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.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

This Year in the Upper School (Grades 9-12)

Dear HA Family:

With the new school year upon us, I wanted to touch base with everyone about some of the changes that are taking place in the Upper School this year, as well as let you know some information that might be helpful for you going into the new school year.

First, let’s start with the basics. As most of you know, our Upper School Head, Mrs. Tammi Holman, will be returning to full-time classroom teaching. Mrs. Holman has done a great job for us as Upper School Head for the last three years, but she has decided that her true passion is working directly with children. She will be teaching World History II, 20th Century History, and Psychology. While this is exciting for our students, the timing of the decision made it so that we did not have time to do a thorough, national search for Head of Upper School. Consequently, I have decided to play dual roles this year: Head of Upper School and Headmaster. While this will be time consuming, I didn’t want to hire an interim and force the teachers and students to go through three leadership transitions in three years. Additionally, I’m actually quite excited to get a chance to work more closely with the Upper School faculty and students. I’ve served as an Upper School head previously, and it’s all “old hat” to me. The other aspect of this that excites me is that I get to implement some of the changes that Mrs. Holman, the faculty, and the students were working on last fall and this summer.

We have contracted with the foremost independent school leadership firm in the Southeastern United States, Southern Teachers Agency, to lead our search for a new Head of Upper School. I feel quite confident, as one of the strongest and most widely recognized independent schools in the state of Alabama, that we will get a pool of incredible candidates who are interested in coming to Houston Academy. Mr. Jamie Estes of Southern Teachers will be visiting our school next week to develop a profile of the school and to identify leadership skills needed in our next Head of Upper School.

In terms of the changes mentioned above, we have recently gone through a self-study and strategic planning process that has involved the faculty, students, parents, alumni and the Board of Trustees. We sent out a survey last spring, and we followed the survey by conducting focus groups that included approximately half of the student body in grades 6-12. Subsequently, we have identified five major goals on which we will be focusing over the next five years. Those goals are:

  1. To raise global awareness by increasing respect and appreciation for personal and cultural differences.
  2. To improve the students’ emotional safety through opportunities for self-expression and participation in activities directed toward building confidence and leadership.
  3. To create a distinct middle school division to effectively meet the needs of students in grades 5-8.
  4. To build an endowment to help ensure the long-term financial stability of Houston Academy. 
  5. To plan for and fund a performing arts center. 

To meet these goals, HA is excited to start the following programs:

Relative to goal 1, we are beginning next year, and every subsequent year, with a yearly theme that we will carry through all divisions. Next year, our theme will be “food.” The issues facing the world’s food supply and distribution will be explored across disciplines, and our students will use 21st century learning skills to examine, analyze, and come up with creative solutions to this critical world issue. Additionally, we are looking at offering more international travel opportunities and more student involvement in the Dothan Community.

Furthermore, HA has recently been approved to accept foreign exchange students under the Department of Homeland Security’s F-1 student visa program. We hope to have two new students from Eastern Europe this year, and in 2017-18, we will be taking several students from China. With our emphasis on global citizenship, we hope to equip our students with a better understanding of the increasingly global society and economy.

We are starting with some very basic changes to address the emotional safety of our students. One of my core beliefs about schools is that it is important for every student to have at least one adult on campus who serves as his or her “advocate.” Almost all quality, independent schools address this issue, in part, with an Advisory Program. We will be taking a small step towards implementing such a program this coming year.

The advisory system will become an integral part of life in the Upper School. Prior to entering the Upper School, all students will be assigned a faculty advisor to serve as an advocate for each student and to help students navigate their time at Houston Academy. The faculty advisor will serve in that capacity for the student’s career at HA.

Advisors are not counselors, and it should be clear that any and all socio-emotional issues will be referred to one of our professional, trained counselors. Advisors should, however, be the “go to” person on the faculty if a student needs academic guidance or help with a particular school issue.  The advisor will serve a vital role in streamlining communication between the student and his/her classroom teachers, counselors, athletic coaches, club sponsors, parents and administration. Parents should feel free to contact the advisor whenever they feel the need. The Advisor will also accompany a student should that student be required to appear before the Honor Council or Disciplinary Committee.

