Reflections from Jay Spencer
- March 2018
- January 2018
- December 2017
- November 2017
- October 2017
- September 2017
- August 2017
- July 2017
- June 2017
- May 2017
- April 2017
- March 2017
- February 2017
- January 2017
- December 2016
- November 2016
- October 2016
- September 2016
- August 2016
I suppose technically February is the shortest month of the year. Try telling that to students and teachers. Even in sunny Montgomery the winter seems to take its time moving on towards spring. We decided to spice up February a bit this year by holding a Free Family Fun Food Truck Festival, with games and activities for the kids. We had nearly 1000 people signed up to attend, and we still didn’t run out of food! Perhaps the long lines at the Wharf Seafood truck dissuaded some, but those who stuck it out said it was worth the wait. Fire Meats Wood provided such terrific barbecue that they did have to send people to the other trucks after they ran out towards the end. The other fabulous contributors were On a Roll and Potz and Panz. Frios and Nancy’s Italian Ice provided dessert. Our very own food service, Southern Foodservice Management, headed by the fantastic Sabrina Townsend, provided kids meals for those not so inclined towards the food trucks. The celebration was the perfect way to usher out February and look ahead to the spring. I have to shout out to Rachael Gallagher, who took the project on and did a fantastic job orchestrating the food.
I attended three events with the Chamber of Commerce in February. The first was a reception for Chairman’s Circle members. I enjoyed meeting other members of the group and hearing from the Chairman about the exciting initiatives in this great city. The second was an event at the airport announcing a new direct flight schedule (and a new airline) to Orlando, starting in May 2018. This comes on the heels of the recent announcement of a new direct flight to Washington, D.C., starting this summer. A great city needs a great airport and I am pleased to see that our airport (which is already much more enjoyable to travel through than most I have seen) is expanding and heeding that call. The third event was a breakfast with Senator Richard Shelby and Congresswomen Martha Roby and Terri Sewell. I sat at a table with several staffers of Senator Shelby and Congresswoman Sewell, as well as some representatives of Huntingdon College and other area leaders. We listened as Senator Shelby announced that Alabama is open for business, and we celebrated as the three were presented mementos of the F-35 decision that they were so instrumental in bringing to Montgomery. Exciting things are happening in Montgomery!
Another event that I attended off campus brought back memories. Kristin and I attended the Air University assumption of command ceremony. This is the first such ceremony I have attended since my own change of command ceremony, which also served as my retirement ceremony. One impressive aspect that was lacking from my own ceremony was the singing of the Air Force song. I enjoyed listening to so many voices of active and retired Air Force members belting it out with pride and enthusiasm.
Much of this month has seen us presenting the results of our strategic planning work that started this fall. Our Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Ronnie Brown, has put in a tremendous number of hours on the work itself, and then on the presentations, which he and I give together. We have presented to several audiences already, and have several more planned. The hope is that we will ultimately reach everyone in our community. We are excited about the direction the school is taking and we look forward to sharing that vision with everyone.
Kristin and I attended two exceptional performances at ASF in February. The first was a show called “Fly,” which celebrated the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, including their struggles and triumphs. It was particularly moving given our proximity to Tuskegee and our Civil Rights history in this city. The second was a Shakespeare play, “Much Ado About Nothing.” This is the only Shakespeare play that I happen to have acted in, when I was in college. I played the part of Verges. In this production, the actors all played multiple roles. Verges has only a handful of lines, but I thought I had made it to the big time just by appearing on the Vanderbilt stage. Anyway, the performance was fabulous. The directing was superb, the acting was world-class, and we were riveted from start to finish.
February also brought a sobering experience. Several months ago, we had arranged for training to be conducted by a representative from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. They have given this training to groups for several years, in response to the rise in school shooting incidents. Our security task force, a group of administrators formed earlier this year to address security challenges and vulnerabilities, attended the training. The training begins with a video that details the events at Columbine High School in 1999. The entire topic is emotional and stressful under the best of circumstances, but our training date happened to be the day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Although the video was difficult to watch, I am glad that we decided to go ahead with the training. We are looking at expanding the training to the rest of the adults on campus later this year. There is no higher priority than the safety of our children.
