Friday, August 18, 2017


I’ve had the pleasure to live and work a number of places, including Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Connecticut, Ohio, and New Jersey. Despite the homogenization and transience of modern America, I’ve certainly found that different regions of the country have their own mores and folkways. For example, upon reaching my college destination at Miami University in Ohio, I discovered that, in the North, when you say, “Hey!” to a stranger, you get perplexed looks. It turns out that said stranger becomes confused because he thinks you must know him from somewhere in order to say, “Hey!” Northerners also, it seems, confuse the southern vernacular for “hello” with a grain crop that horses consume. That is not to say that Ohioans are not friendly, but in Ohio, you probably don’t say “hey” to strangers, and you certainly don’t offer them grain.

I have also discovered that, in the South, there is a teasing pecking order. When I moved from Georgia to Tennessee, I discovered that Tennesseans made fun of me for being from Georgia. Likewise, Georgians make fun of Alabamians, Alabamians make fun of Mississippians, Mississippians make fun of Louisianans, and EVERYONE makes fun of Arkansas (*KIDDING*).  Since I spent my childhood and the majority of my adult life in Georgia, we grew up making fun of Alabama.

One of my favorite jokes concerns a high-speed police chase on I-20 East. As the story goes, an Alabama State Police officer and his partner are in hot pursuit of a suspect, who is going over 100 miles per hour. After several miles, the suspect crosses over the Georgia line. As soon as the suspect does so, the Alabama police officer slams violently on his brakes, abandoning his pursuit.
Shocked, his partner asks, “Why did you do that? We almost had him!”

To which the officer responds, “He’s an hour ahead. We’ll never catch him, now.”

Another joke about Alabama that I heard as a child was that the Alabama state motto was, “…because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

I point to these two jokes, because they have some relevance to our change agenda at Houston Academy. We are the only school of our ilk within a 2-hour radius that has a college preparatory mission and a mission to prepare our students to compete in a global society.

When I worked in the Atlanta and Memphis areas, we were afforded the frequent opportunity to collaborate with peer schools. I was friends with division heads, teachers, and coaches who worked at some of the finest college preparatory schools in the country. We met, both formally, and informally, to talk about educational issues. We also visited each other’s schools and classrooms.

The fact is, since we are located in L.A. (Lower Alabama), and we are very isolated from peer schools, we have to work with extra diligence to make sure other parts of the world are not “an hour ahead of us.” It’s also important that we can give a better answer for our educational practices than “…because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Houston Academy has always done a great job fulfilling its mission as an “independent college preparatory institution.” However, what it means to be “prepared” for college and life is different now than it was when I was in high school, and certainly it is different than it was when HA was founded. In this vein, I like to quote former President of the National Association of Independent Schools, Pat Bassett, who said, “We are preparing our children for their future, not your past.”

That’s a nice mantra, but fleshing out what that means, in practical, pedagogical terms is a difficult task. Putting what that means into practice is even more difficult. Fortunately, there is some excellent research out there on what skills and competencies students are going to need to be successful for their future. Moreover, there is a growing body of brain research that scientifically supports best practices for student learning. This requires our teachers to shift from their teaching routines and reflect on their practice in ways that can be extremely uncomfortable. It also means that, sometimes, parents aren’t going to be able to help their children with their homework because lesson and methods might be structured in such a way that is unfamiliar.

It also means that, in very real terms, if we do not change, we will not be able to live up to our mission, and being a market-driven, independent school, we will not be able to survive. No one is going to send their children here if the students are not prepared for college and life.

So, make no mistake, more change is coming. Part of this change involves our new advisory program, curriculum change, and organizational change – all of which I will outline in future blog posts. For right now, let me introduce our most tangible and immediate changes – our new faculty.

Our new 3P teacher is Shanna Boothe (no relation to Karen). Shanna has a B.S. in Elementary Education (K-6 collaborative Education) from Troy University. She has an MS as a reading specialist from Troy University, and she has 13 years of teaching experience.Her husband is Bart Boothe, and she has three children, Logan, in the 7th grade, who will be attending HA, Cason, in the 4th grade, and Katy Claire in the 2nd grade.

Hannah Braswell will be teaching lower school art. Hannah has a  degree in Art from  Asbury college, 1991, and is coming to us after a 25 year teaching career in Dothan City Schools. Hannah is no stranger to HA, as she has served in the past as our head volleyball and softball coach.

