Monday, December 8, 2014

Forming a True Middle School

Many of you may not be aware that Houston Academy has a strategic plan.  This plan, devised by a special committee of the Board of Trustees, outlines our goals for Houston Academy for a five-year period.  A major component of that plan is the establishment of a middle school. 

You might ask, “Why do we need a middle school?”

That’s a good question. After all, Houston Academy has been very successful with the lower school comprising 3-year-old preschool through 6th grade and the upper school comprising 7th grade through 12th grade.

The driving force behind the middle school movement, nationally, is the research-based idea that children ages 10-14 have a unique set of learning needs; therefore, those children need a school setting, curriculum, and culture that meet those unique needs.

If you’ve ever spent time with a group of middle schoolers, you will quickly see that they are, indeed, “unique.”  As one of our teachers, who is in love with the middle school child, likes to say, “They’re not real people yet! I love them, but they’re not real people!” One of my former colleagues aptly described the middle school children as “hormones with feet.”  I particularly love a description I read in the NAIS, Middle School Handbook:

You know them.

We all do.

They are the ones we hear in a much too near booth in the fast food restaurant, talking, laughing, eating so loudly they complicate our digestion. They are the ones who cause us to hurry to new seats in a movie theater just as the theater goes dark. They are the ones we brake for as they skateboard past us down a steep hill and through a busy traffic intersection. They are the ones playing comfortably with toy cars at one moment and dreaming of real ones at the next…

Middle schoolers are complex. Next to old people, early adolescents may suffer more age-based prejudice than any other group in society. Through the middle school years, the young person frequently wonders or asks, “Am I normal?” (Finks and Stanek 2008)

If you’ve had a middle school child in your home, you’ve seen it. One day, they talk to you eagerly, like a 40-year-old historian, and the next day they sulk alone in their room, listening to Rhapsody on their iPhone, while wondering why “nobody gets them.” My own middle school daughter describes herself as “angsty.”

Not surprisingly, the brain-based research tells us that our teaching methods and environment should be driven by students’ brain structure, growth, and development.  We would never think of teaching a kindergartner the same way we teach a fifth grader, because we understand that their brain development is at a very different place. Inexplicably, though, we seem to think it’s perfectly fine to teach a 7th grader the same way we teach a senior![1]

To successfully educate the middle school child, we also need to make sure we have a structure that reflects middle schoolers’ impulsivity and seemingly inherent need to test boundaries. Again, from a disciplinary perspective, it’s neither productive nor realistic to hold an 11-year-old to the same standards as a 19-year-old.

In short, the middle school child needs a guided and planned transition from childhood to the teen years and young adulthood. Early adolescence is an absolutely critical point in human development, and a carefully designed educational experience from grades 5-8 can have an indelible and lasting impact on our children and their future. Unfortunately, many of our schools in this country have not done a very good job structuring their middle schools. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that our middle schools have collectively failed our children.

The middle school at Houston Academy will be a model for the region. At the beginning of the year, we formed a volunteer faculty and administrative committee to study and plan for a middle school.  Before Thanksgiving, our committee took a trip to two quality independent schools: Altamont in Birmingham and the Montgomery Academy. Both schools have a middle school that encompasses grades 5-8.

Subsequently, the committee has decided to move forward in steps.  Our first step will be to reorganize the 5th and 6th grades employing a schedule that will allow the students to move between disciplines and have more class time in science, math, English, world and classical languages, and social studies.  This will NOT mean that we will denigrate the time for the arts; it will merely mean that we will rearrange the schedule to fit a middle school model.  In addition, we are looking to have a smooth transition in terms of expectations, responsibilities, and class structure from 5th grade to 8th grade. In other words, 5th graders will be handled differently from 6th graders. Our goal is to have this in place by next year. We also hope to have some athletic, co-curricular, and extracurricular activities for these grades. Concurrently, we are studying academic and social best practices of middle schools and working to integrate those ideas into our new middle school.

In the 2016-17 school year, we plan on fully integrating the 7th and 8th grade into the middle school.  Pending strong enrollment and a sound financial footing, we will hire a middle school head.

