Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Campus Plan

Welcome to the end of an exciting year! We have a fabulous senior class graduating this year with 56 students earning $4,808,587 in college scholarships to schools like Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis, Wake Forest, the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Ithaca College (NY), Miami (OH), Sewanee (the University of the South), and many other schools that match the "best fit" criteria for our talented students. In addition, this year's senior class amassed 5,218 hours of community service and have an average ACT of nearly 27. We are so proud of this group of young people - especially in regard to their commitment to others. 

As this year comes to a close, we also excited about what next year holds in store. Next year we celebrate the 50th year since our founding as a school, and we have all kinds of exciting events in store. Be sure to check out our Facebook page for news and updates. 

Of equal note, we have developed a campus plan, have started a feasibility study, and are poised to start a capital campaign in the fall. Many of you attended our Spring Town Hall Meeting where I unveiled the plans, but I have received messages from many folks who missed the meeting and would like to see what was presented. So, I thought I would share those plans with you now on this blog. 

Let me start by saying that this plan is a vision - it's not necessarily what WILL be done. Much depends on the results of our feasibility study and capital campaign. Moreover, we haven't drawn out all the details of the plan. Keeping that in mind, let me outline the process we have gone through as a school and the needs we identified. 

Almost three years ago, the Board of Trustees hired School Strategies and Solutions (a consulting firm) to do a “needs assessment.” The consultants met with teachers, students, administration, and parents, spending about a week on campus. From this, we came up with what our constituents felt we needed. 

Following the needs assessment, the Board interviewed four different architectural firms and chose Seay, Seay, & Litchfield to design our master plan. This decision was based on Seay, Seay, & Litchfield's extensive experience working with schools, but it was also based on their ties to the Dothan community. 

Student Life Center 

Exterior of Student Life Center
The current physical spaces at Houston Academy have become antiquated relative to the educational program of the school.  By the time our lower school students graduate from high school, research indicates that many of our children will be working in jobs that have not even been invented, yet. Therefore, our student learning spaces must focus on the broad skills that our children will need to be successful in their world in the 21st century. These skills include collaboration, communication, critical thinking, character development, and cross-cultural competence. The Student Life Center will allow teachers and students to collaborate and engage in a way that is not possible with our current spaces. Additionally, the new building will allow current spaces to be repurposed.

Classroom and Student Collaboration Areas 

“STEAM”Lab/Maker Space  – STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) are core areas of competency necessary for the success of our 21st century learners. Two years ago, HA began offering STEAM in the Lower and Middle Schools, and it had become one our most successful and popular programs. Quality schools throughout the country are creating STEAM labs, and Houston Academy needs to be on the cutting edge of this trend. 

Sample Maker Space
A “Maker Space” is “a collaborative work space…for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools. They provide hands on learning, help with critical thinking skills and…boost self-confidence.”  In this space, students will work on collaborative projects, work on robotics, or complete STEAM activities. The uses for this space would only be limited by our children’s’ imagination. 

Dance Studio – Currently, dance students at Houston
Sample Dance Studio
Academy must travel off-campus to hone their craft. An on-campus dance studio would afford an instructional and extracurricular space that students could use during and after school. This is consistent with Houston Academy’s mission to “provide opportunities to achieve [students’] highest creative potential.”

Art Studio Space – Houston Academy has record enrollment in the visual arts. With the creation of the middle school and the formation of a middle school arts requirement, an additional visual art space is a necessity. 

Learning Services – College preparation means providing all students, including students with learning differences, the opportunity to be successful in a university setting. We have students who are currently thriving at HA who, previously, would not have been able to find success here. HA has three learning specialists in three different locations on campus. One centralized location where students can be evaluated, tested, and assisted would better serve the needs of our students. Additionally, one central space would enhance the ability of our learning specialists to collaborate. 

Band Room – Currently, the band shares a space with the lower school music classes. This room is used all day by students in 3P-12th grade. Furthermore, the current band room is t
Sample Band Room
oo small for our current upper school/middle school band of nearly 60 performers. A band classroom with proper acoustics would greatly improve the student learning experience. 

Music Classroom – This classroom will be used by all levels of the school for music instruction, which with the addition of choral/drama and band rooms will allow for wider access to creative activities. 

Choral/Drama Classroom – Currently the chorus and
Sample LS Music Room
drama classes meet in a small classroom that was formerly a computer lab. It is common for students to have to leave the classroom to practice. An acoustically sound and adequately sized room would benefit students across all grade levels. 

Music Practice Space – Again, students currently have no rooms in which to practice instruments or vocal performance. During band class, for example, different band sections practice outside. Music practice space would allow students to engage in private instruction and improve their musical and creative abilities, without interfering with other academic classroom activities. 