We have spent the last 18 months or so evaluating the costs and benefits of adding a Pre-K program. For several reasons, it appears that now may be the time to reconsider. We will continue to review where a Pre-K falls within our strategic priorities, but the good news is that we have worked through a great deal of the paperwork such that we can begin quickly if we decide it is the right thing to do. It is possible that we will open a Pre-K in the future. Stay tuned!
Have a great spring!
Welcome to 2018! With the end of the month, the semester, and the year, I feel like it is appropriate to reflect back on all three.
I started the month by attending the state swim meet in Auburn. The facility is quite impressive. As a former swim coach, I love everything to do with swimming. I enjoyed attending the coaches’ meeting (as I was the school representative for our team) and talking with the other coaches about their swimmers and their seasons. Looking at the heat sheets brought back great memories of championship meets I have attended in the past. There was some high quality swimming at the state meet, including a number of state records that were set. I have to say that although I love my job, I do miss coaching probably more than anything else. There is a special bond formed between coaches and athletes over a number of years. I am very proud of my former swimmers and I have continued to enjoy hearing of their successes in college.
The next morning I took my son to the SAT. This would not necessarily be worth mentioning except that he is 12 years old. I am thrilled that we have such a strong showing in the Duke TIP (Talent Identification Program) with most of our seventh graders qualifying to take the SAT to see if they meet the benchmarks for exceptional summer programs that are offered to young students with high academic aptitude. The topics include Codebreaking, Engineering Problem Solving, and The Brain, Intelligence, and Creativity. I am pleased that he may be joined by a number of his MA classmates who are also in the program.
My wife and I enjoyed attending the River Region Alternative Gift Fair. In addition to having the pleasure of listening to our own Lower School Chorus singing Christmas carols, we browsed the various groups highlighted at the fair. This gift-giving opportunity to charities around the area is yet another of the many examples of what makes Montgomery a special place.
I attended the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Meeting in December, which featured a riveting speech by interim state schools superintendent, Dr. Ed Richardson. After he painted a blunt picture of the failing public school system in Montgomery, the audience rewarded him with a standing ovation. He points out that the solution will involve some hard decisions and some substantial changes. I was impressed that his message was so well received. I am pleased about the potential for this great city.
My family and I continued to enjoy the great arts opportunities in Montgomery this month, with the Montgomery Ballet performance of “The Nutcracker,” a wonderful holiday performance by the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra, and the annual performance of “A Christmas Carol” at ASF. We even attended the impressive “Living Christmas Tree” performance as one of our faculty members was participating.
Looking back over the semester, I have to say it has been a very positive experience all around. The theme this year of “Celebrate the Good” has been well-received and has made for a healthy focus on all the things we do well. As we continue the pursuit of excellence, we will continue to look at ways to improve our programs and institution. I look forward to approaching any changes thoughtfully and deliberately, as that has served us well this semester.
Although the school calendar drives our rhythm to a large extent, I am mindful that the New Year gives us an opportunity to reflect back on all of 2017. Our students have accomplished a great deal in the classroom, through the arts, in athletics, and serving our community. I enjoyed my first graduation ceremony and look forward to many more. The Montgomery Academy continues to be a great place to be, and I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to serve its wonderful families.
As we approach the end of the first semester I am struck by how quickly the year has flown by. I feel like this year’s theme of “Celebrate the Good” may have helped to heighten the enthusiasm on campus. It seems like not a day goes by without someone sharing great news with me about what our fantastic kids and teachers are doing. There are so many things to celebrate! Here are just a few of the November highlights.