As we move forward, we will be dealing with the issues outlined below:

 I. What is our educational vision? Envision our middle school….
     A. What kind of education should we provide?
     B. What will our middle school provide that other schools don’t provide? What will our middle school provide for students that is NOT being provided under our current structure?
     C. What kinds of academic and social experiences do we want to give our students?
     D. What do we see implementing right away, in five years, in ten years?
II. What is our structure and curriculum?
     A. Day-to-Day operations
          1. How long will our classes be?
          2. How many classes in a day?
          3. When will the day start and end?
          4. How will lunch work?
          5. We will have an Advisory program. How will it work?
          6. How will we schedule teachers and students (structure and method)?
          7. What extracurricular activities will we offer? At what grades? What is our middle school athletic philosophy?
     B. Student Learning
          1. What is the objective of student learning?
          2. What do they need to know/be able to do?
          3. What criteria will we use to assess learning?
          4. How will students be tested?
          5. What constitutes successful completion of the middle school?
          6. How will curriculum be developed?
III. Write a statement of good practice in teaching
     A. What pedagogy will we use?
     B. Are we writing-based, collaborative-learning based, etc.?
IV. Facilities
     A. What physical facilities are necessary?
     B. Where will those facilities be?
     C. What will the facilities cost?

At first glance, this outline contains an overwhelming list of questions. On the other hand, this is incredibly exciting for both our teachers and our children.  We already offer the finest education in the Wiregrass. We have no educational peer, but we are going to be even better.  I can’t wait to see what we become as we evolve as a school of excellence!

[1] Actually, research suggests that male adolescence continues well into our mid-20s. I know most women will not find that fact surprising!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Veterans Day

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Each year, on this day, I think about my grandfather, Joseph Howard Siemens, who passed away at the age of 90 back in October of 2009.  He was a member of  what Tom Brokaw termed “the Greatest Generation.” He waded his way through the Great Depression, and he was the first man in his family to attend college for any period of time. However, he was only able to afford it because he had earned a football scholarship. Unfortunately, his college career was cut short when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like most of the rest of the men in college at the time, my grandfather left school to fight for his country.

Photo of Robert Siemens, killed by
a German guided bomb,
September 11, 1943
Sadly, while making his way through basic training, my grandfathers’ brother, Robert, was killed by a German guided bomb in Solerno, Italy.  The army wasn't going to give my grandfather leave to go to his brother's funeral, but a rabbi intervened on behalf of my protestant grandfather, and he was able to attend.  As an aside, my brother is named after Uncle Bob, and so is one of my sons.

After returning from laying my Uncle Bob to rest, my grandfather fought in many of the major battles of the Pacific Theater, including Tarawa, the Philippines, Luzon, and Okinawa. He was fortunate enough to witness the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. Then, after taking part in the occupation of Japan, Grandpa returned to Toledo, Ohio to live a quiet life with a wife and a daughter whom he had never seen.

What we didn't know was that my grandfather earned three bronze stars for bravery. We, likewise, never knew that his best friend died right next to him during the heat of battle. My grandfather never mentioned to us that he was a war hero. Nor did he ever mention that he had post-traumatic stress. Men didn’t talk about such things in those days. Looking at today’s social media culture, it’s particularly funny that he never told us a thing about his wartime experiences. Today, we tweet out even the smallest life event for the whole world to see!

In any case, my grandfather went on with his life, spending 40 years working for the phone company. He never did go back to school. After all, he had a family to take care of, and he had to get to work. But like many other men of his generation, he was the bedrock of our family’s moral ethos, the center of our work ethic, and the primary architect of our future success. Every member of our family did what he had never done: We all earned a college degree.

In The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw argued that this was the greatest generation of people that the world has ever produced. They worked and fought, not for fame or personal aggrandizement, but because it was the "right thing to do." Just like Joseph Siemens, millions of Americans returned to their daily, mundane lives after World War II, asking for nothing in return.

Most of the members of the Greatest Generation are gone, now. Approximately 550 World War II veterans pass away each day. That leaves us with only 1.2 million veterans out of the 16 million who served in World War II.[1] I hope that their stories will not be lost on our children today.

