Tom Toch, The Independent School Community
The Parents Council of Washington held its Fall Representatives Roundtable on November 4, 2010 and featured Tom Toch, the Executive Director of Independent Education, as the guest speaker. Independent Education, which was formerly AISGW, is an organization representing 86 member independent schools in the Washington, DC area. The organization has recently launched a new website www.independenteducation.org, which will provide enhanced functionality and allow families to search for specific member schools using a variety of school criteria.
November 4, 2010
Parents Council of Washington Executive Board Member, Molly LaRochelle, welcomed the members and guests to the PCW Fall Representatives Roundtable. She highlighted the two events that the PCW has hosted this school year – the Orientation, with Michelle Kreibel as the guest speaker, and the Fall Speaker Program, with Dr. William Stixrud as the featured speaker. Ms. LaRochelle discussed the recent updates to the PCW website (www.parentscouncil.org) and the new Webinars that the PCW is sponsoring on a variety of topics including alcohol and drug use and learning and study skills. She noted that these webinars are archived on the PCW website and that they are conducive to hosting a webinar meeting at individual schools. Ms. LaRochelle then introduced Susanna Jones, the Head of the Holton-Arms School. After welcoming all of the Roundtable participants, Susanna Jones, introduced our keynote speaker, Mr. Tom Toch, the Executive Director of Independent Education, which was formerly AISGW.
Tom Toch is the Executive Director of Independent Education, an organization serving the needs of independent schools in the Washington, DC area, which was formerly called AISGW – The Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington. He was Co-Founder of “Education Sector” and “Education Week,” both are leading publications in the field of education. In addition, he has taught at Harvard’s School of Education and has been a fellow at The Brookings Institution. He has published two books: “High Schools on a Human Scale” and “In the Name of Excellence.”
Mr. Toch described the decision to change the name of the organization from AISGW to Independent Education as a means by which to reach a broader audience outside of the local independent school community. They wanted a shorter and clearer name that would also not lend itself to using an acronym. Their new website (www.independenteducation.org) will provide enhanced functionality and will allow families to search for specific member schools using a variety of school criteria, such as size, grades from nursery school to grade 12, coed vs. non-coed, etc. Families will be able to readily search for independent schools based on their preferred categories.
Independent Education was founded in 1951 and serves 86 member schools that together educate more than 36,000 children in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. With more than 8,000 employees, these schools represent many different approaches to education, including Montessori schools, Waldorf schools and single sex schools. Although it is sometimes assumed that independent schools in the Washington, D.C. area serve only a rather elite and affluent community; that is not correct. Independent Education includes member schools that focus on disadvantaged students, students with learning disabilities and students from all demographic segments. In fact, Independent Education champions the diversity of all of the schools that it serves. Mr. Toch commented that there is a higher concentration of different types of schools in the Washington, D.C. area than almost anywhere else in the nation. The November issue of the Washingtonian magazine profiles a number of schools that are not as well known, but that are indicative of the types of interesting, innovative schools that are located throughout the Washington, D.C. region.
Independent Education’s website also provides valuable resources for college graduates who are seeking entry-level teaching positions. In order to attract some of the talented graduates who are not accepted into the Teach for America program every year, the Independent Education website provides a network for those candidates to contact member schools that are actively recruiting for teaching positions. Independent Education also hires some of these outstanding graduates for opportunities within the organization. In addition, Independent Education posts available employment opportunities for all of its member schools.
Another important initiative sponsored by Independent Education is programming for professional development and networking opportunities for the area schools’ teachers and staff members. Mr. Toch and his staff have hosted a number of programs on topics such as cyber bullying, concussions, and identifying and addressing learning differences and disabilities. Recently, they presented a lecture by one of the leading experts on eating disorders.
Independent Education is also attempting to assist its member schools by offering recommendations on how to operate their schools more cost efficiently. Regardless of size, each school can benefit from Independent Education’s negotiated purchasing contracts and other consortium agreements and corporate partnerships. For example, they have organized insurance pools as a means of helping their member schools reduce their personnel related expenses.
It is important to note that Independent Education is not an accreditation organization. It is a secondary membership organization that provides professional development, networking opportunities, and is a recognized leader in the independent school community. In order to be a member of Independent Education, a school must be non-profit, primarily privately funded, have an independent Board of Trustees, and be non-discriminatory. In addition, half of the schools that belong to Independent Education are faith-based schools. The average annual tuition at schools belonging to Independent Education is $18,000 to $20,000.