The month started with a trip to Birmingham to cheer on the volleyball team in the state championship tournament. The semifinal match against Providence Christian was a match-up between perennial rivals. Providence Christian was responsible for knocking MA out of the state tournament last year, so revenge was sweet as the girls played their hearts out to claim victory. The state final was a nail-biter against Bayside Academy. Bayside had won the state title for the previous 15 years, but our girls were not intimidated. Not only did we play them to five sets, but the fifth set ended in only a two-point win for Bayside. Our girls and coaches have every reason to be proud of a fantastic end to a great season. Incidentally, Coach Julie Gordon is now the fourth-winningest active high school volleyball coach in the country, and she’s still going strong!
November was the month for athletics as five other teams entered post-season play. The Football team entered the playoffs undefeated in our region. The first round victory against Bayside was particularly sweet after the Volleyball final. The boys made it to the second round of the playoffs but were stopped by a strong American Christian Academy team. It was an exciting season and the team has much to be proud of. Both the Boys and Girls Cross Country teams made it to the state meet and competed well individually and as teams. Finally, our young Boys and Girls Swim teams made it to the sectional meet for the first time in years, and the Boys team sent MA’s first qualifier to the state meet since 2011. Well done to all our athletes!
Several of our students were featured in a tremendous performance by the Alabama Dance Theater, called Mistletoe. The Montgomery Academy had the most dancers of any school in the region at the performance, which was magnificent. Montgomery is fortunate to have three dance companies in the area, with MA students in all three. I look forward to many more productions from all these companies.
My family and I were treated to a wonderful experience at the Diwali celebration of Indian culture at AUM. Performers from all over the region, including MA students and parents, put on an enjoyable show. I love seeing the wide variety of communities living here in Montgomery. It is a thriving city with a great deal to offer.
Another highlight of the month was attending a luncheon with Gene Kranz, former NASA administrator most well-known for his role as Flight Director guiding the efforts of Mission Control for Apollo 13. A group of faculty and students were treated to the event that will be remembered for many years to come. Mr. Kranz told the Apollo 13 story to a riveted audience including many of the most influential people in the city. It was like watching Ed Harris again, but it wasn’t Ed Harris - it was the real deal. The organizer was introducing VIP’s before the event and commented that there were so many that he couldn’t possibly recognize everyone. I was pleased and touched when he recognized our students, the only students to attend, and everyone gave them a rousing ovation. I daresay they will not forget that day. I am proud to be associated with an organization where such history is celebrated and where students are invited to participate in such events. Mr. Kranz made a point of shaking hands with each of our students, and he gave them a handout that he had prepared specifically for them outlining his “failure is not an option” principles.
Now we look forward to the holiday season and another great semester!
My second year is now in full swing as we pass through the halfway point of the fall semester. During the first week of October I attended the Moon Festival at AUM, sponsored by the Confucius Institute. Several other MA faculty members and parents were in attendance as well. There is a thriving Chinese community in our great city, and I enjoyed seeing the music and dance performances and participating in the festival. Now that we offer Mandarin Chinese as a language option, it is nice to see that there is broader support for the language and culture in our region.
Homecoming week is always exciting. In addition to the game itself–which we did win–there are dress up days, floats being built, and an overall energy on both campuses leading up to the parade and finally the big game. We also welcomed our alumni back to campus for their annual celebration weekend, including a tent party on Friday night followed by a cocktail party on Saturday night. We concluded the weekend’s celebration with the Golden Eagle Dinner. The Class of 1967 was honored on the occasion of their 50th reunion with induction into the Golden Eagle Society and a very nice dinner with classmates and several of their former faculty members who returned to help them celebrate.
At the last minute, my wife and I decided to head to Pennsylvania for our son’s final Parents’ Weekend. It was strange returning to the campus that I had not seen since I left in June of 2016. We loved seeing Matt’s classes and water polo game, but perhaps the most gratifying memory I have is of the students, who were sophomores when I left, who came up to me and hugged me. They were genuinely excited to see me, and many asked if I was coming back. I told them I would be back for Matt’s graduation, but otherwise I had a job I loved and didn’t plan to leave. It did remind me, though, of how much I miss teaching and coaching. The connections teachers and coaches make with students are irreplaceable.