Sample Social Commons Area
Social Commons Area – A commons area is a place where children gather between class and after school. This will not just be a place to “hang out,” however. It will be a space where children can collaborate, study, and socialize. It will be a space that is much more comfortable than the current gathering places in the locker rooms, the gym, and the floors of the various foyers.  

Theater/Auditorium – Houston Academy does not have a place where its students can assemble as a group, other than the gymnasium. Moreover, the school has limited space to stage artistic performances in drama, music, spelling bees, literary competitions, etc. The current “cafetorium” in Dunning Hall is to small for any serious choreography, and it has neither adequate wings nor fly space. The new Theater/Auditorium will be a multipurpose space with retractable, elevated seating. The space will be used for meetings, dinners, assemblies, plays, and any number of public events. The possibility also exists that the space could be used by the greater Dothan community for performances and could actually generate revenue. 
Altamont's Theater, with Retractable Seating

Altamont's Theater, with Retractable Seating
Altamont's Theater, with Retractable Seating

Sample Dining Hall

Dining Hall & Storage 

The master plan calls for a new dining space that will be larger, well-lighted, and equipped with a basic kitchen. This will better serve the needs of a student population that has grown since the current cafetorium was built. 

Existing Space/Classroom Renovations  

Additional Classroom Space – The master plan calls for the repurposing of current spaces (such as the band room, chorus room, and Dunning Hall) as classroom space. For many years, the school has been limited in its scheduling and course offerings due to limited classroom space. Moreover, classes have been scheduled in teachers’ rooms during their planning periods, making it difficult for teachers to work in their own classrooms. 

Technology Repair and Services Area – Currently, the Technology Department operates out of the Computer Science classroom, which limits the ability of the members of the department to work with students and faculty to solve technology-related issues. The master plan calls for a small work area for the tech department and a computer classroom. 

Additional Parking – Constructing buildings and performing sitework will create the need for new parking spaces on campus and a reconfiguration of our current parking. 

Killingsworth Gymnasium Renovation 

The Killingsworth Gymnasium is the most visited venue in the school, yet is probably the space that is most in need of an update. The current gym no longer comfortably holds the entire 3P-12 student body. The bleachers are permanently stained, and plywood covers a good portion the walls. The current drop ceiling gets damaged every time there is a volleyball game or practice, and a lift has to be employed to replace the tiles. The master plan calls for the more seating, LED lighting, and significant aesthetic improvements, including an elevated viewing area from the lobby. A locker room expansion is also a possibility. 

The entrance to the Killingsworth gymnasium will serve as a gathering spot and a gateway to the Dining Hall, Theater/Auditorium, and the gymnasium. Additionally, the entrance area will have an art gallery, a concession stand, and a ticket booth. It will also serve as a showcase for the achievements of our alumni and current students. 

Click on the link, below, and you can see a "Fly Through" of the campus plan. I think you will be impressed. 

Houston Academy Master Plan "Fly Through"

Currently, we are conducting a feasibility study, the results of which the Board of Trustees will receive in June. Then, we will begin a full-fledged capital campaign, which should last about 18 months. If we raise the money we hope to raise, we will begin construction as soon as possible after that!

This is an exciting time in the life of the school. It's been many, many years since our last capital campaign, and our hope is that we can transform our buildings and grounds into a space that will enhance student learning and make HA a better place for our children for years to come. 

Thursday, October 4, 2018

E-Cigarettes - "Vaping"

An “Epidemic”

The head of the Food and Drug Administration has termed it an “epidemic” (Fox, 2018). According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 16.2% of high school seniors in the United States use e-cigarettes, and incredibly, 9.5% of 8th graders use e-cigarettes. Moreover, the same study shows that 30.7% of teens who “vape” (as smoking e-cigarettes is commonly known) start smoking traditional cigarettes within 6 months of starting the use of e-cigarettes (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2016).

The Health Effects

Amazingly, the majority of teens seem to believe that inhaling a foreign substance has no negative impact on their health. In fact, the same study cited above notes that 66% of teens believe that e-cigarettes are comprised of  “just flavoring,” and 13% “don’t know” what is in their vape. Another study showed that 6 in 10 students surveyed believed that vaping caused little or no harm to their health, as long as they are not using every day (Know the Risks, 2018). Of course, it IS true that  there are no long-term trials on such a relatively new product. What we do know, however, is frightening enough. Almost all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is one of the most highly addictive chemicals on earth. Nicotine has been shown to be particularly damaging to the teenage brain (Know the Risks, 2018). According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of the U.S Surgeon General, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Youth and young adults are also uniquely at risk for long-term, long-lasting effects of exposing their developing brains to nicotine. These risks include nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and permanent lowering of impulse control. Nicotine also changes the way synapses are formed, which can harm the parts of the brain that control attention and learning  (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2016).

