August 8, 2011
Dear St. Gregory Families:
Welcome to the 2011-12 school year: St. Gregory’s 32nd year.
This is what I call my annual “too-long” letter. I know it is too long, and everyone always tells me it is too long, and yet here it is, too long once again.
We are very happy to have confirmed enrollment of 301 students for the coming year as of today, which represents a 5% growth over last year and an 8% growth over two years ago. This year’s growth is the largest in the past ten years, and it is the first time in more than ten years that the school has experienced two successive years of enrollment growth. One contributing factor to this growth is our strong re-enrollment rate, which has also been much higher than in recent previous years. To all of you who are new, I want to extend a very special warm welcome, and please know we are very grateful you are here and that we will work hard so to ensure you will want to keep coming back each year.
Four new students will be Chinese students, (compared to two last year), and we are very happy to be welcoming them. I had the good fortune to visit China in June, (on a trip paid for by an international student recruiting agency), representing our school. While there, I interviewed nearly forty students, and I can tell you from first-hand experience we have been very careful in our admissions selection process to admit only highly qualified students who will contribute to the quality of our school and student community. In what we all realize is an increasingly interconnected world, I think it is excellent that our American students have more opportunities to meet, get to know, and build strong and perhaps life-long relationships with students from China and elsewhere.
My gratitude goes to the St. Gregory families who are hosting one of these fine students: the Baranowski, Escobosa, Faircloth, and the Martins, as we are the happy hosts of Ewan, a new 10th grader from a province near Shanghai.
We are also very pleased to be welcoming seven new members of our faculty and administration: two teachers in the Upper School, Lydia Noriega and John Willy, Ph.D., two in the Middle School, Will Hodges and Claudia Steninger, and a new Librarian, Laura Lee Calverley, Athletic Director, Vic Acuna, and School Counselor, Kim Peace-Steimer MSW. Every year, when we need to appoint new faculty members, we intentionally seek out a mix of veteran and newer teachers to join our team. Regarding our faculty appointments, we are pleased that there is a net gain of more than forty years in experience, with two of our new teachers having more than 25 years’ experience. It is great to have less experienced teachers in the mix: they bring great energy and initiative, and their teaching is that much more likely to be shaped by our particular school’s culture and expectations, which we think is a very good thing.
I am very pleased too that we were able to restore the counselor position to what will be 60% time, 24 hours a week, nearly five hours each and every day of the week. I know this was a strong wish and request from many parents last year, and we will look too to see if we can carry the position back to 100% in the future. I believe you will be very delighted with our new Counselor, Kim Peace-Steimer, MSW; she has worked in social services and counseling in various capacities for more than ten years, and she is the mother of five children. Parents should look forward to hearing more about and from Ms. Peace-Steimer and the work she will be doing to support our students and families.
The diversity of our faculty and administration, particularly but not exclusively racial and ethnic diversity, is also critically important to our school’s strength and ability to serve effectively our increasingly diverse region. Diversity of faculty and staff was one of the major recommendations made to us in our 2004 ISAS accreditation, and as those familiar with accreditation understand, we are under some significant pressure to demonstrate progress upon each of the major recommendations before seeking re-accreditation in 2013. So it is rewarding to see that we have increased the number of professionals (faculty, administrators, counselors) of color from only one in the preceding years to five in the new school year.
I want to thank the teachers, administrators, and students who participated in our seven searches this spring and summer. Each search is conducted with close collaboration between the academic department chair and the division administrator, and every candidate meets with teachers from the department (in the Upper School) or the division (in the Middle School). For each appointment we made we had a minimum of three on-site interviews and in most cases demonstration lessons, and in some cases five or more; we appreciate the students who helped us with this, and gave us thoughtful and useful feedback after each demonstration
St. Gregory has an extraordinary faculty, one which everyone I speak to tells me they think is the finest in Southern Arizona, and we all work hard to not just to maintain its excellence but to carry it upwards. Our teachers deserve all the support we can give them, and I can assure you it is in everyone’s interest: the more St. Gregory is known throughout our community as the place where teachers are best supported, the more we will continue to be able to recruit the “best of the best” in our region.
This is true financially, too: our salaries are not much different from public school teacher salaries, and certainly the conditions are very attractive in comparison, but we must continue to strive to enhance our compensations support, in salaries, particularly at the upper ends of the experience ladder, and in benefits. Parental support for this initiative in helping us grow the school and in fundraising support is essential. Very few of our annual expenses are very discretionary; most are quite fixed, other than how much more we can do for our teachers each year, and so a very large proportion of funds we raise go directly to better support our teachers.
This summer we have done some important work to improve our facilities. Most prominently, and it is very visible in some locations on campus, is our solar panel installation. Working with three Tucson companies, including TEP and Solar H2O, we are adding more than 600 panels on six of our buildings, which should collect energy equivalent to between a quarter and a third of our gross electrical usage. By the term
s of the contract, St. Gregory incurs no cost whatsoever in the installation, and we yield a savings of about $1000 a month. We took extra efforts and extended negotiations to ensure that this was an all Tucson-made project; the panels themselves, rather than being imported from China as was the original plan, are built right here in our own city. Our teachers are enthusiastic about the many opportunities presenting themselves to incorporate learning about solar energy into the curriculum that this installation provides. You may have already seen the Arizona Public Media Arizona Illustrated five minute report by the well known local reporter Luis Carrion about this, but if not please click on the youtube channel of our St. Gregory homepage or my blog to find the video and check it out.