James Brown will be teaching Honors 10th grade English and 11th Grade AP English Language. James has a B.A. in English from Armstrong State University and an M.A. in English from the University of Tennessee. He has a long independent school teaching history, but most recently, he taught and was the curriculum coordinator and professional development director at Benedictine in Savannah GA. Jim has a daughter, Ellen, who is a recent graduate of the University of Georgia living in Atlanta.

Natalie Cromer will be teaching Middle School social studies. Natalie has been a teacher and grade-level chair at Hidden Lake Elementary School. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Troy Dothan. She is married to Terry Cromer, and has two daughters who attend HA – Brooklyn who is in 8th grade and Allie who is in 4P

Jill Dykes is also returning to HA after a very short hiatus. This time, she will be teaching kindergarten. Jill is a fellow Georgian, with a B.A. in Early Childhood Education from Valdosta State University. She taught at HA, previously, for 11 years, and has also served as the Dothan Cotillion Director. Jill and her husband Jim have three children at HA – Ellis – 11th grade, Sullivan in 9th grade, and Boland, in 8th grade.

Jennifer Gaye is our new English Department Chair. She will also be teaching 11th grade English and 9th grade English, and will be helping to form our new literary magazine. Another native Georgian, Jennifer has a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in English Education from Georgia State University. Most recently, Jennifer was the English department chair at University Liggett School in Gross Pointe Woods Michigan. She has moved to Dothan with the love of her life, Phillip McCohnell.

Brian Jackson will be our new director of marketing and communications and will be continuing his soccer coaching duties at HA, as well as working with our football kickers. Brian has a B.S. in Sports Management from Ball State University in Indiana. From 2009-2015 He was the events manager at Ft. Rucker. In addition, he was a professional football kicker for 9 years in the arena league, winning two championships. He is married to Stephanie Jackson with whom he has a three-year-old son, Korbin.

Ann Jordan will be teaching Middle School English, after an extremely successful career in Dothan City Schools. Ann graduated from Troy with a B.S. in Secondary Education and a major in English and a minor in Journalism. She is married to Mark Jordan with whom she has two grown children.

Rachel King will be an assistant in 3P. Rachel holds a bachelor of Education from the University of Memphis. She has been a lead kindergarten and 1st grade teacher at Power Center Academy and Snowden School in Memphis, TN. Rachael has moved to Dothan with her fiancée who will be attending ACOM, and they are looking forward to seeing what Dothan has to offer.

Ronda Paoletti will teach 5th grade choir, MS Drama, US Drama, MS Choir and US Choir. She has a Masters of Music from the University of Florida and a Bachelor of Music from the University of South Carolina with a specialty in music and voice performance.  She comes to us from Valwood School in Valdosta. Georgia. She is married to Dar. Karl Paoletti, Jr who teaches voice at Wallace College and is the music department chair. Her son, Nicholas, will be a senior at HA, and her daughter, Sophia, will be a 5th grader.

Jessica Pineda will be teaching 5th grade, and is coming to us from the American Cooperative School of La Paz in La Paz, Bolivia. Jessica holds a Bachelor of Arts from Ashford University and an M.S. from University of Buffalo. She, and her husband, Craig (our new Head of Upper School) have two children who will be attending HA – Nate, who will be in 5th, and Emily, who will be in 3rd grade.

Craig Selig, our new Upper School Head,  has been the Head of School at two different independent schools in Latin America, most recently as the Superintendent at the Cooperative School of La Paz in La Paz Bolivia. That actually means that we have three administrators on campus now who have served as Headmasters. Craig has a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Brunswick in Nova Scotia and an MA from the University of Buffalo. I’ve already described their family, but one question I have gotten from folks is how a family with such vast international experience will adjust to Dothan. What I can say is that while we were interviewing Craig via Skype they were without potable water for a week or so at a time. So, my thought was that just the fact that we have running water every day makes Dothan a little slice of heaven!

Cindy Reyner started towards the end of last year as our receptionist. She has worked 14 years as a teacher assistant and office assistant in grades K-5. She also worked in personnel at Flowers Hospital. She has done an outstanding job, already!

Mary Sanders will be our new Extended Day Program Director. Mary comes to us with 26 years of experience in childcare, including in-home care, a US Naval preschool, and private and church preschools in Virginia, South Carolina, and Alabama. Mary loves working with children, a well as senior citizens.

