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Tradition That Demands Change

The Pursuit of Excellence is a tradition that demands change. As I reflect on the past several years, MA has indeed changed quite a bit. I’m proud to serve a school community that recognizes the importance of change and embraces the struggle that often accompanies it.

Our most significant recent change was the development of a bold new mission statement that reads: The Montgomery Academy develops leaders committed to honor, scholarship, service and the Pursuit of Excellence. This fifteen word statement defines the MA student experience and informs every decision we make on campus.

Advances in technology are clearly revolutionizing our classrooms. We have successfully launched a 1:1 iPad initiative and expect the pace of change in blended learning to be brisk. Technology is also transforming our faculty professional development and evaluation programs. We have partnered with a Maryland based company, Folio Collaborative, to introduce electronic faculty portfolios and online evaluation programs designed to give students, faculty, and administrators the opportunity to provide constructive feedback in our collective pursuit of excellence.

Other recent changes have strengthened our commitment to relationships and community. Our new Fall Courtyard Convocation and Kindergarten-Senior Buddy Program celebrate the K-12 student journey. “Family Nights” have been a big hit-- sprinkled throughout the year, we close the campus at the end of the academic day and cancel all athletic practices, late meetings and homework in recognition of the importance of family. As Ronald Reagan once said, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table!” Embracing the philosophy of servant-leadership in support of the broader community, the entire MA community now partners with one non-profit organization for a full academic year. For the 2013-2014 year we are supporting Habitat for Humanity.

In the midst of all this progress, we are also returning to our roots by affirming treasured MA traditions. Perhaps our greatest tradition is our culture of academic integrity and honor. Our student-led Honor Council remains vibrant and central to school life and we emphasize honor by gathering each class to publicly pledge their commitment to our Honor Code and to write out and sign the full honor pledge before every major test or paper. We are also returning to our “Standing Tradition,” where students rise at the beginning of each class and when adult guests visit their classrooms. As civility and honor erode in our larger culture, we believe these traditions differentiate and define a Montgomery Academy education.

Posted by lstearns on Wednesday April 2 at 09:06AM
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Feedback Fever

I admit it… I have Feedback Fever. Over the past month, I have been meeting with first year parents and teachers to ask them for feedback on the MA Community. Their fresh insights and observations are invaluable, and they are just the tip of the iceberg as we systematically seek out feedback in our drive to improve and innovate.

It is an understatement to write that our community has embraced the importance of feedback. Five years ago, the Board of Trustees led the way by clarifying and deepening the relationships among its members and with the Head of School. Specifically, they committed to completing an annual online survey to assess and measure their effectiveness as a group and the performance of the Head of School.

Support for feedback runs deep through the entire MA community. In addition to the annual surveys we send out to parents and alumni, the Academy recently invested in a faculty evaluation software program. The program allows teachers to create electronic portfolios and receive regular feedback from their division directors. The evaluation system is driven by the idea that honest conversations are at the heart of meaningful growth.

Starting this semester, middle and upper school students will complete online surveys for each of their teachers—a process that benefits teachers but also empowers students as campus citizens whose input is valued. In that same spirit, I will continue to host small groups of spring-term seniors in my office for a time of reflection on their MA experience. Of all the meetings I host, visiting with the seniors is always the highlight of the year.

Gathering, processing, and distilling all of this feedback is exceptionally time consuming but undeniably vital as we build upon our successes, learn from our mistakes and envision a brighter future.

Posted by lstearns on Friday March 7
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Legal for Adults, Dangerous for Kids

President Obama recently stated that while marijuana is a vice, a waste of time, and not very healthy, it’s no more dangerous than alcohol.   His comments and the national media coverage of the legalization of pot in Colorado are deeply troubling to me as a parent and educator of adolescents. Our children are watching and listening and they need to hear from us on these topics as well.

“No more dangerous than alcohol?”

Alcohol IS a powerful and dangerous drug, particularly for young bodies and developing brains. A few sobering facts on the effects of alcohol on our children:

  • Each year, approximately 5,000 children die as a result of underage drinking
  • More than 190,000 children are sent to emergency rooms for alcohol-related injuries each year
  • 90% of alcohol consumed by children is in the form of binge drinks and binge drinkers are 14 times more likely to drive impaired.

While the push for legalization of marijuana is popular, the research on its effects on developing brains needs greater media attention. Studies have shown that adolescent pot smokers exhibit deficits in attention, executive functioning, and memory. Other research suggests heavy use leads children to becoming withdrawn, less motivated and apathetic. Matthew Smith, a researcher at Northwestern University School of Medicine, offers common sense on the topic: “Adolescents are at a very vulnerable stage neurodevelopmentally. And if you throw stuff into the brain that’s not supposed to be there, there are long-term implications for their development.”