Three other campus improvements are underway.
- The quarter century-old and inefficient air conditioning atop El Mirador pavilion (the gym) is being replaced with a high efficient combination AC and evaporative cooler unit. This fall our math students will calculate the energy efficiency and financial savings in this project and when we have that number we will share it.
- As I write a crew is busy digging a trench from Craycroft to our administrative buildings for a new top-notch fiber optic cable to vastly enlarge the internet bandwidth we can bring on campus. The expense of this, folded into a restructured phone contract, will be only a few hundred dollars a month, but it will provide us much better use of internet programs in our classrooms. One prime example: it has been hard for us to use online interactive (and highly economically efficient) textbooks in classrooms because we have encountered problematic slowdowns when every student in class is on the textbook site at the same time. Now, that will be resolved, and we are swiftly moving to use more online textbook programs. In the case of a 7th grade history book, for instance, the online version costs parents $16, compared to $67-87 for the book edition.
- We also had recently a large, 30’ by 48’, greenhouse delivered to campus; it is folded up in a container now, but we expect it to be built in the coming few months back behind the middle school. The greenhouse is owned by, and will be managed by the Community Gardens of Tucson (CGT), and CGT will absorb nearly all of the expense, but St. Gregory students and teachers will have the use of half the facility, and already our science teachers are excited about the possibilities for experimentation and study this new large greenhouse will provide.
After two years in which we launched a large number of new teaching and learning programs and initiatives, this year we are choosing to concentrate on enhancing those programs already underway.
Last year I explained our initiatives could be conceptually divided into the metaphorical categories of roots and wings, and I want to expand that metaphor further here. “Roots” represent the way we are digging in to our foundations, forming stronger connections to each other and drawing upon our longstanding tradition of academic excellence. Key to enhancing our roots is enhancing the relationships among students and between students and faculty members, which our new advisory program, now going into its second year, is designed to do. In this program, which received strong support last spring in a survey we conducted, students form relationships with others and a teacher which continue through their three years in the middle school, and four in the upper, and spend two twenty minute sessions each week engaged in group activities. Advisory time is also a way for us to affirm and uplift our longstanding commitment to character education, as teacher-advisers often reflect with students about choices they are making, discuss our expectations for their conduct, and consider how they can better contribute responsibly to improving our school community.
Scholarship stands alongside character in having deep roots at St. Greg’s, and in the coming year we will be carrying forward important initiatives in scholarship. In the middle school this will be our second year administering a new kind of testing, computer adaptive assessment, which gives our teachers more timely and detailed insight into our student learning in core subjects, and more opportunity to differentiate in instruction and review the strengths of our curriculum. This MAP testing will expand this year into the 8th grade, and also into the science curriculum.
We also will continue to use an important new testing tool in the upper school, the College Work Readiness Assessment, to assess how well our students are doing in acquiring the critical thinking skills we have long been committed to teaching as part of our mission to instill scholarship. Several of our academic departments, particularly English and History, are undertaking curriculum changes such that our students will have more choice in what they take each semester, and the new course offerings will be structured to provide greater depth over breadth and greater inquiry, analysis, and argumentation.
Those are our roots; our wings are the way we are pushing upwards, outwards, and forward. We will continue to work with our students at every grade level to set goals, self-assess, and collect and receive feedback from their teachers about their growth in a set of skills we call the “essential goals” for St. Gregory students. This list, the so-called “EGG,” is drawn from a set of lists of skills that many educational experts have identified as being essential to change in our fast-changing times. We also are continuing our initiative in 1:1 laptops for every student, learning from our first year experiences last year and working to improve each semester we use them for advancing student learning.
Character and Scholarship are the first two of our four mission core values; Leadership and Innovation the second two. This past week ten of us from the faculty and administration met for a two day retreat on Mt. Lemmon, thanks to a generous St. Gregory family, to plan our year advancing LI learning. One step: the days our students spend on the ropes courses, formerly named “experiential education,” will be renamed Leadership and Innovation Learning (LIL), and we will conduct a thorough review of the curricular elements in these programs to ensure these workshops are aligned with our mission. We will also continue to support and advance robotics, technological learning, and project-based learning opportunities and programs at every grade level. You can read more about the work, goals, and plans from that retreat by viewing slides 9-24 on my blog post slide show, “Thinking Forward with Character, Scholarship, Leadership and Innovation.”
St. Gregory has long welcomed students to have wide latitude in the clothes they choose to wear to school, and we know that many students and families appreciate this greatly. Without wanting to change this, we do want to ensure our learning environment is marked by seriousness of purpose about learning, and the clothing students wear contributes to shaping this environment. Hence, the administration has decided, after meeting with student council leaders last May, to raise the standards of the dress code in a small way, and we ask students and families to support this change and help contribute to an appropriately academic school environment.