During the daily advisory period, students will build relationships with their advisor through conversations about academics and programs fostering personal growth.  Three days a week, the students will meet with their advisor to discuss academic progress and develop strategies to encourage academic success.  Advisors will play a dynamic role in guiding students to become independent learners and active participants and in developing leaders who enrich the school and wider community.

Advisory will meet each day from 9:47-10:00.  Students will report to their Advisory teacher’s room for announcements, etc. After Advisory time, students will have a break. Break is 15 minutes and is a time for students to have a snack, drink, socialize, etc.

In my experience, once we implement this program, students and teachers will find that the short time we allocate for advisory will not prove to be enough. The goal this year is to get this program started and then let our new Head of Upper School and faculty develop the program more fully in the 2017-18 school year.

Building Confidence and Leadership
Developing our nation’s future leaders is a critical aspect of independent school education, and HA has a crucial role to play in the Wiregrass. Our children, as some of the best and brightest the Wiregrass has to offer, will inevitably serve our community in this important capacity.

Leadership must be developed and nurtured at HA. Our region’s future depends on it, and we are committed to providing authentic opportunities for leadership for your children. By “authentic,” I mean leadership opportunities in which there are real decisions with real consequences.  Moreover, if we truly want to change our school culture, climate, and ethos for the better, our student body needs to decide what is and is not acceptable in our community and enforce it, themselves. The research on human behavior tells us that people only truly change when they are intrinsically motivated. That is, if you want students to “do the right thing,” they have to collectively decide that it is important to do so. There is nothing, in fact, that making more rules, making stricter punishments, or watching students more closely will do to impact the character of our children. They will simply be compliant; they will not become leaders and they will not embrace the values we want them to embrace. Our goal should be for them to develop insight (see what is and is not important), foresight (see what the consequences of their actions will be), and empathy (an understanding and appreciation for the feelings of others).

Honor Council
Every quality independent school of which I am aware has such a system, and Houston Academy has had an Honor Council since 1998 when Mr. Ned Jenne was its founding sponsor. Our Honor Council is student run, and the student body elects its members. All acts of lying, stealing, or cheating are referred to the Honor Council, and these students make recommendations to the administration when possible violations of the HA Honor Code occur. Consistently, the literature has shown that creating an Honor Code and an Honor System significantly decreases academic dishonesty (Bowers, 1964; Campbell, 1935; Canning, 1956; McCabe & Trevino, 1993; Sierles, 1988; et al.). Perhaps more importantly, however, a well-functioning Honor System helps students to adhere to honorable behavior later in life – well beyond their educational career (Bowers, 1964; Campbell, 1935; Canning, 1956; New England Journal of Medicine, 2005; Sierles, 1988; et al.).  You can read more about our Honor Council’s policies and procedures in our Student Handbook.

Student Ambassador Program
Last spring, Mrs. Holman began the process of expanding our student leadership opportunities. She established a Student Ambassador program. We had approximately 20 students apply (which shows the demand our students have for leadership). The Student Ambassadors will assist the Admissions Office and help represent the school in a number of functions.

Disciplinary Committee
This year, we will also be taking an additional major step in developing opportunities for authentic student leadership. We are establishing a student-run Disciplinary Committee to complement our Honor Council. The newly established Disciplinary Committee will deal with all major discipline matters, help craft rules and procedures, and make recommendations to the administration when possible serious discipline violations occur.   So, the Honor Council will continue to deal with issues involving lying, cheating, and stealing and the Disciplinary Committee will deal with non-academic misbehavior, attendance, and other rules violations. We will have elections for the Disciplinary Committee early in the fall. Again, you can read about the Disciplinary Committee in the Student Handbook.

Like Honor Councils, Disciplinary Committees are quite common in the independent school world.  It will not only improve the comportment of our students, but also it will give students a sense of ownership in the school like they have never had before. I can also tell you that in my experience, the students hold each other to much higher standards than the adults. Moreover, not once in my 26 years in independent schools have I ever had a problem with the confidentiality of students serving on the Honor Council or the Disciplinary Committee.

