kelsey Advertising did a great job of leading board members, administrators, teachers and parents through the initial steps of the brand development process.

Last spring the board of trustees adopted a five-year strategic plan to help the guide the school into the next phase of its existence. Working with Kelsey on the school’s brand development is the first major step in that plan and Friday’s workshop got the wheels turning.

In our case, Friday’s session was designed to help us articulate what makes the Academy unique. Andy led us through a process to help us define the school’s claims of distinction that can be supported by evidence. One of the important steps involved Andy saying, “Tell me about LaGrange Academy.” I don’t want to short-circuit the process by saying what the group came up with, but there was no shortage of praise heaped on the entire school community during a session that lasted well over an hour. Even after we came back from a break and Andy was trying to move us on to the next step of the process, we added more items to the list of things we all love about the school.

After we generated well over 100 areas of distinction, we went through a step that helped Andy narrow the focus down to our five core values. I am very pleased with what we developed, and I think the school community will be as well. We will continue going through this process over the next few months, and I look forward to keeping you updated on this important step in developing our strategic vision for the school’s future.

 

Preparing students for their future, not our past

I was recently invited to speak at the September meeting of the Troup County Republican Party at its educational forum. My comments were well received by those attending the meeting and I’ve had a few members of the Academy family ask me to put the speech on my blog. My goal in the speech was to give a synopsis of the Academy’s approach to education. I hope you enjoy it.

Who has ever been white water rafting? I ask because one of my favorite activities each year is our middle school white water rafting trip. For those of you who have been rafting, you know what it’s like, you and the other participants experience, hopefully,  very brief and very intense periods of time where the raft is going through a set of rapids. While all of you are able to exert some influence on the raft’s direction, ultimately the river is stronger than you. After you complete a set of rapids, there are periods of tranquility and calm where the you look back, assess what went well and what can be done better in the next set of rapids, which are usually around the next bed in the river.

In the last 15 years or so, the field of education’s new normal has become just like a set of rapids. The world is changing so quickly that many of us in education feel as if we are living in a state of constant change.  The Academy is dually accredited through the Southern Association of Independent Schools and SACS Advanced Ed and among these groups’ members schools, the challenges facing schools are a frequent topic of discussion at conferences and seminars. You can probably guess the two factors that are having such an impact on our industry, technology and the recent economic crisis.

Who has a smartphone? Hold it up if you do. Now think about this as you look around the room. In the palm of your hand, you hold the entire accumulated knowledge of the history of humanity. Now think about when you were in school. What did you do if you had a research paper assigned in a class? For most of us, we went to the library and dug through the card catalog, or consulted the encyclopedia at home, or asked the librarian to help us get started. Students now, and this even applies to my five-year old daughter who’s in Kindergarten at the Academy; students today can find several thousand sources for a paper in milliseconds with their phone, while they wait for their ride home after school, as they sit on the bench in front of school. Technology has changed the way students learn and the way we teach. Our job is to prepare the school’s 260 students for the world in which they live. At LaGrange Academy, we want to prepare our students for their future, not our past.

While we are talking about technology and its impact on education, guess what piece of technology had the largest impact on education in the last century. The bubble answer sheet. Scantron revolutionized the way data was collected and analyzed, as well as the speed with which it could be analyzed. Student ability, as well as school performance, could now be determined through the use of multiple choice tests. To a degree, life became multiple choice in 1948. While I think we would all agree that life is not multiple choice, the SAT and ACT are, and they are still the main gateways for college admissions. The problem is that the tail now wags the dog. Schools often follow the adage, “What gets measured is what gets taught.” Tests drive instruction in ways that mean many systems just teach to the test. What gets measured is almost exclusively content, and until recently, we measured the recall of information.

When was The Battle of Hastings? Look for the answer with “1066.”

What trait is shared by all alkali metals? Look for answer about one electron in outer shell or high reactivity with water.

For us at the Academy, one’s more likely to see the following question, “If you have 100 feet of fence and want to build a dog pen with the largest area, what shape do you construct?” It’s about critical thinking and problem solving skills; things you want your employees to be able to do in the real world.

Life isn’t multiple choice and school shouldn’t be either.

It’s a circle by the way for the dog pen.

At the Academy, our reason for being is to prepare our entire student body for college. That’s our one goal for all 40 faculty members. Therefore, while we do make sure our students are familiar with multiple choice test formats, we are much more concerned with ensuring our students graduate with the skills necessary to be successful in college and life than spending an inordinate amount of time prepping them for a series of standardized tests each year. We spend our day teaching, not teaching to the test. And we have had 100% graduation, 100% college acceptance, and 98% college matriculation rates for the last decade, since the occasional graduate goes into the military after graduation.