Elizabeth Whaley will be teaching Upper and Middle School Mathematics. She comes to us from Daleville High School, where she was also a math teacher. Elizabeth has a degree in Mathematics from Troy University with a minor in Business Administration. Interestingly, she’s also a licensed cosmetologist and licensed homebuilder. She has four grown children who are all in various stages of earning their degrees, undergraduate and graduate

Lucy Woodson will be teaching upper school Spanish. She has earned a B.A. from California State University, Bakersfield in Spanish and Art History, with a minor in French. Lucy is coming to us from a stint teaching Spanish and AP Spanish at Gilroy High School in Gilroy, CA. She and her husband, Kevin, have a 16 month old baby girl, and they are coming to Dothan where they will be close to Kevin’s family.

Please join me in welcoming all these wonderful teachers into the HA family!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Welcome our New Head of Upper School!

I am pleased to introduce to you our next Head of Upper School, Mr. Craig Selig. Craig comes to us from the American Cooperative School of La Paz, in La Paz, Bolivia where he is currently serving as the Superintendent. Previously, Craig has served as a Head of School and Upper School Principal at independent, international schools in Bolivia, Columbia, and the Dominican Republic.  Additionally, Craig has worked as a science and math teacher, and a K-12 science department chair. He holds a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of New Brunswick, which is the oldest English-language University in Canada and is one of the oldest universities in North America. Craig also earned an M.S. from the University of Buffalo, a graduate certificate in Educational Leadership and Administration from the University of New England, and a certificate in Professional Development and School Improvement from the University of Nebraska.

Craig brings extensive school leadership experience to Houston Academy – throughout his career he has been involved in virtually every aspect of school life. Craig was a collegiate swimmer, and he has coached soccer, as well. He has instituted Advanced Placement programs, implemented school-wide technology initiatives, devised teacher supervision systems, spearheaded community service, and coordinated and improved fine arts programs. Of course, his international experience is incredibly exciting as Houston Academy moves forward with our global citizenship initiative.

On the personal side, Craig’s references refer to his open and caring nature and his strong support for his teachers and students. As one reference attested:

…no matter how busy he is, Craig remains an incredibly understanding and caring Director, his door is always open and he listens and helps to resolve issues that are  brought his way.

Those who have worked with him also cite his skills as a “community builder.” In this vein, another one of his former colleagues told us:

Mr. Selig has done a great job of uniting students and faculty as a whole and creating a better sense of community within the school. He has encouraged and found ways to get more students active in school sports and programs, and has also worked on developing character within the school to help with student relationships. Additionally, he has encouraged more teachers to get involved in various school organizations, advisory roles, or school teams and this has brought both students and faculty closer together.

Most importantly, however, Craig loves young people. It is not just his experience and innovative style that makes Craig such a great fit for HA, but it is clear that students are at the center of everything that he does.

Craig will be bringing his wife, Jessica, and two children with him to Dothan. He has a son, Nathan, who is 10 and a daughter, Emily, who is 7.  If you have a chance, please reach out to Craig and welcome him to the HA family. I can’t wait for him to get started!

Monday, November 7, 2016

It's Showtime!

When I first arrived at Houston Academy in 2012 someone told me, “We’re not an arts school.” First of all, that wasn’t true. We already had an incredible band, a fine chorus, a vibrant lower school music program, an award-winning visual arts program, and a talented dance team. What we lacked was a theater program. Secondly, though, that statement angered me. Why wouldn’t we want to be known as an “arts school”? Very few offerings in a school can more positively impact students’ competency in the 6 Cs[1] than participation in the arts. Moreover, people acted like it was a zero-sum game – that we could be good at the arts or we could be good in athletics, but you couldn’t do both. Frankly, that’s nonsense.  Given the caliber of our student body, we can and should be good at everything we do, and our students should have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities.

Well, my message to you today is that we have reached a point where our theater program is first rate. This year, we have already put on our 4th – 6th grade play. If you missed our production of Aladdin, you really missed an outstanding performance. It was not just “cute;” it was excellent. Plus, it’s worth pointing out that each performance we have done in each of the the last three years has been more difficult and has had a higher production value than the previous one. Additionally, our participation rate has been consistently high. This year, 44 students participated in the play, which constitutes 43% of the student body in grades 4-6.

Tomorrow night, (Tuesday, November 8th) at 6:30 PM in Dunning Hall, the Arts Department will be presenting its Fall Showcase. Admission is free, and you will get a chance to hear our jazz band, chorus, and the extracurricular chorus. Furthermore, the drama class will be putting on Café Murder, a family-friendly murder mystery that only YOU can help solve. Admission is free, and having seen the rehearsals, it’s going to be a lot of fun.