This summer, a group of faculty, administrators and the Student Government Association officers met to evaluate some of the rules in the Student Handbook. I offered the opportunity for all faculty members to serve on this committee, if they wished. As a result of the meeting, the following changes were made and included in our Student Handbook:

  • Gum chewing will be allowed at the discretion of the classroom teacher. Recent educational research suggests that chewing gum may enhance learning and test-taking proficiency. Given that teachers have primary responsibility for comportment in their own classroom, teachers may prohibit gum chewing in their rooms. It should also be acknowledged that gum may pose a safety issue in some classes and may be prohibited. Additionally, students may be prohibited from chewing gum if they dispose of it improperly or chew it at inappropriate times (e.g., during ceremonies). We believe, however, that if gum chewing is allowed, students will be more likely to dispose of it properly. 
  • Students will be allowed to use cell phones between bells. We believe that authentic, personal communication is essential to both the educational and social environment of our community. Therefore, cell phones may not be used during break, advisory, or lunch. Cell phones may only be used between bells (between classes, before and after lunch, before and after break, and after school). Otherwise, students must ask a school employee for permission to use their cell phones. Cell phones should be turned off during class time and may only be used in class with the explicit permission of the classroom teacher. Under no circumstance should a student use an electronic device or cell phone to take a picture of or record another student without his or her permission. Students are strictly prohibited from using social media during the school day.
  • Every Friday during the school year will be designated as a “Raider Day.” On Raider Days students are allowed to dress out of uniform.  On these days, students may wear T-shirts, sweatshirts, or athletic jerseys issued through clubs, athletics, or PTO sales and blue jean capris or pants with no holes or fraying. Belts must be used if the pants have belt loops.  Shoes, outerwear, and everything else must follow dress code.  If students elect not to participate in Raider Day, they must wear the school uniform. 
  • Students may wear any color socks, but those socks may not have graphics or advertise drugs or alcohol. 
  • Students will be allowed to bring hard-sided water bottles to class. Proper hydration is essential to efficient brain function and effective learning; therefore, students are strongly encouraged to drink water during the school day. Students may carry non-breakable, translucent (they can be colored but must be see-through) water bottles.  In order to be environmentally responsible, students are asked to use refillable bottles that can be refilled at water filling stations throughout the school. Refillable, Camelback bottles are available for purchase at Raider Retail. No glass water bottles or soft-sided water bottles will be allowed in classrooms.
  • Tights for girls can now have seams. They must be solid a color: navy, gray, black, or white.  
  • Going forward, there will be three levels of honor graduates at Houston Academy. To earn the recognition of graduating cum laude, a student must have earned a cumulative GPA of 3.52. To graduate magna cum laude, a student must have earned a cumulative GPA of 3.75. To graduate summa cum laude, a student must have earned a cumulative GPA of 4.0. A student must attend Houston Academy for two years in order to be eligible to graduate with honors, and only courses taken at Houston Academy will count towards determining honor graduate status. 

There are a few other items in the handbook to which I would like to remind you.

  • We ask that parents restrict bringing students lunch to special occasions and not something that happens regularly. This is a college preparatory school, and these are high school students. 

If parents would like to bring lunch for a special occasion, we will have a cart in the front office for students to pick up their lunch.  Please clearly identify the lunch with the name of your child.  For the safety of our students (and because students are not allowed to be in the parking lot during the day) lunches must be left in the front office. Our school lunch service, however, provides a convenient and nutritious lunch for students.  Lunch can be ordered online, and the menu changes regularly so that students have a variety of choices. If students choose not to purchase lunch through the school lunch service, parents are strongly encouraged to have students pack their own lunch. This is an important step toward the independence and responsibility that we hope to foster at Houston Academy. 

  • Again, students should not be in the parking lot during the day unless they are coming to and from senior free period or from a scheduled appointment. That is not to say that we are going to chase students out of their cars in the morning, but the campus now has a large number of beautiful areas in which to congregate, and we do not want students gathering the parking lot. 
  • Parents will have 10 school days to furnish an excuse for an excused absence. After that, all absences are considered unexcused. However, we allow two “family days” which are excused absences families may use at their discretion. Please make sure you review our prearranged absence policy and our exam exemption policy in the Student Handbook. Remember that HA is bound by the state of Alabama’s compulsory school attendance laws, and we are legally required to report truancy to the county authorities. 
  • If students fall below a 75 average in any class, they will have a weekly, mandatory tutorial with the teacher of that class until the student’s academic average has improved. 

