Sunday, December 15, 2013

PS-8 vs. PS-12, Part One

The following post is the first of at least two parts about the pros and cons of being a PS-8 school versus a PS-12 school. This post focuses first on the question "Why a high school?" My next post will discuss the distinct merits of being PS-8. I would LOVE for you to comment. Please share your perspectives with me and everyone else who reads this blog!

Why doesn't High Meadows have a high school? I've been asked this many times since becoming head of school in 2010.

It's a fair question. Our PS-8 program is so effective; what's keeping us from extending our model into 9-12? It certainly would reduce some of the worry we as parents feel about the scary transition from HMS to high school. And there is no school quite like High Meadows in this region. For students who have thrived at High Meadows, many parents feel they need to travel well inside the perimeter to find a complementary high school program. Assuming there is an adequate market, it is very tempting to create a bold new high school in North Fulton/East Cobb that is steeped in the guiding principles that make High Meadows so unique.

Over the course of our 40-year history, the board of trustees has considered the idea of an HMS high school many times. At the last extensive study in 2000, the task force concluded that our 40-acre campus should focus on the PS-8 experience that has made us so special. If we were to add a high school, it should be on another campus. Of course, that means money--and lots of it. A new campus with even the most austere facilities would cost us tens of millions. And that is before the start-up costs of hiring administrators, teachers, materials, etc. The conclusion of the study was that we should continue placing resources into being the best PS-8 school we could be. If in the future we were able to secure adequate funding, we should revisit the idea seriously.

Thirteen years later, the question still lingers (as questions tend to do until they are answered definitively). So I have done some thinking about it and have engaged others in the conversation. Based on my research about other schools who have successfully grown beyond eighth grade, sustainable, mission-appropriate enrollment is the key issue beyond start up costs. The first several years are tough. The school's devout families may be willing to take the risk of going into an untested program. But not all do, and those who are not yet familiar with the school are hard to convince. For most independent school families at the high school level, the ultimate goal is getting into a good college. Enrolling a high-achieving student in a school without an impressive, long-standing track record is too much of a risk for many to bear.

So let's imagine that an angelic philanthropist were to give us, say, $50 million for the purpose of starting a high school. That should be enough to purchase a multi-acre campus, build adequate facilities, and hire a crop of outstanding teachers and administrators. Let's imagine that enrollment booms right out of the gate, and the prospect of sustaining that trend is outstanding. What else would we need to consider before taking the plunge? Would there be a "resource" drain on the PS-8 program? Would board and administrative attention be trained so heavily on the high school to the detriment of the elementary program? Would funding be redirected from the elementary program to bolster the high school program? Would the culture of the school make a fundamental shift as a result of all of the above? The likely answers to these questions, based on my conversations with heads who have been through it, are yes.

I suppose it sounds as if I am an opponent of adding a high school to High Meadows. Actually, the prospect excites me from many angles. It would be incredibly inspiring to create a high school that does what we do so well at the PS-8 level: inquire deeply, challenge assumptions, favor the experiential over the traditional, engage meaningfully with the environment and the world. No other place in the region--or the nation, for that matter--would be anything like it. If we had the opportunity to create a high school without mortgaging the future of our precious PS-8 program, I would be a loud advocate for us to at least explore the possibilities with visionary and critical eyes.

So let's keep asking the question. And if you know someone with $50 million to spare, please direct them to me ASAP.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Guest Blogger Grace Shickler on Nelson Mandela's Legacy

Below is a letter written to our faculty and staff by Early Years Director Grace Shickler. It’s a powerful personal meditation on Nelson Mandela’s legacy and South Africa’s ongoing struggles.

Dear Friends,

I can’t put into the words the way I felt when I heard the radio announcer gently say that Nelson Mandela had passed away yesterday. I was on my way here to our High Meadows “Evening to Inform” event and yet I was sobbing all my makeup off in the car! My heart broke in two knowing that the South African people truly feel that Mandela is their father and grandfather and the savior of all that is right in the universe they live in. Although Apartheid has ended, the disparity between whites and blacks, the poverty and conditions that thousands still live with and the fighting with governmental policies still exists.

On our family’s trip to South Africa this past summer, Scott, Jaxson, Hayden and I ventured into one of the “districts” to pick up a student we knew. Beauty was a child to whom we were able to offer a scholarship a few years ago for the experience Scott offers every summer (The Ultimate Life Summit). When I met Beauty that year in Orlando, I heard people say that she lived in a place with no electricity. She was somewhat overwhelmed by just the hotel where the conference was--let alone Disney World! Little did I really realize what that really meant.

Driving into Beauty’s district this past June, the first thing I noticed was that something was missing: The electric wires that hang over other districts where people do have a bit of electricity. I then noticed that there was a three-sided concrete shelter for a toilet: One for the whole street to share. The “homes” were created from corrugated tin sheets, cardboard, plywood and other dirt-cheap materials. Around each little abode was a “yard,” many fenced in and guarded by a hungry dog to protect what little each family has. Yet Beauty and her family, living in a space smaller than one of our classrooms, are able to sustain a family where the kids go to school, take their meals together and keep everything clean and tidy. Without washing machines, running water or an indoor cooking apparatus. We brought Beauty’s mom a month’s worth of groceries, yet the shopping trip was similar to my weekly stop at Publix. I think you get the picture.

I am saddened that my own college and young adult years were devoid of connection to Mandela’s struggles and the end of Apartheid. They were news items I did not investigate more deeply. But I am trying to make up for that now. I urge you to absorb and learn about this amazing country and world leader. I hope our older children will have the opportunity to discuss Mandela’s gift to this world, to the people of South Africa and to human rights everywhere. His peaceful suffering (don’t get me started on our tour visit to Robben Island Prison!) will blow you away if you read Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom. He somehow managed to survive and become the light of their world. Of the whole world.

It is a very sad time in South Africa. Send your compassion and prayers if you can.