Mr. Toch offered his insights on the state of independent education in both the Washington, D.C. area and on a national basis. During the 2009-2010 school year, enrollment in independent schools in Washington, D.C. declined by 1.8%. This current school year it is down by another 1%. Immigration is the largest driver of what is occurring in education today. The anticipated school age population would be eight million fewer students in 2050 than it is today if it were not for the direct impact of immigration. The demographic landscape is also changing in our school population. Latinos today account for 20% of the school age children, but in 2050 it is forecasted that Latinos will account for as much as 35% of that population. These predicted changes in our demographic profile will directly impact our schools in the future. In the Washington, D.C. area, one half of the school age population is considered to speak English poorly. The overall school age population is becoming increasingly diverse and less facile with the English language. In addition, the emergence of the charter school movement in the last decade is providing increased competition for independent schools. The Washington, D.C. area has one of the highest concentrations of charter schools in the country. The overall quality of these charter schools varies tremendously. Since they are often entrepreneurial enterprises, some of them are regarded as less effective, while others are considered extraordinarily innovative. In Mr. Toch’s opinion, some of the best charter schools are the ones that have been organized by former independent school students and teachers. Independent Education is working diligently to build bridges to these schools.
Another significant challenge facing our independent school community in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area is the need to reconcile the rising costs of operating budgets with increases in school tuitions. Mr. Toch noted that since 1985, the average cost of an independent school education has increased 150% beyond the rate of inflation. During the same time frame, the average inflation adjusted family income has increased by only 20%. This illustrates a major dilemma for school administrators, since this represents a 130% gap in the ability of families to pay for private education versus the amount that schools are charging for tuition. According to Tom Toch, today only 3% of families can afford an independent school education, yet ten years ago this figure was 6%. He estimates that within four years, the most expensive independent schools will cost $40,000 in tuition per year. As a result, the financial aid budgets of independent schools have increased by necessity. Only 85% of current students in independent schools are paying full tuition.
The increasing diversity of the student population poses a unique challenge for independent schools, because in many cases they lack the systems needed to reach into these immigrant communities. Tom Toch recently travelled to China with a group of independent school administrators in an effort to recruit students from these new emerging economies where families have both the resources and the desire to attend our schools. In addition, schools are using independent organizations such as the Latino Student Fund to create dossiers for their students. This is an attempt to bridge the language and cultural barriers that exist between independent schools and many of these immigrant communities.
Mr. Toch discussed the impact of the higher cost of independent school education, and the increasing demands on schools that have in some cases caused them to become less productive. In response to parents’ demands for higher quality education and additional services, schools have hired specialists and expanded their curriculum and extracurricular activities. As a result, it costs more now than ever before to produce a graduate. However, despite the demand for lower student teacher ratios in our independent schools, there is no evidence that students learn better in a class of 10 students as opposed to 20 students. Parents are often asking schools to provide enhanced programs and activities that were not previously offered, ranging from additional foreign languages to a host of various athletic teams. Each of these additions to the curriculum and extracurricular activities necessitates additional staff and resources. In summary, our independent school community has become more sophisticated about education, which has made it increasingly expensive. Many administrators and Boards of Trustees must face the inevitable question as to whether or not these additional services are sustainable, and even whether or not they are in fact needed. In an effort to reduce operating costs, a number of schools, including Holton-Arms and Bullis, are initiating on-line educational programs in order to make their schools more efficient. In Mr. Toch’s opinion, this is the trend of the future. It is imperative that independent schools become more focused on the cost and benefit analysis of their proposed program additions in order to support their allocation of tuition dollars and other available funds. School endowments can not be the sole answer, as there are limits to the ability of donors to financially support these independent schools. Mr. Toch concluded his remarks by recommending that all parties, including administrators, trustees, teachers and staff, as well as parents, must work together to address the underlying economic fundamentals facing our independent schools as we look to the future.
On behalf of the Parents Council of Washington and all of the participants at the Fall Roundtable, Molly LaRochelle thanked Tom Toch for his insightful presentation. The Roundtable then continued with an open forum discussion on the topics of Bullying and Balancing Technology: How to Unplug Your Kids. The morning event then concluded with three break-out sessions, one each for Lower School, Middle School and Upper School. Here are summaries of these important discussions.
Molly LaRochelle began the large group discussion by reading a definition of bullying. According to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, developed by Dan Olweus, (considered the father of research on bullies and their victims):
“A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.” Bullying includes three important components:
1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.
Bullying can take on many forms:
1. Verbal Bullying, including derogatory comments and bad names.
2. Bullying through social exclusion or isolation.
3. Physical bullying such as hitting, kicking, shoving and spitting.
4. Bullying through lies and false rumors.
5. Having money or other things taken or damaged by students who bully.
6. Being threatened or being forced to do things by students who bully.
7. Racial bullying.
8. Sexual bullying.
9. Cyber bullying (via cellphone or Internet).
The Green Hedges School has started a character education program which involves meetings led by students. The question is posed, “If you see someone being bullied, what should you do?” Since bullying usually occurs when adults are not present, we need to provide our children strategies for dealing with it on their own. If you identify and resolve these incidences in the lower grades and teach these children that this is not acceptable behavior under any circumstances, hopefully it will decrease in the upper grades. Holton-Arms also has a program similar to that of Green Hedges in the Lower School.
The question was posed whether there is more bullying now than there was 30 years ago. The level of political discourse involves much more open conflict now and television programs seem to also reflect that level of conflict. Even if bullying always existed, with the advent of the internet, the consequences of bullying today can be much greater. Hence it is imperative to teach our children not to bully both in the schools and at home. Parents also need to learn to talk to one another about these issues rather than putting the responsibility for this entirely on the schools. Part of the difficulty for parents, however, is knowing when it occurs. When the school handles bullying issues, it is most often done privately and not open to the entire parent community.