Additionally, there are any number of other pernicious compounds in e-cigarette mixtures. One study carried out by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at 51 different liquid flavors commonly sold in the United States and in 47 of them, they found three different chemicals (diacetyl, acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione) that are linked to serious respiratory disease (Allen et al., 2015). Besides nicotine and the chemicals mentioned above, “vape juice” has been shown to contain heavy metals (i.e., nickel, tin, and lead), organic compounds (such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust), and other ultra-fine particles that lodge in the users’ lungs.

Marketing and Sales

The e-cigarette industry denies that they are marketing their products to children and teens, yet colorful packaging and flavors such as “Bubble Pop,” “Strawberry Cotton Candy,” “Sour Gummy Worms,” and “Peanut Butter Cup” have an undeniable appeal to youth who might otherwise never consider using a tobacco product.

"Juul Device" 
Frighteningly, one of the most popular e-cigarette delivery systems is “Juul.” A single Juul cartridge contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. The Juul apparatus, itself, is small, and to the casual observer, looks like a USB thumb drive. In fact, Juul is charged through a computer’s USB port. The Juul liquid can be odorless, and its use is often  unnoticed by others.

I went online and found that I could acquire a Juul “starter kit” for $49.99, plus free shipping. My kit would include a Juul device, a USB charging dock, and four cartridges which come in “Virginia Tobacco, Mint, Crème, and Mango” flavors. All I needed was a credit card and to “verify” that I was 21. The official Juul website also has a handy-dandy map app where I can find the Juul retailer that is closest to my home. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but “Vape Shops” have become ubiquitous here in Dothan.

 What H.A. is Doing

We are having a speaker, Dr. Michael Ramsey, come and hold a parent night on the issue. Our counselors and advisors are discussing vaping with our students. We already have surveillance cameras throughout the school, but we are currently investigating installing censors in our rest rooms. Recently, we limited student access to the parking lot during the day. Furthmore, you should know that we reserve to right to search our students, their cars, or their lockers if we have reasonable suspicion that he or she has e-cigarettes or other tobacco products in his or her possession. We trust you will understand that our sole goal is to keep your children safe. At the very least, we must ensure that we do not have drugs, alcohol, or tobacco on this campus.

What You Can Do As A Parent

Talk to your children about the dangers of vaping, but also, don’t be naïve. Realize that even the best kids succumb to peer pressure, and the adolescent brain is WIRED to take risks and act impulsively. If you believe your child would never lie to you, you are living in a fantasy world. I often joke that I know my own children are lying to me “because their lips are moving”! I think I have good kids, but I’ve been working with teens for thirty years, and I know with certainty that my children will lie to me – especially when the stakes are high.

In any case, if the research is correct (and I believe it is), and if the rumors are true, we already have a number of students in our community using e-cigarettes, and some are probably addicted. We can work to make this campus safe, but that doesn’t mean that our kids won’t vape once they leave this campus.

Search your children’s belongings, and help them understand, as children in our charge, there IS NO SUCH THING as a right to privacy. When my own offspring are gone and paying their own bills, they can have their privacy. For now, I will search their cell phones, their car, and their bedroom. If they don’t like me searching their phones and cars, I will take their phone and car away. If they don’t want me to search their bedrooms, I’ll take the hinges off their door. I will do this because I love them and I want them safe, and because I understand that good kids make bad decisions.  I am not their friend, and I sure as heck don’t want them to think I am cool.

In Conclusion…

One of the beautiful things about living in Dothan and being at Houston Academy is that we are an incredibly close-knit community. Let’s talk about this epidemic, and let’s not get offended if someone tells us of rumors that our child might be vaping, drinking, or doing drugs. We are a family, and we can work together as a family to keep our children safe.

Works Cited

Fox, M. (2018, September 12). NBC News. Retrieved from NBC
Joseph G. Allen , Skye S. Flanigan , Mallory LeBlanc , Jose Vallarino , Piers MacNaughton , James H. Stewart , and David C. Christiani . (2015, December 12). Flavoring Chemicals in E-Cigarettes: Diacetyl, 2,3-Pentanedione, and Acetoin in a Sample of 51 Products, Including Fruit-, Candy-, and Cocktail-Flavored E-Cigarettes. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124, 733-739.
Know the Risks, E-cigarettes & Young People. (2018). Retrieved October 2018, from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, February). Retrieved from