This school year will be our first year of having a genuine, fifth grade through eighth grade Middle School. You can read earlier editions of my blog to read why we are making this move. The development of the Middle School will be a dynamic process, and I expect many pedagogical and structural improvements in grades 5-8 over the next few years.

We are very excited to have Dr. Vince Janney and his family joining us at Houston Academy. Dr. Janney brings a wealth of experience in quality independent schools around the country, but most importantly, he loves the middle school child. Please stop by and introduce yourselves to Dr. Janney!

This year, through the generosity of your PTO, the Middle School locker area has been completely remodeled. This includes a new ceiling, better lighting, new flooring, and new lockers. For convenience, the new lockers will be large enough to hold the students’ MacBooks, and they have a built-in shelf.

We look forward to offering more opportunities for our Middle School students, including clubs, athletics, and other activities. We will also have a seventh grade retreat this year to help our students form healthy relationships, promote teamwork, and develop leadership skills.

Dr. Scott D. Phillipps
Interim Head of Upper School & Headmaster
Houston Academy

Friday, April 29, 2016

HA's Accreditation

Recently, an article appeared in the Dothan Eagle concerning AdvancED/SACS accreditation. Since then, I have received a profusion of emails, phone calls, and questions about what accreditation means and how Houston Academy approaches the process of accreditation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am very involved in the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS) accreditation process. In the last two years, I have served as an accreditation visiting team chair for three quality, independent schools in the Southeast. Additionally, I have served as a member of visiting teams for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and SAIS accreditation teams for about 20 years, during which time I have had the privilege to help accredit approximately 20 schools. I’ve also served on a roundtable to discuss and shape our accreditation process for SAIS/AdvancEd/SACS. So, to say I am unbiased towards the process of accreditation, as it has evolved over the last 25 years, would be disingenuous.

That being said, let me start by answering the questions I’ve been asked, explaining what Houston Academy’s memberships are, and addressing why we hold these memberships. In a follow-up blog post, I’ll go into detail on what’s happening with our current accreditation process.

What does it mean to be accredited?
The SAIS website does a good job defining our meaning of accreditation:

  • Accreditation (noun): certification that a school meets all formal official requirements of academic excellence, curriculum, facilities, etc.
  • SAIS accreditation (noun): verification that a school understands its past, present, and future and is absolutely committed to its mission and its growth mindset.

So, basically, by going through a process of accreditation, we ensure that we have met a set of rigorous standards of educational quality, that we have been visited and reviewed by a team of highly qualified educators from around the Southeast, and we have a plan to improve and grow as a school. That improvement plan must, according to SAIS guidelines, be inextricably tied to our mission.

While attending a school that is not accredited does not prohibit a student from attending college,  SAIS/SACS/AdvancED accreditation allows college admissions officers know that the school from which the applicant has graduated has gone through a thorough quality review.

Of course, there are many other accreditation agencies around the country. Independent schools in Alabama also have the opportunity to obtain AdvancEd/SACS accreditation by being members of the Alabama Independent School Association (AISA) and going through their accreditation process. Houston Academy is also a member of AISA, but we chose to get our AdvancED/SACS accreditation through SAIS. Public schools must ALL be accredited through AdvancED/SACS.

Unabashedly, though, our accreditation (SAIS/SACS AdvancEd) is the “gold standard” for independent schools. First of all, to apply for SAIS/SACS AdvancED accreditation, a school must earn membership in SAIS, which in and of itself, is a rigorous process. Not only do we have to demonstrate quality as a school (proving that we are hiring highly qualified teachers and engaging in a strong educational program), but we also must be “independent.”

What does it means to be “independent”?
Most people do not understand the difference between being a “private” school and an “independent” school. There is an important distinction to be made between the term "private" and the term "independent." The term "private" implies some sort of exclusivity. As such, "private" schools are often affiliated with a particular, narrow religious order, and in that sense, are not entirely free to set their own educational path. Often, in order to work at a private school or attend a private school, you must adhere to a certain worldview or be a member of a particular religious denomination. "Independent," on the other hand, means that we are inclusive and welcoming of all people, regardless of religion, race, creed, national origin, or socio-economic status. As such, we are the only truly independent school in the Wiregrass. That is not to say that we do not embrace faith or religion – we do. However, in independent schools like HA, we embrace the diversity of our community and attempt to learn from our differences and build on our students’ and faculty’s individual strengths.

