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” (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. 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. 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. 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.
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