To that point,  we have school on Tuesday at Houston Academy precisely because we want to remember and honor our veterans.  Sure, our students could have gone to the beach or had a cookout tomorrow, but what we are asking is for our students to spend Veterans Day learning about our veterans and the sacrifices they made so that we would be afforded the opportunity to vote, prosper, and live a life of freedom.

We will begin tomorrow with a school-wide ceremony at the flagpole in front of the school where we will recognize our alumni and current faculty who have served in the military. Then, we have asked our teachers to do something in class that will help our students understand what Veterans Day is all about.

On behalf of Houston Academy, I wish to formally thank everyone in our community who has served our country.  Please feel free to share your own stories (below) of the heroes who have served America. 

[1] "Frequently Asked Questions." The National World War II Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2014. <>.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Let Me Introduce You to Eric Dietz

Prior to my appointment here at Houston Academy, I was the Upper School Director at University School of Jackson in Jackson, TN. In my five years in Jackson, I had the pleasure of getting to know a number of great kids, but one of the young people who stands out in my mind is Eric Dietz. Eric Dietz was the tailback on our state-finalist football team.  He was one of the toughest football players I’ve ever seen.  Eric could hit like a freight train; he would certainly rather run you over than run around you.  Eric was talented enough and hard-working enough to take his football skills to the University of Mississippi.  In high school, Eric also lettered in basketball and track, qualifying for state in track, three times. In addition, Eric was an Honor Roll student. He has continued to make Honor Roll at Ole Miss, while majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

“So what?” you might say, “We’ve had plenty of scholar-athletes graduate from HA – just like Eric.”

True.  We do a great job here at HA in that regard. Our students are more than prepared for college, and they are always talented in a multitude of areas. But, to me, what set Eric apart (besides the fact that he was a gentlemen who was kind to others), was his skill on the stage.  Eric could sing beautifully.  He starred in multiple musicals, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Furthermore, Eric made the Tennessee All-State Choir two times.

In fact, All-West Tennessee Choir auditions took place in Memphis (90 miles away), early on a Saturday morning.  Eric played in a particularly physical football game Friday night, woke up early the next morning, and drove to Memphis. He auditioned for All-West Choir, and then went to our Choral Director to ask if he could help her do anything. She suggested to him that he might want to go home and sleep.

Now, again, Eric is a pretty special young man, but he is not unique in that many of Eric’s peers were athletes, scholars, AND artists/singers/musicians/actors. Being in plays at USJ was “cool.” Almost everyone wanted to do it, and competition for leading roles was fierce.  With their talented students and with their outstanding music teachers and directors, USJ put on productions that were often of professional quality.

Moreover, these students gained immensely from their participation in theater. It is difficult to replicate the pressure that comes with performing in a play. The ability to get up in front of a crowd and perform is an invaluable life skill. After all, how nerve-racking is a sales presentation after you’ve done that?

HA already has a band and a chorus that are better than I have ever seen in a school our size. Too, we already have an amazing visual arts program. However, the one missing component is a true performing arts program. That is a HUGE hole in our curriculum.  And, there is an enormous demand from our students for a theater program. This fall, we had 32 students go out for our lower school musical (which will be taking place the 3rd week in October).  Moreover, in the upper school, we have a large number of students who are participating in drama activities through SEACT, Flagship, and Spark Theater. Now, we have the resources and the teachers in place to have an outstanding theater program. I firmly believe that our drama and musical theater program will be every bit as good as our band, chorus, and athletic programs.

I should emphasize, too, that having a strong drama program in no way denigrates any of our other extracurricular and co-curricular activities.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  We CAN be excellent in all areas, and we SHOULD be excellent in all areas.

I don’t want to hear anyone say we’re not capable of winning state championships in ANY sport.  I won’t listen to someone tell us we can’t have the best theater program in the area. Please, don’t tell me what we can’t do! As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.”

We are about to embark on an exciting journey in our school's history.  We are going to strengthen an already strong arts program, and we will have no peer in the state of Alabama. Likewise, we are going to continue to win state championships in athletics. Our students can have it all. And they will.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Don't Hate on our Excellence!"