Likewise, Houston Academy is also the only National Association of Independent Schools [NAIS] member in the Wiregrass. NAIS members must also meet rigorous admissions criteria. Not surprisingly, then, NAIS schools offer their students significant advantages over other private and public institutions. To note but a few examples, NAIS students are three times more likely to attend four-year colleges; they are two to three times more likely to graduate from a four-year college or higher, regardless of socioeconomic status,;13% more likely to do volunteer work; and they are more likely to become involved as citizens. Both the "National Educational Longitudinal Study" and the "Freshman Survey Trends Report" showed that graduates of NAIS schools were more active in civic life as young adults. Whereas 57.4 percent of all the students who participated in the "National Educational Longitudinal Study" voted in a presidential election as young adults, 75.3 percent of participating students from NAIS schools did so. NAIS graduates were also nearly twice as likely to volunteer to work for a political campaign than the group of students as a whole. Data from the 2005 "Freshman Survey Trends Report," produced by the Higher Education Research Institute, revealed that 46 percent of NAIS graduates, but 36 percent of all freshmen survey, felt that "keeping up with political affairs" was essential.

Who else has SAIS accreditation or is a member of SAIS?
As of July 1, 2015, SAIS had 365 member schools, representing over 200,000 students. Our peer schools are schools like Altamont in Birmingham; Baylor and McCallie in Chattanooga; Randolph in Huntsville; Lovett, Westminster, and Pace Academy in Atlanta; St. James and Montgomery Academy in Montgomery; Bolles and Episcopal in Jacksonville; and UMS-Wright and St. Paul’s in Mobile. If you’re interested, you can search for other member schools here. You will find that most schools with high acceptance rates at selective colleges are on this list.

So what? Who cares what memberships and accreditations a school has?
To me, aside from accreditation, our membership in SAIS, NAIS, and AISA affords great benefits for our children, our teachers, and our school. What I value most about our memberships is the collaboration and collegiality it fosters. Our teachers have access to other teachers in rigorous independent schools around the country. We attend conferences, learn about current issues and research in education, and get information on “best practices.” We also engage in list serves, webinars, and leadership training. We have access to all kinds of resource material, including cutting-edge academic research. Moreover, we have the ability to benchmark our own school data against other schools around the country that are like us. Recently, for example, our Board of Trustees revised their bylaws and practices to be more progressive and consistent with what other quality independent schools are doing around the country. Additionally, our students get to compete in academic and artistic competitions and meet with student leaders from around the region.

Importantly, too, because we are an NAIS and SAIS member, we are able to recruit and attract qualified administrative and teaching candidates from all over the country and globe. In the last three years, for example, we have hired candidates who were teaching in or from Rio de Janeiro, Minnesota, and China. Dr. Janney, our new Head of Middle School, comes to us from the independent school world after stops in North Carolina and New Jersey. Personally, I would never have even interviewed for a job at a school that was not a member of NAIS, because I understand that NAIS member schools are commitment to academic excellence and innovation. I also know that an NAIS school is growth-minded and not insular in its attitudes. NAIS schools seek global awareness and to expose their students to a wide variety of ideas. For my own children, I want them to be challenged to look beyond Dothan and understand the competitive, global environment into which they will be graduating high school.  To put it simply, I just know that if I go to an SAIS accredited member of NAIS, it’s a “good school.”

The beautiful thing about SAIS Accreditation, in particular, is that it caters to the needs of independent schools and gives us the flexibility to chart our own educational path, divested from the mandates of the federal or state government. The SAIS/SACS/AdvancED process does not require us to abide by Common Core or engage in high-stakes testing. Similarly, schools are not compared to other schools. On the contrary, the only item against which schools are judged is alignment with their own mission. What we must show is that we are working to constantly improve as a school with the goal of helping students. In short, accreditation is about growth.