This is not a moral issue but rather a major health issue for children. In that spirit, I am pleased to support Parent Connect, an MA parent program that provides opportunities for parents to engage in meaningful conversations on these topics and to play an active role in keeping their children safe (click here to learn more). Under the outstanding leadership of MA parents Kelly Waites and Bonnie Trulove, I believe Parent Connect will advance our mission of developing leaders and pursuing excellence.

Posted by lstearns on Tuesday February 4 at 01:24PM
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MA’s Secret Sauce

I’ve spent twenty years working for independent schools and my advocacy for their role in American education grows stronger every year. Common traits for the great ones include a clear and focused mission, passionate teachers who love and challenge their students, and a strong parent-school partnership. Of course, the great ones also differentiate themselves from the competition.

I knew early on that the Academy was a great school, one that differentiated itself by an incredibly high level of student engagement in all areas of school life. I have never worked at a school where so many students are on the honor roll, build Habitat houses on weekends, sing like angels in the school chorus, compete regularly for state championships in sports, perform on stage with confidence, travel the country for debate tournaments, and produce award-winning art! MA is unique because our students have voracious appetites for and engage in all that we offer in academics, the arts, athletics and community service. While I recognized this core strength early on, I’m embarrassed to write that I just recently figured out MA’s secret sauce or, put another way, how the Academy achieves such high levels of student engagement.

MA’s secret sauce is our philosophy of early exposure; our kitchen is our Lower School campus and our chefs are our Lower School teachers. We believe that learning can and does happen everywhere on campus: certainly in the classroom but also off campus, on the playground, on the stage, in the art room, and on the playing fields. We offer a rigorous curriculum but believe that community service, the arts and athletics are equally important in educating young men and women of character.

This philosophy of early engagement is lived out daily in our Lower School. Every student recites our Lower School Honor Code every morning. Every student in every grade performs in a student play every year. Every student participates in multiple community service projects every year. Almost every student in our third and fourth grade classes sings in our Lower School Chorus.

I am convinced that these early enrichment opportunities, experienced in a loving environment, profoundly impact the growth and development of our youngest students. When they transition to our Middle and Upper School campus, they are empowered learners and we continue to fan the flames of engagement. By the time they complete their K-12 experience and receive their diploma we have fulfilled our mission by sending forth leaders committed to honor, scholarship, service and the pursuit of excellence.

Posted by lstearns on Friday December 6, 2013
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It's Not Brain Surgery

Teachers are not brain surgeons but, according to author and child psychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak, they are brain sculptors. I attended an independent school conference in Atlanta last month where Dr. Deak presented the latest research on brain development and the important role teachers play as neurosculptors.

Deak explained how important the first two decades of life are for brain development. Every child is born with approximately 100 billion neurons and, over time, the neurons form over 100 trillion connections. During this massive growth period, there are certain times or “windows” where the brain is extremely plastic and malleable. Deak believes that the more a child’s brain is stretched and shaped during these windows, the more brain capacity grows and meaningful learning occurs. Put another way, while the brain is an organ, it acts more like a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it grows.

Sleep is the most important factor for healthy brain development during these decades. Most of the natural growth occurs during sleep and is enhanced by nutrition and plenty of water and exercise. Deak’s advice to parents is straightforward but hard to implement given our busy schedules: if you want smarter kids, make them sleep more than eight hours every night, eat a balanced diet and exercise daily.

Formal learning in a school environment is also critical to brain growth and this is where the teacher’s role as neurosculptor comes into play. According to Deak, “The relationships that teachers have with their students and the experiences they provide for them directly shape the neural circuitry of the next generation.” The two critical words in this statement are relationships and experiences. Great independent schools employ passionate teachers who invest in relationships and offer a smorgasbord of experiences in academics, the arts, and athletics.

When you think of teachers as brain sculptors, you appreciate how important the art of teaching is in the science of brain development.

Posted by lstearns on Monday November 4, 2013
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Unsung Heroes

As I contemplate topics to write about, I usually focus on the student experience. I’ve decided to shift gears a bit by reflecting on a group of volunteers who are critical to our success but rarely highlighted or celebrated—the MA Board of Trustees. Before you roll your eyes and mark me as a sycophant, please know that I am not presently engaged in any contract negotiations!