Balancing Technology: How to Unplug Your Kids
One of the sources of bullying is exposure to violence through television, movies, the media and the internet. It is important for parents to set parameters on what children can watch and how much time they spend on various technological devices. There are a number of websites that can be very informative in this regard. Common Sense Media has a wonderful website with movie ratings and other information for parents. Similarly, www.kidsinmind.com also provides very useful movie ratings. Parents need to act as positive role models and when needed “put their blackberrys down.” One participant recommended that parents need to be willing to make the hard decisions and stand your ground as a parent. In addition, help your children find something they are passionate about, an activity that focuses their time and attention in a positive direction.
High School Breakout Session
The Bullis School has recently implemented a new policy on alcohol and drug use. When the school receives information about the first infraction by a student, even if it occurs off-campus, the student must attend the six week program on alcohol abuse at Suburban Hospital. If there is a second infraction, the student is expelled.
A number of area schools have instituted drug testing at their schools. The Breakout Session participants discussed whether or not there is a right to privacy and whether parents need to sign some form of authorization permitting the school to administer drug testing on their child. The consensus of opinion was that schools do have the right to conduct drug testing without parental consent.
There was also a discussion of whether schools should require parents to sign a Safe Home Pledge. This pledge states that the parent(s) will not provide alcohol in their homes or elsewhere to students. The Bullis School has implemented such a pledge.
Finally, there was a discussion of how to encourage students to talk to their school counselor. Often children feel that speaking with the counselor has a stigma attached to it. It is important for the counselor to be “out there” with the kids instead of closeted in their office. It was also suggested that it is helpful if the counselor is perceived as a “cool” person, someone with whom the students can relate and feel comfortable speaking to about sensitive issues.
Middle School Breakout Session
The participants discussed the issue of allowing middle school students to have access to cell phones during the school day. Many schools provide telephones in the school that are available for the students to use “no questions asked.” This helps parents to not feel the pressure to give their middle school students cell phones. One school collects all cell phones at the beginning of the day, stores them with the Middle School Head, and then allows the students to pick up their cell phones at the end of the school day.
Parent Networking meetings are an excellent way to speak with other parents and learn helpful parenting ideas from them. However, often the parents of the students who have the cell phones and Facebook accounts are the parents who are not attending these meetings. The question was asked, “How do you get these parents more involved?” It was recommended that a personal phone call to “invite” them to join the group might be an effective tool. It is important to try to reach out to all parents to foster open communications on these important issues.
One of the participants noted “that technology is not going away, so parents need to be able to set limits.” Many schools have an “acceptable use” policy that students and even parents must sign. Most address the use of technology in and out of school.
One parent in the Middle School Breakout Session shared her experience with her son’s addiction to video games. There are now “video game rehabilitation” programs. She advised that video games can be as addictive as a drug. Children need more unstructured time; time to go and play outdoors.
Lastly, when students begin to go out and attend parties and other social events, it is a good idea to have a “secret code,” a word or question that signals to a parent that their child is uncomfortable and wants to be picked up and brought home. This makes it easier for the child to call home and not be embarrassed in front of their peers.
Lower School Breakout Session
The participants in the Lower School Breakout Session first discussed how their schools deal with students and the use of various electronic devices on the school campus. Most of the schools represented said that all phones must be turned off during the school day. Students are often told that there is a telephone available in the school office if they need to make an urgent call. The use of IPODs is permitted on school busses, but talking on cell phones is not allowed.
The second topic of discussion focused on the established guidelines for class parties in various schools. Parents expressed concern because they felt that there often is an inequity between classes, with some having extravagant parties while others having the simpler fare of juice boxes and cookies. At some schools, the Room Parents are in charge of these class events and there are no guidelines. One PCW Representative said that at her school they organize class parties by grade level to eliminate these inequities. Another parent said that her child’s classroom teacher provides rules for class parties, while another stated that at her school policies for class parties come through the Parents Association.
A third subject of interest to many participants was the nutritional value of lunches provided for students by the school. One school has a “no seconds” rule on food unless it is for servings of fruits or vegetables. Another school provides an unlimited salad bar for its students. The Food Service Manager at a member school offers both organic foods and whole grain options. Everyone agreed that good nutrition and moderation should be taught and modeled at home.
The final topic of discussion was the acceptable amount of homework that can be assigned on a daily basis for lower school students. All of the participants felt that the recommended amount of homework was dependent upon the grade level of the individual student. The consensus was 15 to 20 minutes for grades K through first, which can be increased to one hour or slightly more for grades two through five. All felt that homework should be given for review and reinforcement purposes and that elementary school students should not be given so much homework that it requires them to work late into the evening and reduce sleep time.
Molly LaRochelle and the Parents Council of Washington Board members thanked all of the participants for attending the Fall Representatives Roundtable and look forward to welcoming them at future PCW events.