In May, our SAIS Visiting Team Chair will visit Dothan and assess our compliance with SAIS standards. Next November, the full, five-member SAIS visiting team will conduct a formal visit and review our school’s strategic plan and self-study. In my next blog post, I’ll explain where we are in this process and what our goals are for the next five years here at HA.

Monday, January 11, 2016

HA's Lower School - A Value Proposition

Every year, as a part of my introduction to our Lower School Holiday Concert, I make a statement about the value of the education provided at Houston Academy. In particular, I have pointed out that, while many schools across the country have cut their arts funding, Houston Academy has actually increased our commitment to the arts. One thoughtful parent, who cared enough to email me, questioned my statement, particularly in response to the value proposition of spending money on a Houston Academy lower school education.  

Before I go into the value proposition of HA, let me make one crucial point: I am a fervent supporter of our public school system. The future of the nation and the future prosperity of Dothan depends largely on the success of our public schools. Moreover, my wife and I are both products of the public school system. In fact, my wife has spent most of her career in Title I schools, including a stint in inner city Memphis, Tennessee. I have a great deal of respect for what our public school teachers and administrators do on a daily basis, especially given how they have been handicapped by inadequate funding, misguided “reform” efforts, and needless bureaucracy and paperwork -- all of which have been imposed upon them by people who are not educators. So, in enumerating the benefits of a Houston Academy education, I, in no way, mean to be critical of the public schools and the people who work in them.

In my 26 years working in independent schools, I have come to understand that independent schools must provide our students and families with some sort of “value added.” That is, we need to offer our families some benefit or advantage that they are unable to get in the public schools or elsewhere. At the core of our value proposition is our mission:

Houston Academy is an independent college preparatory institution. Our mission is to prepare all our students for responsible participation in a global society by providing an excellent learning environment and opportunities to achieve their highest academic, social, and creative potential.

These two sentences capture what makes a Houston Academy lower school education worth the tuition.  We offer a mission that is very different. The goal of the public schools is to graduate kids from high school; the goal of the local Christian schools is to provide a Christian education; the goal of Houston Academy is to graduate kids from college.

In fact, we are the ONLY school in the Wiregrass whose mission is explicitly college preparatory. This means that, in everything we do, from 3P to 12th grade, we are working towards the goal of giving students the knowledge and skills to be a successful college graduate. Houston Academy also wants to produce global citizens and to push students to achieve their highest creative and social potential. HA has a different mission from other area schools- not better, necessarily -- just different. 

In practical terms, more than anything else, what we offer is rigor. As I have told parents and students who are worried about grades, “We will not apologize for our rigor.” We hold our students and teachers accountable to an unwaveringly high standard of excellence. At the same time, we provide a loving and nurturing environment in which our students receive the support they need to be successful. Still, no one should pay tuition for his children’s school to be easy. College will be hard; life will be hard; and we want our children to have the tools to be successful in both college and life. My own three children work hard at HA, every single day, and to them this is “normal.” They don’t get particularly stressed, they just do their job, because they are used to learning, and they are used to doing what they need to do to be successful.

Holding our teachers to a higher standard is another aspect of that rigor. No, we do not have “high stakes” testing, and our teachers do not have to fill out reams of paperwork; we prefer they spend their time teaching. As I have said in my blog, we have not adopted Common Core because we are teaching children, not standards. Our teachers are evaluated by the degree to which they pursue and achieve goals that they, themselves identify in conjunction with their Head of School.

Houston Academy also hires teachers with strong credentials who are compulsively driven to succeed.  Unlike most other schools in the Wiregrass, every single one of our 3P-6th grade teachers has a four-year degree and is certified in her field. To me, taking your child to a preschool where teachers are neither qualified nor certified is a little like taking your child to a dentist who has never been to dental school.  Despite some people’s perception, preschool is not free play. Lessons should be planned by certified teachers to meet the developmental needs of the individual students in the class. It’s a purposeful exercise that requires a teacher to have education, training, and practice. It’s as much a science as it is an art.