In the last two years, we have been talking to our students about embracing their “excellence.” One of the things I discovered after my first few weeks at HA was that when our students were outside of Houston Academy, they weren’t always eager to let others know they were HA students. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were ashamed, but they were definitely uncomfortable with people in the greater-Dothan school labeling them as “snobby rich kids.”

The funny thing is, everyone I’ve talked to in Dothan knows that Houston Academy is the best and most rigorous school in the Wiregrass. In fact, this year, we have record enrollment in the Upper School.  The only factor that seems to keep people from coming to HA is the perception that we are unaffordable.

First of all, having been here for over a year, I can tell you that I’ve never been around a more well-mannered and assiduous group of young people than the kids at Houston Academy. Secondly, I think folks out there in the general public would be shocked to know how many of our families make tremendous sacrifices to allow their children to attend Houston Academy. Most notably, we have scores of faculty children attending HA, and as I’m sure you are aware, teachers around here are NOT typically found vacationing in the Hamptons!  Moreover, we work very hard with families here to make HA affordable. Our Board is firmly committed to offering financial aid to those who qualify, and our entire community is committed to providing a diverse environment for our students. In any case, in our capitalist republic having wealth is a sign of hard work, dedication, and entrepreneurship – not something of which to be ashamed (but perhaps that’s too political of a statement).  As I’ve told our students, there is nothing wrong with being born into a privileged environment.  The important part of being a person of privilege is to ACKNOWLEDGE that you are privileged, and act according through service to others.

To return to the notion of embracing our excellence, we have already established that HA is the most rigorous and finest education in the Wiregrass. Why should our students be ashamed of that? They should be PROUD of that! What our students go through on a daily basis is far more than the vast majority of students in this country experience. Most students would neither want to do what HA kids do, nor would they be capable of doing it.

Furthermore, our students do thousands of hours of community service every year.  They outwork their opponents in practice and on the athletic field every single day. Last year, we won two state championships in athletics and had a winning record in every single sport.  Our band and chorus won national awards. Our artists won regional competitions. Our ACT scores were the highest I’ve seen. We had 52 students take 92 Advanced Placement exams in 12 different subject areas. Our seniors earned $4.2 million in college scholarships.

What I want is for every one of our students, parents, faculty and alumni to go out into the community and let everyone know that they are a part of the HA family. I’d like us to proudly display our HA stickers on our cars.  I’d like us to wear our HA hats to Westgate, and wear our HA shirts to the movies. I believe that when folks actually see who we are and what we do, they can’t help but see what a wonderful community we have.  And if they don’t see that, that’s their problem.  Or, as one of our students wrote in shoe polish on his car last year, “Don’t hate on our excellence!”

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Our New Faculty and Staff

This has been a busy summer at HA. While the students have been frolicking in the pool and lounging on the beach, Mrs. Boothe, members of the lower school faculty, and I have spent much of our time interviewing and hiring a number of new teachers.  Consequently, I thought I would fill everyone in on the teachers who have chosen to join the Houston Academy family for next school year. 

Extended Day Program Director

Emily Granger
Emily Granger will be our new Extended Day Program (EDP) Director. Ms. Granger has an Associate of Science degree in early childhood education from Wallace College and is currently enrolled at Troy-Dothan, working on her B.S. degree. Emily comes with outstanding credentials and substantial experience running after-school programs.  I expect our daycare to be interactive and educationally oriented. 

Emily has a daughter named Olivia Anne, who is going into the third grade. She also has a dachshund named Mille, who Olivia views as her “sister.” Emily enjoys crafting with Olivia, junking flea markets, antiquing, watching Auburn football games, playing tennis, and reading.

Lower School Physical Education

Ginny Adams
Mrs. Adams is a certified teacher with a degree from Auburn University-Montgomery, and she is also a certified United States Tennis Association tennis professional. In addition to her 20 years of teaching in public schools, Ginny has spent the last two years working at HA as a teaching assistant and our as our JV tennis coach. In addition, many of our students have been taking tennis lessons from her over the past two years.  Personally, in my capacity as a "tennis parent," I've been thrilled with how well she has worked with our children as a coach.  We expect great things from her in PE, as well. 