Finally, the 7th -12th grade students will be putting on a performance of Singin’ In the Rain. This will be an endeavor the likes of which we have never attempted at Houston Academy. It is full of intricate choreography and difficult numbers. From what I’ve seen in rehearsals, it should be outstanding. Singin’ in the Rain is a really entertaining and funny show, and it would be well worth your time to come see it. It will be performed in Dunning Hall at 7:00 PM from Tuesday, November 15th to Thursday, November 17th.

In short, in just three years, we have gone from having no drama program, to having one in which approximately 90 students are participating. Moreover, our program is of high quality, despite our lack of a facility. I should also note that our band has 54 members, our show choir has 13 members, our upper school chorus has 20 members, our extracurricular chorus has 20 members, and our dance team has 17 members. These students are not only doing outstanding work, but they are collaborating and learning in ways they would not do in any other environment. When we talk about 21st Century Learning, this is what it’s all about.

See you on Tuesday!

[1] Much attention has been paid in the educational literature and in the media to what has been termed “21st Century Education.” Generally speaking, educators and business leaders have identified the competencies that our students will have to master to be successful in the workplace. Pat Bassett, former head of the National Association of Independent schools referred to these skills as the “5C’s plus 1.”[1] I’ve just started calling them the “6 Cs.” These 6 Cs are:

1.     Collaboration,
2.     Communication,
3.     Creativity,
4.     Critical thinking,
5.     Cross-cultural competence, and
6.     Character.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Houston Academy's Athletic Classification

This fall, there have been many questions and much misinformation concerning our athletic program’s move from Class 2A to Class 3A of the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA). Let me start by saying that our athletic classification is not something we, as a school or administration, can predict or control. Here is what it says in the AHSAA Handbook:

High schools are divided into seven classifications (1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, 6A and 7A) for competition in championship programs.

Classification is based on Average Daily Membership (ADM) figures furnished by the State Department of Education for the upper three grades plus ninth grade students that are retained in the ninth grade.

An index of 1.35 is used to determine the enrollment figure for classifying each private school member. Each private school student counts 1.35 for classification purposes.

Alignments are made for each sport in a class, based on the number of schools participating in a sport. Some programs may include two or more classes in a division.

 Let me explain this in layman’s terms. There are seven classifications, the assignment of which is based solely on our student population in grades 10-12. Every two years, at the beginning of the year, we submit our numbers to the AHSAA. Since we are a private school, the AHSAA believes that we have a competitive advantage over public schools in that we can select which student we admit. Therefore, the AHSAA multiplies private schools’ enrollment by 1.35. Accordingly, the AHSAA took our count of 169 students in grades 10-12 and multiplied that number by 1.35, giving us a total student count of 228.15.  For your information, that makes us the smallest school in Class 3A, even with the multiplier. As it turns out, we were .5 students above the enrollment cutoff necessary for us to be placed in Class 2A. Without the multiplier, we are 60 students smaller than the next smallest public school in our division. When we play Opp this weekend, their 10th-12th grade enrollment is 106 students greater than ours. If you counted 9th graders, I would suspect that their overall enrollment is approximately 120 students larger than ours.

Let me re-emphasize that Houston Academy has absolutely no say in our athletic classification. All we do is submit our enrollment and let an AHSAA committee decide where we fall. Moreover, it is totally impossible to predict where our enrollment will be relative to other schools’ enrollments, year-to-year. In other words, we have no way of knowing (nor do any other school have any way of knowing) what the “cut off” number will be for each division, nor do we know what the student enrollment at other schools will be. Moreover, even if we could predict the enrollment of other schools relative to ours, “kicking kids out” of HA, or denying enrollment to qualified students in order to stay in a certain athletic division would be unethical and contrary to our mission of providing educational opportunities for students in the Wiregrass. I’m sure that few of our parents would want their children in a school that would sacrifice its academic integrity for athletic success.

There is another point worth noting, as well. Two years ago, the AHSAA decided to go from 6 classifications to 7. The idea was to allow for more teams to win championships and have more opportunity for success. However, if Alabama still had 6 high school classifications, HA would fall squarely in the upper-middle of Class 2A (in terms of enrollment). So, in effect, while adding the extra division was beneficial for most schools, given our current enrollment, it has hurt us – especially in football.  