Nevertheless, having outstanding teachers is not enough to ensure student success. The literature has consistently supported the notion that students thrive in a smaller classroom environment. We believe education is an intimate exercise. Fundamentally, your tuition dollars ensure that your child has a small student to teacher ratio. We have teacher assistants in every classroom through 1st grade. Moreover, while the student to teacher ratio in the Dothan City elementary schools is 18:1 (20:1 in the magnet schools), the Houston Academy Lower School student to teacher ratio is 8:1.

Make no mistake: class size matters. The research has consistently shown wide-ranging and lasting benefits from smaller class sizes.  Smaller class sizes have a positive and significant relationship to higher standardized test scores, higher “cognitive and non-cognitive skills”[1] (e.g., effort, motivation, and self-esteem), higher academic achievement, higher salaries as an adult, higher college graduation and attendance rates, and lower incidence of poverty.[2] In fact, there have been quantitative studies that have shown that student-teacher ratio is the single most powerful predictor of student improvement in reading and math.[3] The reasons for these positive outcomes are obvious. In smaller classes, teachers are better able to meet the individual educational needs of the students, there are fewer distractions, fewer behavioral problems, and the engagement of students is increased.[4] Plus, with a decreased teaching load, teachers have more time to plan innovative lessons.

In addition to the intimate environment in the regular classroom, we have full-time enrichment teachers in every conceivable area (library, computer, foreign language, art, music, character education, and PE). Other schools may claim that they offer these enrichments, but they don’t have full-time, certified teachers dedicated to these pursuits, and the students do not take part in these disciplines with any consistency. To this end, our financial commitment, in terms of faculty development and faculty resources, is unmatched. We have a:
  • Full-time teacher with a Master of Fine Arts teaching 5-6 grade chorus (pursuing a doctorate)
  • Full-time band director with a music degree (pursuing a master's degree)
  • Full-time lower school music teacher with a bachelor's degree
  • Full-time lower school art teacher with a master's degree
  • Lower school art assistant, with a bachelor's degree 
  • Full-time Spanish teacher, with a bachelor's degree
  • Full-time PE teacher, with a master's degree
  • Two, full-time PE assistants, with a bachelor's degree
  • Full-time computer teacher, with a bachelor's degree
  • Full-time library and media specialist, with two master's degrees
  • Full-time library assistant, with a bachelor's degree

We also offer:
  • Smart boards in every classroom
  • A yearly, lower school musical
  • Instruments and band instruction to every student in 5th and 6th grade
  • iPads in every lower school classroom
  • 1:1 MacBook Pros in grades 5-12

Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of our “value added” is the support we provide to help our students be successful in our highly rigorous environment. HA now has three, full-time learning specialists who work with students who are struggling or who have special needs. Two of these teachers are trained in the Orton-Gillingham method for dyslexic students, one is a speech therapist, and the third has a special education degree and a master’s degree.

Finally, in my short time in Dothan, I have found that most people will concede that HA offers the finest, college preparatory education in the region, but many people feel that HA is unaffordable. For preschool, we are nowhere near the most expensive option in Dothan. For lower and upper schools, when you compare “apples to apples,” and include fees that other schools charge, our cost is quite competitive. Moreover, we offer substantial financial assistance to those who qualify, making the cost of an HA education well within the reach of most middle-class families.

In short, when you are looking at the value of paying tuition, it’s important to look long-term. In the history of Houston Academy, 100% of our graduates have been admitted to a college of his or her choice. Over the past two years, our senior classes of approximately 50 students have earned $6.4 million in college scholarships. That is remarkable, even if one controls for the educational level of our parent body. We offer smaller classes, more opportunities, more rigor, and more support than any other school in the Wiregrass. The evidence shows that a Houston Academy education gives your child a better chance to be successful in college and in life; this all begins in lower school.