Although I may one day be able to teach a class again, for now I have to content myself with living vicariously through our exceptional teachers by visiting their classrooms. In October I was able to spend time in classrooms of Math, Language, History, and Art. The years of experience of the teachers ranged from a first-year teacher to a veteran of 33 years of experience. I learn something in every classroom I visit, and I love watching our masters at work.
On the last Saturday in October we hosted our second annual STEAMFest on the Lower School campus. This event was the brainchild of our own Dinah McLemore, and she once again outdid herself. We handed out over 700 wristbands to MA families and visitors from around the area. I walked through the building to packed crowds at every exhibit.
I rounded off the month with three trips to satisfy my passion for the Arts. The first was a performance by the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra. The second was a performance of “The Glass Menagerie” at The Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The third, and perhaps my favorite, was our own Middle School play. The students actually performed two short plays, “The Internet is Distract -- OH LOOK A KITTEN!” and “The Day the Internet Died.” In addition to being very entertaining, both plays had a common theme and a serious message about the importance of the proper use of technology and the dangers of relying too much on the Internet. Well, that’s it for this month. Time to go check my emails.
The month of September started off in fine fashion with the three volleyball teams (Varsity, Junior Varsity, and Middle School) winning a clean sweep in the annual Mayor’s Cup tournament at the Cramton Bowl. Teams came to play from all over the state, and MA came out victorious in our division at all three levels. Well done to all the players and coaches!
Also early in the month my family and I enjoyed the Broadway Under the Stars concert performed by the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra on the ASF grounds. We were so impressed that we decided to buy season tickets! Now we have two great Arts opportunities to look forward to multiple times during the year in addition to the great performances put on here at MA.
Our house emptied out again as the older two boys went back to school and our daughter went to Spain to start her Fulbright Scholarship program. One of the first pictures she sent back was from a bullfight. I am not sure how I feel about that sport, but I guess to be fair, I have never attended one. It looks like she enjoyed it, and I do encourage embracing the culture wherever you go.
Much of this month I have spent visiting with grade level parent groups. Back in the summer I asked our POA president, Cindy Sahlie, how she would feel about my meeting with each grade level for about an hour just to socialize in a low-key, more intimate setting. She loved the idea and put together an aggressive schedule that had us on track to finish all 13 meetings by the middle of October. It has been a busy schedule, but I have really enjoyed getting to know the parents in this way.
The month ended as it began, with a tremendous athletic victory. Given the strength of the larger 4A programs in our region, I would not have been surprised to see Trinity beat us, but our football team did a fabulous job on offense and defense to dominate the game at every turn. Final score 45-18. I love being at a school that is equally strong academically, artistically, and athletically. To top it off, we have respectful, compassionate kids who look out for each other and those around us in our community. I am proud to have the privilege of serving The Montgomery Academy.
We’re back in action. School is underway and life is good! Speaking of good, our theme for this year is “Celebrate the Good.” There is a great deal of good happening at The Montgomery Academy and we want to make sure we don’t take it for granted. When I was in the Navy I was often advised to speak up for myself more and brag about my accomplishments. That just never sat right with me. The same goes here, so celebrating the good is not necessarily natural for me. I don’t like to be in the habit of boasting, but there is so much to be proud of at The Montgomery Academy. It’s time we started spreading the word. I have always been one for substance over show, but sometimes people need to see the show as well.
August was the first time in a long time that my entire family has been together at once. Five of us were in Montgomery for most of the summer, but my oldest son, Colin, spent the summer doing mechanical engineering research in Germany. He stopped by home for a couple of weeks before heading back to Purdue for his senior year. We took the opportunity to have our picture taken for the website - look for it to be updated sometime soon.