Ginny is married to Scott Adams, and she has two children Sissy, a rising 7th grader at HA and Will, a ninth grader at Northside Methodist Academy. In her spare time, Ginny enjoys reading, playing, teaching and coaching tennis, and going to the beach.

3 Year-old Preschool

Chera Lee
Chera Lee will be our new 3P teacher.  Mrs. Lee has a B.S. in Early Childhood Education from the University of Alabama. Previously, she has taught 2P, 3P, 4P, kindergarten, and 2nd grade.  Additionally, Mrs. Lee has served as a teaching assistant and tutor and Grandview Elementary here in Dothan. Previously, she taught at Brookwood Forest Elementary and Grantswood Elementary in Birmingham. Chera is meticulous and assiduous, and has been a fantastic volunteer here at HA. 

Chera is married to Stuart Lee, and she has two children who attend HA – Douglas is in 3P and Mary Lawrence is in kindergarten. Her interests include running, reading, shopping, baking with her children, and spending time with family and friends.


Cara Dennis
Cara Dennis will be teaching kindergarten this year. Cara was a member of the first third grade class at Houston Academy in 1970. She graduated from The University of Alabama with a degree in early childhood education and received her masters from Troy University in early childhood education.

Cara has been married to Mark Dennis for 29 years. They have 4 children, 3 of whom have graduated from Houston Academy. Carolyne is 23 and is a nurse at Children's Hospital in Birmingham. Catie (21) and Jackson (18) are both students at Auburn University. Sam is 9 and is going to be in the third grade at Houston Academy. Cara is a member of First United Methodist Church, and she loves to spend time at the beach with her family.  

Tiffany Sulsberger
Tiffany Sulsberger holds a B.S. in Early Childhood Education from Georgia State University with an endorsement in Mathematics. She also earned an M.A. in Secondary Biology from Western Governors University.

Tiffany’s hometown (Rome, Georgia) is very near my old “stomping ground” in Northwest Georgia.  Last September, her husband, Scott, took a position with Hornsby Tire Distributors and they were relocated to Dothan. Tiffany’s two children both attend HA. Her daughter, Lauren, will be in 5K, and her son, Ryan, will be in 3P.

Anne Zeron
Anne Zeron will be our new 5K teacher assistant. Mrs. Zeron grew up in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida and graduated from The University of Alabama where she met her husband, Bryan.  Anne moved to Dothan three years ago from Jacksonville, Florida where she worked as a teacher’s assistant at St Mark’s Episcopal Day School.

Anne has two children, Mary Blake and George.  In between running her kids from activity to activity, she enjoy reading, exercising, and spending time with her family, which includes her dog, Oliver.

Learning Specialist

Lauren Thomas
Lauren Thomas is joining us this year as our Learning Specialist. She graduated from Auburn University (Magna Cum Laude) with an M.S. and B.S. in Communication Disorders from Auburn University. While working on her Masters Degree, she received the Outstanding Graduate Clinician Award, as selected by the professors and faculty at Auburn. She has also received Orton-Gillingham certification, which allows Lauren to work with students with dyslexia and other reading issues.

Ms. Thomas grew up in Dothan. She is the daughter of Jim and Pam Thomas.  Lauren loves Auburn football, going to Braves games, and running.

Upper School Learning Specialist and Registrar

Pamela Sewell
Pamela Sewell is joining the HA staff as the Registrar and Upper School Learning Lab Learning Specialist.  Mrs. Sewell taught in both public and private schools in Mobile and Phenix City for 10 years.  She taught special education, academic enrichment, algebra, geometry, and world history.  Mrs. Sewell has a B.S. in health education from Florida State University and an M.Ed in specific learning disabilities from University of South Alabama. 

Pamela was born in Dothan, but grew up in Panama City, Florida.  Mrs. Sewell is married to Dr. Joseph Sewell II and they have two children, Dr. Joseph H. Sewell III (a 2006 graduate of HA) who is in his second year of residency at University of South Alabama Medical Center and Ryan, who is currently in the ninth grade at Houston Academy.  In her spare time, Mrs. Sewell enjoys spending time with family and friends, traveling, and going to sporting events

3rd Grade

Jo Ellen Nelson  
Ms. Nelson will be one of our third grade teachers this year.  She holds a B.S. from University of Alabama and an M.A. from Troy University in Elementary Education. Jo Ellen has worked as a third grade teacher and Instructional Coach in Dothan City Schools. Basically, Jo Ellen has been working with other teachers to improve their own teaching. Jo Ellen has a great deal of passion for children and for education.