In most of our sports, however, the impact of the move to 3A will be negligible or nonexistent. In soccer and tennis, for example, we were already in a combined classification of Classes 1A-3A. In bowling, we compete across all divisions, and in swimming, we will compete against schools in divisions 1A-5A. In other sports, like baseball, basketball, volleyball, softball, and cross country, we feel like we can continue to be competitive, and even compete for state championships. The real issue is football.

This is only my 4th year at Houston Academy, but I coached for many years at quality, independent schools in both Tennessee and Georgia.  Pretty much everywhere I’ve been, I have been a part of football programs where we have been undermanned in terms of size and speed. That is not to say that we don’t have football players at HA with size or speed, but it’s a matter of depth and number. When we played Daleville, for example, there were two spots on the line where their offensive lineman outweighed our defensive linemen by over 100 pounds. Moreover, Daleville platooned players at multiple positions, whereas we had a number of players playing both offense and defense.  It’s not so much that our players can’t hold their own on any given play, but over the course of a game, the punishment inflicted by larger players on our boys and the wear and tear of having to stay on the field for both offense and defense causes fatigue. When athletes are fatigued, they are more prone to injury. Furthermore, with our lack of depth, when our older and more experienced players get injured or experience cramping, younger players must step in. Many of our younger players have not developed physically, and in a very literal sense, we have our boys playing against their men.  Because of injuries, on Friday we will start as many as five sophomores and one freshman against one of the top ranked football teams in the state.

So with football, we are in a situation that I believe is patently unfair to our children. Many people working in public schools across the state believe that we recruit. We do NOT recruit athletes. However, we do recruit students. We recruit students based largely on academic prowess, but also based on character, assiduousness, and a myriad of other talents that our applicants possess. Yes, some of our students are outstanding athletes, but most of them look at athletics as but one facet of their lives. Very few of our students will ever go on to compete at the college level or higher.

What we definitely don’t do is give our athletes preferential treatment. In fact, the argument that HA has an unfair advantage in athletics is patently false because most high school students are not willing to do what it takes to be successful at HA. Frankly, most kids don’t want to work as hard as our students do, and they would never think of enrolling at HA. As you know, our workload is heavy, and the college preparatory curriculum is difficult. Ethically and practically, we can only admit students we believe can be academically successful at HA. Frankly, that puts us at a competitive disadvantage athletically.

Of course, from the public school perspective, private schools are winning a disproportionate number of state championships. What was interesting, though, was two years ago the AHSAA provided us statistics on the number state championships won by schools that have a high percentage of their students on “free and reduced lunch.”[1] Basically, the AHSAA showed us that, in Alabama, very few ”poor” schools win state championships in ANY sport. In fact, if I am remembering correctly, there was only one school with a high percentage of their students on free and reduced lunch that won a state championship in the last few years. Consequently, to me, this issue is not a private school versus public school issue; it’s a more affluent school versus poor school issue.

The fact that schools with wealthier student populations would win more state championships should surprise no one. They can afford to pay their coaches better, they have booster clubs, they have better equipment, weight rooms, and training facilities. Additionally, middle class and upper middle class parents can afford to enroll their children in recreational sports, provide private lessons and pay for “travel ball,” and afford their children access to sports like tennis and golf. In fact, most of the rural and poor high schools in Alabama don’t even field a tennis or golf team.

Regardless, I am more than aware that we are in a situation, not just where we are at a competitive disadvantage in football, but one in which the best interests and health of our student athletes is not being protected. We do not have an option to forfeit games, though, because to do so would result in sanctions against our entire athletic program.  I do believe, however, that the future could be much brighter, as we have a good bit of young talent in our football program. It is entirely possible we will be able to be much more competitive in the future. I also believe that with Coach Howard, we have one of the best strength and conditioning programs in the state. However, if we find that our student athletes continue to be put at risk, we may have to pursue membership in a league outside of the AHSAA.

Meanwhile, I will say that I’ve never been more proud of our boys. Last week, against a Daleville team that was physically superior, our team never quit. It would have been very easy for our kids to hang their heads and just try to escape the game without injury. They did not do that. Instead, they fought hard, played with passion, and actually narrowed the score differential in the second half. Importantly, too, no one was injured. Anyone who has coached football knows that the easiest way to get injured is to play with passivity or caution. Our boys are not passive. They are leaving it all on the field.

In any case, I would be happy to talk with anyone who has any questions or wants to provide input or advice. Please know, however, that we are doing everything we can do to protect our children and to put competitive athletic teams on the field and on the court.

Go Raiders!

[1] In educational research, the percentage of students who receive free and reduced lunch is used as a proxy for the percentage of students living in poverty.