The largest manufacturer in the city is Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama. My family and I took a tour of their facilities in August and we were impressed. We learned the proper pronunciation (rhymes with “Sunday”) and rode through the various assembly lines on a tram just like at Disney World. I highly encourage anyone who lives here and has not seen it to sign up for a tour. They are booked well in advance but the website interface is very easy.
The start to the year this year has a very positive feel. The Parents of the Academy, led by Cindy Sahlie, put together a superb barbecue event to welcome families back to school. This was Cindy’s brainchild, and she spent countless hours planning and coordinating the event. It was a smashing success with nothing but positive feedback from all quarters.
Although the start of school is exciting, it comes around every year. I would have to say the most exciting event of the month was the eclipse. Our administrators and teachers did a fantastic job with preparations and safety precautions, allowing our entire student body to experience this phenomenon directly. Rather than bow to pressures of potential liability as unfortunately may have happened at other schools, our tremendous team embraced the excitement and safely took advantage of this rare educational opportunity. As you can see from the pictures on our Facebook page, it was well worth the effort.
Have a great month!
July started off with a bang, as it usually does, with the 4th of July fireworks celebrations. Wherever we are, we try to take the family to see fireworks, and this year was no exception. As we prepared to make the final turn onto Vaughn Road from Eastern Boulevard, a warning light came on in my car and the engine temperature gauge pegged high. I coasted to the nearest parking lot, shut the car off, and called for a tow truck. As you might expect, on a holiday with heavy traffic, it took some time for the tow truck to arrive. In the meantime, we realized we had a fantastic seat for the fireworks that were just down the road. pretty soon several other cars had stopped to watch with us. We decided we had remarkably fortunate timing with the loss of the water pump as we did not have to fight traffic leaving the site but we had just about as good a view. I like to try to look at the positive in any situation.
I have to say that the rest of the month seemed tame after that adventure. Much of my time has been spent meeting individually with our exceptionally dedicated and thoughtful board members. I have told them each how much I appreciate the time they dedicate to the school and the support they have provided me in this first year. With a team like that we have no limits to what we can accomplish.
July also saw the awarding of our Millsap and Tankersley scholarships. The applicants for each were impressive and it was a joy to read the files of such capable young men and women. As we expand our scholarship opportunities for deserving students I want to say how much I appreciate those donors who make such scholarships possible. The goal is to attract the finest students from all around the city and surrounding areas to come to The Montgomery Academy to experience the great people and programs that have served us well for so many years.
For the first time in several years The Montgomery Academy will be fielding (pooling?) a swim team. Since that is what I miss most about my previous job, Anthony McCall, my Athletic Director, asked me to coach the team. He had anticipated my objection by pointing out that the only requirement placed on the coach is to take qualifiers to the state championship meet at the end of the season. We don’t have a pool, so swimmers practice with their club team on their own. I met this month with the coach of the primary club team in the area, the YMCA Barracudas, to go over some of the details. He and I are both excited about this opportunity. I look forward to taking our small but dedicated and talented group of swimmers to the state championship meet in early December.
Another month, another exceptional performance at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I took the three children who are home with us this summer to "Mary Poppins," and we were all impressed. My 17-year-old son said he really enjoyed it, so you know it was good. I wore my seersucker suit in honor of the penguin dance (which I was really interested in seeing how they did that on stage) but it turns out that is only in the movie. The show was once again top-notch and made me proud to live in a city and a state with such a phenomenal theater.
Now we look ahead to the year about to start. Our new teachers arrive on Monday. In a continuation of our tremendous geographic diversity our ten new teachers this year hail from eight different states plus China. One week later the students arrive and we will be back to a vibrant, thriving school community again. Here’s to a great year for everyone!
Summer is a time for reflection as the hustle and bustle of our daily routine start to fade away. It is also the time for summer camps and activities, so we don’t lose touch completely with the children who are the reason we have chosen this profession.
June started with our annual welcoming of Camp Sunshine. This week-long program was started by Laurie Weil in 1970 and has been at The Montgomery Academy for decades. Affiliated with the Girls Scouts of America, the camp is designed for girls who have limited summertime recreational opportunities. Led by a staff composed entirely of volunteers, Camp Sunshine is provided without cost to campers and their families. We are proud to be able to provide facilities and support for this great program.
