Saturday, September 21, 2013

The HA Family

At the beginning of the school year, I scheduled appointments with every teacher and staff member in the school in order to get to know everyone a little better. I wanted to get a sense of everyone's family, why they work at HA, what they like about HA, where they think we need to improve, and (of course) what I can do for them.

The information I obtained was invaluable.  What I already felt to be true was confirmed: We have an extremely dedicated, talented, and caring group of faculty and staff who love our children and our school community. Every single member of our faculty and staff could be making more money (sometimes MUCH more money) working in a public school or in the business world, but they choose to stay at Houston Academy because they love it.

To this end, as I mentioned above, I asked the faculty and staff the question, "What do you like about HA?" Here is a sampling of the answers I received:
"I enjoy coming to work every day. I love the kids, and the people are great."
"I love working at a place where the kids love coming to school."
"I feel like I've died and gone to teacher heaven... I feel like we are making an investment in our kids."
"The school is challenging; children believe they can achieve their dreams; DREAMS LIVE HERE."
"There is strong parent and administrative support."
"My kids came here from [private school in Dothan]. I was shocked to see how far they were behind the other HA kids, but the great thing is, the teachers were so supportive, and my children caught up.I feel so happy now, knowing how well prepared my kids are for college."
"Everyone is so kind."
"HA is full of happy, positive people."
"I like that we are independent and can make our own rules and curriculum."
However, the most prevalent theme came down to one simple word: family. 

We all know that HA offers the only true, rigorous college preparatory curriculum in the Wiregrass. However, I was a little surprised to find out that our rigor and educational quality was not what people on the faculty felt was the best aspect of the school. Instead, they thought it was our family environment:
"HA looked out for my family. When we had problems, the people here were there for us."
"It's a family atmosphere where my children feel safe - both emotionally and physically."
"It's like a little family. People take care of each other, and the teachers treat the children like their own."
"It's a family. Everyone is genuine."
"I like that I really get to know the kids. I know them almost as well as I know my own. It's a family" 

Of the almost 90 meetings I had with faculty and staff, the word "family" came up over 70 times. As a parent who chose to put my three children in school at HA, I have to admit, I got a little choked up, and was extraordinarily touched, listening to the teacher stories about how the HA family had positively impacted their life and the lives of the children in our care. It's great to know that my three kids will receive an unbelievable college preparatory education at HA; it's even better to know they will be loved.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Working on the "6 C's of 21st Century Learning": Character

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead

This year, the Honor Council at Houston Academy decided to update the Honor Code. While we have a well-established honor code and honor system, the Council felt that we needed to do something tangible to make honor a more visible and vibrant concept in our community.

For the first time, students at HA are taking part in a special ceremony to help reinforce the concept of honor in our community.  To quote from the revised Honor Code:

At the beginning of the school year, during a special honor ceremony, faculty and students declare their honorable intentions and publicly acknowledge their support of the Honor System by signing the following pledge to uphold the Honor Code: “On my honor, I will not violate the Honor Code, and I solemnly pledge to act honorably in all my endeavors as a representative of Houston Academy. My signature affirms my honor.”

To this end, Mrs. Emblom, the Honor Council sponsor, has acquired a leather-bound book that each student will sign, every year at the beginning of the year. Thereby, we will record for posterity our communal pledge of honor.  Two hundred years from now, the children of Houston Academy will be able to look back and view the signatures of the current students who have collectively pledged to make Houston Academy (and the world) a better place. In addition, every time a student in the Upper School at HA complete an assignment, he or she will write or type on his or
her paper, "My signature affirms my honor."

I could not be more proud of what the students on our Honor Council have accomplished, and I am equally proud of our students who have voluntarily made their commitment to uphold high standards of excellence for our community.

Students Sign the Honor Book During the Honor Code Ceremony
Like most of you, I firmly believe that we are obliged to provide students with a firm foundation in moral and ethical character. As a parent, what I hope most for my children is not that they attain academic or athletic prowess, but rather that they be decent, kind, and that they seek to serve others. More precisely, I believe we must teach our students to be honorable. Unfortunately, in many schools, any emphasis on the concept of honor is starkly absent. This is to the detriment of our society.

One need not look any further than the news media to see how a lack of morality and ethics has negatively affected our country. In sports, where many of our children find role models, Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his Tour de France victories because he “doped”; Ryan Braun, the 2011 NL MVP, was suspended for the rest of the 2013 season in July for violating the league’s substance abuse policy; and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick did jail time for gambling and illegal dog fighting. Of course, the Enron, BernieMadoff Ponzi Scheme, and WorldCom scandals in the corporate world have grabbed headlines, and more significantly, have robbed people of their life savings.

In academia, numerous studies have, likewise, shown disturbing trends. According to one prominent study, 70% of students in the United States admit to cheating in one form or another (Gulli, Kohler, & Patriquin). Moreover, it appears to be getting worse. Donald McCabe (1994) of Rutgers University has done research comparing the frequency of cheating in the 1960s to the frequency of cheating in the 1990s. To cite just a few examples from his work, McCabe tells us that the number of college students who admitted to copying someone else’s work has risen from 26% in 1963 to 52% in 1993, and the number of students who admitted to using a “cheat sheet” during a test has risen from 16% to 26% during the same time period.

Of course, the proliferation of technology has made cheating in our schools almost too convenient.  McCabe (2006) tells us that students are using technology to cheat in larger numbers than ever before: In 1999, 10% of students surveyed admitted to copying wholesale off the Internet; by 2005, 40% admitted to doing so. I could cite many more studies that illustrate similar trends.

Fortunately, independent schools like HA have taken the strong step of establishing an Honor System to stem the tide of dishonorable behavior. 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.).
Moreover, research on effective schools and organizations tells us that giving people a stronger sense of efficacy increases the strength of any organization (Collins, 2001, 2005; Covey, 1992; Fullan, 2001, 2003; Heifetz & Linsky, 2002; Patterson, 2003; Whitaker, 2003; et al.). Furthermore, the research on Honor Codes tells us that the most successful systems centrally involve students in the decision-making process and persistently involve the full participation of the school community in shaping the system. Indeed, with the full support of everyone in the HA community, I believe we are about to embark on a cultural shift that will make an indelible impact on our students and, by extension, the world around us.

If you get a chance, congratulate Sean Christiansen, Claire Duerson, Jacob Beauchamp, Rachel Beverly, and Bailey Spivey. Please take the time to thank our “small group” of Honor Council members for what they have done “to change the world.”

Scott D. Phillipps, Ed.D.