Independent schools’ association in Washington, DC

| March 8, 2012 | 0 Comments

Meeting 21st century challenges.

By Mary Worch

On a cold February evening in 1942, Paul Landon Benfield, the founder of Landon School, convened a meeting to ascertain whether there was a need for an association of Heads of private schools in Washington DC, the capital of the USA.

The ensuing vigorous discussion laid the groundwork for our Independent Education (IE) association, launched nine years later. It started with 24 schools; 11 of those schools remain open for business today.

Similar challenges, but a significantly changed climate

Currently, our thriving association comprises 85 institutions, most within a 35-mile radius. IE advances the collective interests of member schools in the capital region by promoting high professional standards and exemplary practices, encouraging cooperative endeavours, enhancing member schools’ standing in the community, and safeguarding their independence. While the initial discussion in 1942 centred on the issues of the time, those were not too far from our 21st century concerns.

But even as many of the challenges remain the same today, the education climate in the nation’s capital has also changed in significant ways. In particular, there are more alternatives to an independent education than ever before. Whereas parents once faced the choice between their local public school and an independent school, they now have the option of enrolling their children in a charter school, a for-profit school, or homeschooling online. At present, none of these alternatives pose a serious challenge to most of IE’s member schools. Nonetheless, the increase in the number of children served by these alternatives does suggest that they may well have a future impact. Therefore, we are evaluating the appropriate relationship our association can and should have with these schools.

Association responding to member requests

Just as our schools face challenges in these uncertain times, so does our association. We are responding to these in a number of ways that continue to improve our value proposition and ensure our viability. We have forged partnerships with companies and organisations that offer goods and services that align with the missions of our schools. These relationships provide benefits to our members and to the partnering organisation. In addition, we have formed other affiliations with businesses with the goal of providing cost containment for our schools. We have joined and made available to our members a national purchasing consortium which includes over 300 notable vendors that offer discounts based on US$17 billion in annual purchases. We also provide inroads to a self-funded health benefits plan and risk management insurance plans. Both programmes leverage the size of our membership to negotiate attractive premiums and services.

Responding to our members’ needs for more in-depth, local and cost-effective training for school administrators, we have implemented conferences for beginner teachers, Diversity Coordinators and Learning Specialists. We are also currently planning an institute for emerging leaders, along with Admission and Development Directors.

In addition, we have enhanced our website to be more interactive, user-friendly and informational to families seeking an independent education and to others seeking information about our schools. We utilise the website as a marketing tool to tell the stories of our schools and to provide a direct link to each school. We have also revamped our career centre to include résumé posting as a way of attracting high-quality applicants to our site.

Thinking differently about how to do business

The uncertain economic outlook, both in the USA and globally, is forcing IE member schools to think differently about how to do business. Yet our schools are rising to the occasion! Instead of solely relying on tuition and fund raising, independent schools are now considering alternative sources of revenue.

In particular, there are four trends that I have seen in DCarea independent schools: an increased effort to facilitate board/administration collaboration (especially in addressing issues of financial sustainability), a desire to become more environmentally responsible (and to integrate environmental concerns into the curriculum), a focus on developing a more global curriculum, and an effort to use technology as an aid for delivering instruction and as part of the curriculum itself.

For the current school year, the median high school tuition at an IE member school is now above US$29 000 (with median middle school tuitions running a few thousand less and median elementary school tuition somewhere between US$22 000 and US$24 000). Thus, boards of Trustees are considering how schools can contain costs, while still attracting and retaining quality faculty and staff and continuing to offer an outstanding education. Schools need the expertise and talents of their board members in developing strategies to augment their income, but in so doing, schools risk breaking down the old paradigm of board members serving in primarily an advisory capacity. A fruitful partnership between board committees and the administration can yield lasting benefits.

School boards charged with more responsibility

The Barnesville School has found success in charging its Audit Committee with responsibilities that go beyond the annual review of the financial audit. The school administration has shaped the committee into a risk management group that can provide professional expertise and reasoned recommendations with regard to how best to protect the institution.

Some schools are also utilising their board members as effective advocates on behalf of the school. Even though Washington, DC and its environs employ strict zoning regulations that can make school expansion difficult, The Woods Academy board was able to work with the local county planning board to increase the school’s student capacity. And when neighbours complained about issues resulting from the increase in students (such as more traffic), the board was instrumental in placating those concerns.

Environmental responsibility a new way of life

Schools across the region are thinking of ways to become more environmentally responsible and to involve their students in the process. Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS) is carefully using its expansive acreage by partnering with Challenge Course Adventure Park to develop the largest aerial forest park in North America. This partnership fulfils a financial need while adding an additional benefit for SSFS students.

The Potomac School recently had a team of students collaborate with students from the University of Maryland to create their ‘Watershed’ sustainable home for the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2011. The team’s first-place entry demonstrates a method of simultaneously building sustainable housing and conserving the watershed ecosystem. The home harvests, recycles and reuses water.

