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