A good friend of mine is pursuing his first independent school headship and called me for advice last week. After assuring him a person can serve as a head of school and still be a good spouse and parent (this is always the first question a prospective head asks), I urged him to make sure there was a healthy board culture at a school before accepting an offer. “Healthy board culture” sounds vague; I’ll use my interactions with the MA Board of Trustees to explain this concept in more detail.

Our current President of the Board of Trustees, Clark Sahlie ‘84, always speaks at our new parent gatherings. In addition to offering the group a warm welcome to the MA community, he demystifies the role of the Board of Trustees with specific talking points:

  • The Board is responsible for long term financial and strategic planning
  • The Board is responsible for hiring and supporting one employee, the head of school, who, in turn, is responsible for the daily operations of the school and for hiring and supporting all other employees of the school
  • The Board does not serve as an appellate court for administrative decisions

While these are simple tenets, they provide clarity to the parents on the role of the Board of Trustees in the Academy community. The Board of Trustees attends an annual governance retreat, usually for four hours on a Sunday afternoon, to review these principles and to discuss specific case studies from other independent schools.

In addition to the annual retreat, MA trustees typically attend three meetings per month on campus engaging in strategic discussions on finance, fundraising, marketing, campus preservation and trustee recruitment. This is a significant investment of time for this stalwart group of volunteers and most trustees serve six consecutive years.

Our trustees model the kind of leadership and civic engagement we want for our students. I remain deeply grateful for their dedication to the Academy.

Posted by lstearns on Tuesday October 1, 2013
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September 2013

Every morning when I park my car on campus, I feel a burst of inspiration as I see our new MA billboard across Vaughn Road that reads, “Educating leaders of character.” The work our faculty and students are engaged in matters greatly to our families, community and nation. With an eye toward advancing the mission of the Academy, I am pleased to present our school-wide goals for the 2013-2014 year.

Goal #1: Review and revise our core value statements.

Core values lie at the heart of Montgomery Academy’s identity. When developed and written in an authentic manner, they create clarity and strengthen school culture. We will ask a committee of students, teachers, parents, alumni and board members to review our current value statements and to present potential revisions to our Board of Trustees.

Goal #2: Build student leadership programs into our curriculum.

The Academy has always developed leaders of character in multiple ways, from service learning projects, to our student government, to our student-led Honor Council, to name a few. We will research and explore additional ideas to ensure that every MA graduate has received extraordinary leadership training as part of his or her Academy experience.

Goal #3: Explore the development of an intense experiential learning program for students to pursue excellence in the core components of our mission: leadership, honor, scholarship and service.

Tied closely to Goal #2, this type of program will give our students the opportunity to live out our school mission in a non-traditional setting. A fully developed program may include multiple service-learning projects in and outside of Montgomery, intensive week-long courses on leadership and ethics, and independent projects or internships tailored to individual students’ interests.

Goal #4: Research different models of faculty Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) designed to provide teachers the opportunity to improve their practice through collaborative learning and peer feedback.

Our teachers are dedicated life-long learners. They take full advantage of the Academy’s professional development budget by pursuing advanced degrees and attending workshops and conferences across the country. PLC’s would provide another layer of professional development that provides the time and structure for teachers to share and collaborate on campus.

Goal #5: Develop an online student feedback system in support of professional development for our middle and upper school divisions.

Thirty years ago, a new teacher would be hired, assigned a classroom and then promptly left alone to figure things out. Feedback from anyone—administrators, colleagues, or students—was rare. At the Academy we now utilize a comprehensive online faculty development system that includes a teacher’s digital portfolio, annual goals, and administrative summaries of classroom observations. Beginning this year, we will introduce online student feedback for every middle and upper school teacher to use as they craft or tweak their pedagogy and curricula.

Like our fall sports teams, the MA faculty “pre-season” is officially over and we are hard at work on achieving these goals in support of educating leaders of character.

 

Posted by lstearns on Thursday September 5, 2013
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A New Mission Statement Built on the Wisdom of our Past

In politics, some people are known as “policy wonks.” You know the type: they have a keen interest in and a quirky love for developing and implementing political strategies and policies. As an independent school educator, I am a self-confessed “mission wonk” and, yes, I just made that term up. I’m a little obsessed with school missions and don’t understand why most people are not.

You can imagine my excitement, then, in forming a committee at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year with the task of reviewing and revising The Montgomery Academy mission statement. This action was the result of one of the Board of Trustees’ approved school goals for the year. The group, comprised of students, faculty, alumni, current parents and trustees was led by Lower School Director Jan Pringle and Board Member Lee Copeland ‘75. On May 20, the committee presented a draft of a new mission statement to the Board of Trustees that was unanimously approved. Below you will find our former mission statement followed by our new mission statement.