Further Reading

Angrist, J. D., & Pischke, J. S. (2010). The credibility revolution in empirical economics: How better research design is taking the con out of econometrics. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24(2), 3-30.
Angrist, J.D., & Lavy, V. (1999). Using Maimonides’ rule to estimate the effect of class size on scholastic achievement. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114(2), 533-575.
Bain, H., Lintz, N., & Word, E. (1989). A study of fifty effective teachers whose class average gain scores ranked in the top 15% of each of four school types in Project STAR. ERIC Clearinghouse; paper presented at the American Educational Research Association 1989 meeting, San Francisco, CA.
Browning, M., & Heinesen, E. (2007). Class size, teacher hours and educational attainment. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 109(2), 415-438.
Chetty, R., Friedman, J.N., Hilger, N., Saez, E., Schanzenbach, D.W., & Yagan D. (2011). How does your kindergarten classroom affect your earnings? Evidence from Project STAR. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126(4), 1593-1660.
Chetty, R., Friedman, J.N., & Rockoff J. (2013). Measuring the impacts of teachers II: Teacher value-added and student outcomes in adulthood (Working Paper No. 19424). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Dynarski, S., Hyman, J., & Schanzenbach, D.W. (2013). Experimental evidence on the effect of childhood investments on postsecondary attainment and degree completion. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 32(4), 692-717.
Finn, J., Gerber, S., & Boyd-Zaharias, J. (2005). Small classes in the early grades, academic achievement, and graduating from high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), 214-223.
Fredriksson, P., Öckert, B., & Oosterbeek, H. (2013). Long-term effects of class size. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 128(1), 249-285.
Hanushek, E.A. (1997). Assessing the effects of school resources on student performance: An Update. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19(2), 141-64.
Hanushek, E.A. (1986, September). The economics of schooling: Production and efficiency in public schools. Journal of Economic Literature, 24, 1141-77.
Hoxby, C. M. (2000). The effects of class size on student achievement: New evidence from population variation. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(4), 1239-1285.
Jepsen, C., & Rivkin, S. (2009). Class size reduction and student achievement: The potential tradeoff between teacher quality and class size. Journal of Human Resources, 44(1), 223-250.
Krueger, A.B. (1999). Experimental estimates of education production functions. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(2), 497-532.
Krueger, A.B. (2003). Economic considerations and class size. Economic Journal, 113(485), F34-F63.
Krueger, A.B., & Whitmore, D. (2001). The effect of attending a small class in the early grades on college testtaking and middle school test results: Evidence from Project STAR. Economic Journal, 111, 1-28.
Krueger, A.B., & Whitmore, D. (2002). Would smaller classes help close the black-white achievement gap? In J. Chubb & T. Loveless (Eds.), Bridging the Achievement Gap (11-46). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Molnar, A., Smith, P., Zahorik, J., Palmer, A., Halbach, A., & Ehrle, K. (1999). Evaluating the SAGE program: A pilot program in targeted pupil-teacher reduction in Wisconsin. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 21(2), 165-77.
Mosteller, Frederick (1995). The Tennessee study of class size in the early school grades. The Future of Children. 5(2), 113-127.
Unlu, F. (2005). California class size reduction reform: New findings from the NAEP. Princeton, NJ: Department of Economics, Princeton University.
Urquiola, M. (2006). Identifying class size effects in developing countries: Evidence from rural Bolivia. Review of Economics and Statistics, 88(1), 171-177.
Word, E., Johnston, J., Bain, H.P., et al. (1990). Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR): Tennessee’s K-3 class size study. Final summary report 1985-1990. Nashville: Tennessee State Department of Education.

[1] Schanzenbach, D. (2014, February 1). Does Class Size Matter? Retrieved January 7, 2016, from
[2] Reducing Class Size: What Do We Know? (2010). Canadian Education Association, 1-22. Retrieved January 5, 2016, from
Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement. Education policy analysis archives, 8, 1.
Mosteller, F. (2008). The Tennessee Study of Class Size in the Early School Grades. The Future of Children, 113-113. Retrieved January 7, 2016, from
[3] Vasquez Hellig, J., Williams, A., & Jez, S. (2010). Inputs and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Latina/o-Serving Urban Elementary Schools. Association of Mexican American Educators, 48-58. Retrieved January 5, 2016, from
[4] Blatchford, P., Goldstein, H., Martin, C., & Browne, W. (2002). A study of class size effects in English school
reception year classes. British Educational Research Journal, 28(2), 169-185.
Graue, E., Hatch, K., Rao, K., & Oen, D. (2007). The wisdom of class size reduction. American Educational
Research Journal, 44(3), 670-700.
J.D. (1997). Class Size: What does research tell Us? Spotlight on Student Success #20.