Even at the elementary school level, IE member schools are actively engaging students in the process of becoming more eco-friendly. Concord Hill School’s second grade Science club was featured in The Washington Post for its winning entry in the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge. Team ‘Concord Hill Greenies’, comprising 13 second grade students with mentor teachers, improved their carpool line, which the students determined was a serious source of air pollution due the amount of time cars spent idling while waiting in line for pick-up. The team found a feasible solution to the problem by employing staggered arrival times (by last name) over 20 minutes so that one group would arrive at 3:00pm, the next car 3:05pm, and so on. The average car now waits a minute or less in line.

Technology harnessed in creative ways

Independent schools in the DC area are using technology in ways which go beyond traditional course work. Sidwell Friends School, for instance, has launched the Global Online Academy in partnership with nine other independent schools in the USA and abroad. The Academy, which aims to translate the rigorous courses offered at the founding schools into the online realm, rolled out its first five courses this last fall. The 18-student classes will supplement traditional classes and will be led by teachers from participating schools.

Similarly, in 2009, Holton-Arms School (HAS) took the lead in creating the Online School for Girls in collaboration with other girls’ schools from around the country. Based on research that girls learn best through technology and through interconnection with others, students’ online course work is built on social media platforms that enable students to share ideas and insights with one another and with their instructor. At HAS there is also a strong commitment to STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) – fields that have traditionally attracted fewer female students. As the school has grown, it has included a consortium network of girls’ schools and developed coursework that includes Advanced Placement (AP) and Fine Arts classes. The school has also begun introducing professional development courses for teachers and, in 2011, was given full accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, an organisation that accredits many well-respected brick-andmortar institutions.

More IE member schools are adopting a blended learning model, which emphasises technology as a central part of the “Almost all our member schools have invested the financial and human resources to ensure that their schools provide their students the best possible education.” Independent Education • Autumn 12 23 curriculum, rather than as a mere support for teacher-led instruction. Because students are able to work online, projects and class work may take place at any time. Classroom activities can also be structured around access to online resources, communication via social media, or interaction with distance learners in various classrooms or optional learning environments. Bullis School is just one school using this model. The school has gained attention for its ‘flipped’ AP Calculus classroom, where the students use technology to study class lectures at home via iTunes, and then do ‘homework’ problems in class. The model also provides teachers and students the opportunity for more one-to-one interaction. Anecdotally, teachers report that the changes have led to less stress and better test scores.

St Stephens & St Agnes School’s lower school students are engaged in the Web 2.0 version of Pen Pal, conversing with students in Morocco via Skype and blogging alongside their international counterparts.

Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart has focused heavily on creating an environment where integrated technology plays a key role in every student’s experience. The school has already initiated a One-to- One Laptop Programme in the upper school and has introduced it in the lower school. New hardware and software had been purchased to create new technologies with cloud-based performance. Key to this impetus, as a Roman Catholic school, Stone Ridge is incorporating its philosophy of shaping inquisitive, creative, ethical and dimensional lifelong learners.

Commonwealth Academy, dedicated to students with learning differences and attention deficit problems, has successfully utilised a master notebook system. The environment is paperless, and the use of Google Docs allows students and teachers to load and store current papers, homework and assignments so that they are available to students anytime, anywhere.

2011 conference highlighted the need for global connections

Of course, learning to utilise technology and to become more environmentally savvy are only two skills that students will need in an increasingly complex and global world. Last year, our annual conference for Heads of schools was dedicated to the topic ‘Education without borders: advancing global initiatives in independent schools’. Various speakers attested to the importance of making sure our students are prepared to solve the problems they will face.

The conference highlighted the Washington International School’s Student News Action Network, created in collaboration with TakingItGlobal. This network takes the concept of the school newspaper beyond the school walls and allows for students to participate in an interactive, multimediarich online newscast covering both local and global issues. The goal of the project is to allow students to learn about global problems so that they can make an impact on their world.

The conference also included a panel discussion on the importance of human connections in a global context. Anne Baker, Vice President of the National Peace Corps Association, encouraged schools to think about ways to get their students excited about the prospect of global service. One of our member schools, Loudoun Country Day School (LCDS), is proud that three of its alumni have dedicated their careers to service in the wider world. One former student works in Africa to make a difference among orphans with HIV/Aids; another is a Rhodes Scholar studying for his PhD in economics, which he hopes to use as a tool for encouraging environmentally responsible development; and a third taught literature in north-western China as part of the Peace Corps. By bringing their experiences back to students at LCDS, these alumni hope to encourage current students to pursue a similar path.

In addition, a few schools IE member schools are uniquely dedicated to educating students globally. The German School, for instance, requires students to gain competency in multiple modern languages. The school also emphasises Maths and Science skills in middle school so that by high school, students are prepared to begin applying their academic studies to realworld problems through weekly, hour-long seminars with German, American and other international presenters, covering topics such as DNA research, entrepreneurship, architecture and diplomacy. Students also have the opportunity to participate in a small business project competition before an international board of adjudicators.

Meeting all stakeholders’ needs

Almost all our member schools have invested the financial and human resources to ensure that their schools provide their students the best possible education. More than ever our schools are truly meeting the needs of society, while keeping and enhancing both mission and purpose.

Category: Autumn 2012, Featured Articles

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