Former Mission Statement
The mission of The Montgomery Academy is the pursuit of excellence within the four major spheres of Academy life: academics, the arts, athletics and activities. Implicit in this is the existence of an environment in which students are simultaneously supported and challenged. The ultimate component of this mission is to assist students in becoming adults of strong moral character who contribute to society in both their professional and community lives.

New Mission Statement
The Montgomery Academy develops leaders committed to honor, scholarship, service and the pursuit of excellence.

I am deeply grateful to the committee for their long hours of research, vigorous (but always civil) debate, and careful wordsmithing in crafting this new mission statement. While most school mission statements are too wordy and similar (Google a few and you’ll know what I mean) I believe our new statement is bold and concise. It differentiates the Academy from other schools and clarifies our mission as an independent school with the pursuit of excellence at the core of our
existence. It also honors our past by recognizing that the Academy has always focused on cultivating and inspiring leaders who are ethical and engaged citizens with curious minds and open hearts.

There has never been a more exciting time to be an MA Eagle. Armed with our new mission statement, the Academy faculty will continue to do what they do best: build enduring, meaningful relationships with students based on mutual respect and trust, nurture ethical and intellectual excellence and, in the process, shape the leaders who will shape the world.

David J. Farace

COMMITTEE MEMBERS: Jan Pringle, Lee Copeland '75, Lee Grant Sellers '84, Jim Leonard, Kevin Weatherill, Ana Baker, Damion Womack, Dexter Hobbs '06, Anthony McCall, Drake McGowin '13, and Grayson Anzalone '13.

Posted by lstearns on Friday July 19, 2013
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Philanthropy at its Finest

As a Head of School, I participate in a lot of meetings. During this time of year, I serve on a very small, confidential committee that determines financial aid awards for the upcoming year. The financial aid program is important to me on many levels, particularly since I was a beneficiary of a similar program at my alma mater, McDonogh School, located in Maryland. I’ve also spent most of my professional career either serving on financial aid committees or raising money to support such programs. The fact that donors, complete strangers to me when I was a student, cared deeply and supported my education and countless others continues to drive and motivate me in my work.

I’m also inspired by friends who took advantage of these life-changing opportunities to find success and give back. Every year my alma mater hosts a spring luncheon to celebrate the financial aid program and invites former aid recipients to serve as guest speakers. Two recent speakers were good friends of mine in high school and it was nice to reconnect with them so many years later. One was raised in a middle class, blue collar community. After graduating, he went on to earn a Ph.D at the College of William and Mary and now serves as a gifted professor and Chair of the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences at a well respected university. The other was raised by a single mom in Baltimore’s inner city. He attended the University of Virginia, went directly to Wall Street and has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the world of finance. In his spare time, he founded a highly successful vineyard near Charlottesville, Virginia!

Both of these gentlemen were outstanding student-leaders and ambassadors of McDonogh. They benefited greatly from the financial aid program and the school benefited greatly from their contributions in and out of the classroom. Our goal at Montgomery Academy is the same. We want to provide the opportunity of an Academy education to the best and brightest students in the River Region, regardless of their family income and we offer sincere thanks to our loyal donors who share this vision.      

Posted by lstearns on Tuesday May 14, 2013 at 12:08PM
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Favorable Winds

I love the rhythms and traditions of a school year. As part of our Lower School curriculum, every grade (and every student in that grade) performs in a play for a packed audience of parents, grandparents, faculty and students. A crowd favorite is the Third Grade play, performed in the morning and immediately followed by Spring Break. It is always an energized performance and a perfect launching point into a glorious week off.

This year’s performance was entitled When I Grow Up. The theme of the play centered on the students’ dreams and aspirations of future careers, among them physicians, engineers, bakers, sailors, lawyers, plumbers and even cowboys in a rodeo show (my personal preference). As I watched this year, I reflected on my own children and our dinner table conversations about their future careers. Like most children, they dream of different careers on a monthly basis. The obvious truth is they have no idea what they will grow up to be or what passions they will explore as adults.

What I appreciate about MA is that the school is providing them with myriad opportunities to grow and develop. At its root, “opportunity” means “favorable wind.” The Academy is providing my children and yours favorable winds in life through a rigorous academic program, enriching experiences in the arts and athletics, and an intentional culture that celebrates honor and excellence. Whether they grow up to perform surgery or to ride a bull in a rodeo, I am convinced that our students will graduate with the skills and values needed to pursue their passions and to make a positive difference in the world.    

Posted by lstearns on Monday April 8, 2013 at 03:57PM
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