Our mission calls upon us to prepare students to make a positive impact in the world, and to tackle and resolve the challenges facing our world. Everyone in our school community—teachers , students, and parents— wants to serve our region and help make a difference for our neighbors and for our environment. In a new initiative attached to this mission, designed by a group of our administrators, parents, and teachers, we intend to broaden and unify these efforts. Called One School, One City, it will identify opportunities, enlist student involvement especially via advisory groups, and put a focus on our service and outreach projects. This year’s theme is Strengthening Sustainability, and you can expect to hear more about it soon. For more information, you can contact Rachel Villarreal in our Development office or Kathy Ross, our Family Association President.
An additional priority for the faculty and administration this fall is to review and revamp our faculty evaluation system, which currently consists of a lengthy and paperwork intensive review every four years for our veteran teachers. Our goals for this revamp is that it be more regular—annually instead of quadrennially—; less bureaucratic and less paper pushing; more supportive and encouraging of growth and development; and still ensuring high levels of accountability for teaching excellence. We will be sure to report to you about the new procedure when it is completed.
School community building continues to be a high priority for all of us. Most mornings you can find me in front on the curb at drop-off, and I hope if you are driving by you will say hello or give a wave as you did last year. If you have a minute, park sometimes and get out to stretch your legs and say hello. An idea I am playing with: What if we said that at the middle school Tuesdays were 6th grade day, Wednesdays 7th, and Thursday 8th grade, and on those days, those parents might try, if they can, to park their car at 7:45 or 7:50 and get out and say hello to each other on the curb, perhaps with a cup of coffee in hand. Try to come to a family association meeting, some of which this year will take place in the evening, and join in the conversations during, before and after those meetings. Together with the admissions and development directors, Christine Thornton and Rachel Villarreal, I intend to do my best to reach out to new and continuing families to see if we can have a breakfast, lunch, or coffee this fall so we can all build better connections and better enhance the important school-home partnership that we know serves best the children for whose upbringing and education we share responsibility. I hope you will join us for one of these conversations when we reach out to invite you.
It is still summer for the next six weeks, and so I will offer you a few suggestions for summer reading (a longer list is also available here.)
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, which was suggested to me by Mr. Mossman, is character-rich story of the dot-com boom at the turn of the century as it was experienced in Berkeley and Cambridge. After a dizzying ascent of financial and technological fortunes, the characters grapple with values and priorities, most especially in their relationships with loved ones.
The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith is the seventh, I think, in the very lovely and intelligent genteel mystery series set in Edinburgh. Our heroine in these books is the editor of journal of applied ethics, and very consciously, and self-consciously, views and reflects upon her life as a philosopher. Meanwhile, she carries out inquiries and investigations at the behest of various friends and acquaintances: in this more recent novel, she is asked to do background checks on the three finalists for the headship of a nearby prestigious private school.
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman, is a review of the latest thinking about how our brain and consciousness work, and, just as importantly, how they don’t work, or at least, how they don’t work together. Eagleman, who is a neuroscientist at Baylor, explains the many ways in which we are led astray in thinking that our consciousness is aware of most of our brain activity and decision-making, when what we can learn is that there is wide array of actions we are taking at any moment determined below the surface of our self-awareness.
Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they can Change the World by Jane McGonigal isn’t as much about games as the title makes it sound. Instead, it is about happiness, self-fulfillment, and motivation; what McGonigal argues is that we can find many ways to bring greater challenge, greater connection to others, and greater purpose to our lives by considering the ways game designers build these things into games.
At our opening faculty meeting today, (the slides of which can be found here), I shared with the faculty highlights from the new publication by our national association, the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools), A 21st century imperative: A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future (available online). I am pleased to have been able to contribute to the booklet, and upon review it is clear St. Gregory is indeed at the forefront of this movement. The guide provides 8 “unifying themes,” and we are taking great strides in aligning with those themes, working to ensure that “project based learning is woven throughout the school,” that “digital technologies infuse all aspects of the curriculum,” that our “vibrant art programs help promote creativity, self-expression, self-discipline, and flexibility,” that our “adults are actively engaged with one another in a process of continuous learning,” and that “a culture of engagement and support invites participation, innovation, and a growth mindset on the part of teachers and students.” By our advances with project based learning, our new laptop program, our wonderful arts curriculum, our twice-weekly late start times dedicated to adult learning, and our commitment to engaging students in innovation and growth, St. Gregory is indeed setting the pace nationally as an outstanding “school of the future.”
This is a wonderful and unique school, and I believe with great fervor that it has greatness both within it and ahead of it. My wife and I are extremely pleased with the quality of learning our now-8th grader has been receiving in the middle school, and are very thankful to the teachers who work so hard to help him grow. Thank you, St. Gregory parents, for all you do to help St. Gregory thrive.
Please know you can always contact me with a phone call or email, and I’d be delighted to sit with you at any time you might like. It will be great to visit with you as the new school year begins.
Jonathan E. Martin, Head of School