So what do we do to ensure our youngest students,  the four-year olds in Pre-K, are prepared for college and life when they graduate in 2029? Think again about changes in technology over the last few decades. Now try to get your crystal ball to focus that far into the future. If yours works, please let me know. I might as well be using the Magic 8 Ball so many of us played with as children. There is no consensus on “21st Century Content,” but there is near universal agreement on a short list of skills and the ability to utilize technology well. Those skills include:

Communication

Collaboration

Critical Thinking

Problem-solving

Creativity

Content is still important, so we spend time on that, but students need to also be taught how to access and select information. The ability to use or apply information in new ways is very important. On top of all of that, we partner with our parents to ensure our students are taught to make ethical and moral decisions in a world very different from the one most of us grew up in. A quick question: What do you think is the perennial number one reason parents put their child in a private school? Every time the question is asked- safety is number one. Let me tell you a story that illustrates that point at LaGrange Academy. Once a month we have a faculty meeting and each year around February, the faculty bring up an issue that really bothers them across departments and divisions- elementary, high school, Art or AP Bio- doesn’t matter whom. The issue is book bags cluttering the hallway. Let me repeat that- the biggest pet peeve of my teaching faculty year after year is the fact that the students leave their stuff laying all over the place like they are at home. And you know what, they are at home. They are at home where they are known, and cared for, and nurtured, and encouraged, and loved, and safe to leave their laptop in the hallway knowing it will be there when they come back hours later.

Strategic Plan Update

Last year, LaGrange Academy adopted a five-year strategic plan to help chart the school’s path through the 2019-2020 school year. This rewarding process affirmed what we already know. The Academy is a close knit family whose main goal is to prepare its students for college while giving them a life-long love of learning.

After the plan’s adoption, the board and administration met to determine which goals and action steps should be completed each year. Work has already begun on many aspects of the strategic plan and I wanted to give you an update on what is on this year’s agenda.

We have already completed two major items, updating Founders’ Hall and reaching an enrollment of 250 students. Another area with some progress is investing in technological infrastructure. The school is investing in wireless access to ensure the needs of both its faculty and students. We have installed more wireless access points and plan to add more over the next few months. In the next few years we will roll out a BYOD(Bring Your Own Device) program where the school will have the ability to support each student and teacher’s use of a personal learning device via the school’s IT infrastructure.

Each year we review and improve upon the way we conduct the business of the school. While we feel we have made great strides in admissions, communications, marketing and fundraising over the last few years, we are making a concerted effort to review our admissions process as well as rebranding the school. Kelsey and Associates is working on the rebrand and we will have information to share with you on this by the end of the calendar year.

The Board of Trustees is also involved in the strategic plan and will be looking at areas of school governance under its purview such as keeping tuition affordable while ensuring the school’s financial needs are met. The board and I will also be looking at teacher salaries and benefits to be sure we are compensating our wonderful faculty members at a rate that is competitive with comparable private schools in the area.

Look for updates on the strategic plan over the next few months.

 

And so it begins

What a summer!

When we said goodbye to the Class of 2015 just a few months ago, we had 222 students enrolled at the Academy.

This morning, we began the first day of school with 252 students. We are thrilled to see so many new families with us this year and look forward to incorporating them into the Academy family. Returning families know just how special the environment is here, and many of the families who have moved their children to the Academy have told us that atmosphere played a large role in their decision to join us.

Since its founding in 1970, the concept of family has been central to the school’s ethos. Our recently completed strategic plan placed an emphasis on maintaining that sense of family while increasing enrollment to 250 students. Over the summer, all of the conversations about splitting sections, overall growth goals, and where to cap individual classes began and ended with that goal in mind.

In addition to the enrollment growth we have seen this summer, we also completed the second phase of a project to install LED lights throughout the school. In addition, we were able to install new flooring through the halls and gym lobby. We would like to again say thank you once again to the Callaway Foundation, Charter Foundation and members of the Academy family who made these projects possible. Other projects included a renovation to the breezeway and new middle school lockers are on their way. Over the next few months we will undertake a few small projects around the school and look forward to sharing news with you about these projects as they are completed.

Needless to say, it has been a busy summer here at the Academy. A few of the students may not have been looking forward to today, but I sure was. The new year has begun and I am so excited to see what the future holds.

 

Things must be quiet around school without the students

Within a few days of graduation and the final faculty meeting of each school year, people in the community comment about how quiet it must be at the school without the students.

I have to admit it is quieter. It is not quiet. And I wouldn’t want it to be.

The summer break is the best time to do work on our physical plant with the goal of making the school’s facilities as conducive to the students and teachers’ needs as possible. This summer, we have several projects underway. We are installing LED lights and a new drop ceiling in the hallways and classrooms throughout the school, If you have been in the Media Center in the last year, you will have a good idea of what Founders hall and the Gym will look like when we are done.

The beeze way is also getting a makeover to include new windows and repairs to the frames. I am really looking forward to this being completed because so many of our students take time to pause on their way to or from the media center to observe the birds, insects and other types of wildlife often found in the study garden.

In addition to working on our buildings and grounds, we have several summer camp going on this summer. Coach Gaylor held a great basketball camp last week where members of the varsity teams helped with campers as young as the first grade. This week Miss Cathy and Miss Jane are hosting a rain forest themed camp for lower school students.

For more information on camps available for the remainder of the summer please visit:

Academy summer camp flyer

We are also busy finalizing everything for the beginning of school on August 14th, a date that will be here seemingly in an instant. Summer admissions are rolling along quite well and Mike’s staying very busy working with families who want to enroll their child here for the upcoming year.

While the quieter atmosphere was a nice change of pace for the first few days after the students left, I miss having them around every day. I really like that my office door opens into the reception area of the office so I can see and chat with prospective students as well as returning students that stop by to get the summer reading list, sign up for a camp or dig through lost and found once again.

I wish August 14th would hurry up and arrive.