On the personal front, Jo Ellen has three children: Joe, who is a world history teacher and head soccer coach and varsity academic coach at Northview; Sara, who is a senior at Troy University pursuing a medical career; and Virginia, who will be starting at Tuscaloosa this fall to pursue her dream of becoming a special education teacher. Jo Ellen loves to exercise (she ran the 2014 Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta), to garden, and to read. One day, she hopes to write a children’s book!

5th Grade

Erin Barragry
Erin Barragry comes to us from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  She attended the University of Minnesota where she received both her B.S. and M.S. in education and was a member of Rho Lambda Honor Society.  For those of you who are not familiar, the University of Minnesota has one of the top schools of education in the United States. Moreover, we are very excited about the technology skills and experience she will bring to H.A.

Ms. Barragry is looking forward to a new (and warmer) adventure here in Dothan. Outside of school, she loves to golf, hike, camp, travel, play games, and bake. Other interests include country music and going to football games.

6th Grade

Lisa Cohen
Lisa Cohen will be teaching 6th grade next year. She is joining us from Jacobson Sinai Academy in Miami, Florida, where she was a 6th and 7th grade teacher. Lisa graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. in Political Science and Economics from New Jersey City University. Currently, she is enrolled in an Educational Master’s program in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on digital leaning. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Cohen is excited about H.A.’s technology initiative and looks forward to using her technology integration skills in the classroom.

Outside of school, Mrs. Cohen has been a teacher of martial arts for many years. She currently holds the rank of Senior Master as a 6th degree black belt. She also is very committed to working with various charitable organizations, but her greatest source of pride is her children. She and her husband, Melvyn, love to travel.

Sandra Egan
Sandra Egan will teach our third section of 6th grade this year. Ms. Egan holds a B.S. in Education from the University of Houston with an additional certification in teaching talented and gifted children. Most recently, she taught 5th and 6th grades in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Earlier in her career, she was named teacher of the year at her school in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Sandra has come to Dothan due to her husband’s relocation with his job at Boeing.

Sandra is married to Bill Egan, and they have two children. John is 24 and is in graduate school at the University of Texas-Austin, and Brittany is 21 and is a dental assistant in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Brittany is getting married in May 30, 2015! Sandra enjoys scrapbooking, jewelry making, and gardening. 

Upper School Chorus and Music

Julie Arthur
Julie Arthur will take over our extraordinarily successful chorus program.  Julie has a B.A. in Music with an emphasis in Musical Education from Azusa Pacific University (CA), and an M.A. in Music, with an emphasis in coral conducting from San Jose State University. 

Julie possesses strong qualifications to lead any instrumental or choral program.  She has strong experience as a classroom teacher AND as a private music instructor.  She has helped organize and run a high school and junior college choral festival and has organized performance opportunities for her private students.  Julie's youth ensemble (through the Smith Academy of Singers) successfully performed with the Imperial Valley Master Chorale, as well as in a concert of its own.  As a conductor she conducted the world premier of “Our Father, Lord and Shepherd” by Phil Shakleton, and she recently conducted a group of singers on stage with the Rolling Stones! We are also very excited that she is an accomplished strings performer, and we plan on adding a strings program here at HA.  When we do so, we will have the only strings program in the Wiregrass. 

Julie is from a very small town in California. She and her husband, Peter, just got married last July, and they spent their first year of marriage living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Julie loves having tea parties and traveling the world, and her hobby is learning languages.  She does not have any children, yet, but she is "dying to get a puppy!" 

Mrs. Holman, Mrs. Boothe, and I could not be more pleased with the hires we have made this spring and summer. We have been lucky enough to find people who are not only outstanding in their field, but also have a passion for young people. Please join me in welcoming this outstanding group of new teachers to the HA family!