Our own students participated in a three-week long exceptional program called Philanthropy 101. Through the generosity of donors, a dozen rising seniors (competitively chosen through an application process) are exposed to the world of non-profit organizations and philanthropy. Students visit various non-profit organizations across the state to see and hear what they are about. Each student receives a stipend which they donate to the organization of their choosing. They are expected to review vision statements and financial details of each organization before making their choice. The session culminated in an impressive luncheon where the students announced the recipients of their donations for this year.
I have had the opportunity to meet individually with the members of my Council of Wisdom--who are the longest standing current faculty members. These 13 teachers have a combined nearly 400 years of experience at The Montgomery Academy: Melissa Anderson, Ana Baker, David Bethea, Julie Gordon, Jan Hodgson, Gene Johnson, Debbie Kranzusch, Cheryl McKiearnan, Carole Quallio, Susan Riley, Jay Rye, BeeLee Tullos, and Bobbie Woodard. I am honored to be able to hear from them some ideas and thoughts about the year just completed as well as their reflections on the vision for the future. We are blessed indeed to have such a strong core of dedicated master teachers.
One of the long-anticipated events of June has been the National Speech and Debate tournament in Birmingham. Our students, teachers, and alumni did a great job of hosting the event. I was pleased to be able to attend the ceremony where our very own Jay Rye was inducted into the National Speech and Debate Association Hall of Fame. I also took the opportunity to watch a few of the finalists in the Humorous Interpretation event.
Amid all these activities I did find time to take my wife to the beach for our 27th anniversary. A tropical storm had just passed through so the crowds were a bit thinner than normal, but the weather was perfect for us. It is the first time I have been in the ocean in years, after a 20-year career in and around the ocean!
Summer is a time for reflection and relaxation, but also a time for anticipation. With a little down time behind me I look forward to another great year serving this school in the pursuit of excellence.
May started with a wonderful Middle and Upper School Choral concert. I had seen the separate groups perform on a number of occasions throughout the school year but rarely have the opportunity to see them singing together. I continue to be impressed by the work of our talented music faculty and students. The next day, I enjoyed attending the first of two recognitions by the mayor for our sports teams. This one was for the State Champion Girls Tennis team. I was glad to be able to attend the ceremony because I was unable to attend the tennis matches themselves in Mobile. I won’t be able to quote it word for word, but the mayor made a comment to the effect that it must be spring because one of the signs of spring is to see the MA Girls Tennis team winning another state championship.
Later in the month, the mayor also honored the Girls Soccer State Championship team. This time I was able to attend the final game in Huntsville and the girls definitely deserved the win. They played aggressively and intelligently the entire game and ended up dominating the final game against Westbrook Christian, winning 4 - 0. During the ceremony one student-athlete, Elizabeth Robertson, was recognized for being on both state championship teams, as she had missed the tennis ceremony to play in a soccer game. I love being at a place where students can challenge themselves in so many ways and participate in such a variety of activities while maintaining excellent academics as well.
We completed a virtual meeting with our National Advisory Board, including allowing them to hear from several of our students and having the board members give the students some advice. Our National Advisory Board consists of alumni from all around the country who have agreed to provide a sounding board for, and assistance to, the Head of School. I appreciate all those who serve our school in various parts of the country. It is nice to have the perspective of a number of different voices with a wide variety of experiences.
One unusual event happened - I represented the school at the request of Athletic Director Anthony McCall - in a ping pong tournament fundraiser. Administrators from all the schools in the city were invited to participate. I took second place to Justin Castanza, Montgomery Catholic’s Upper School Principal. I enjoyed meeting him even if I did not enjoy being schooled by him in ping pong. Just so you don’t think I have a big head from my second place finish, we were the only two to sign up! It was fun and I would do it again, but maybe next time I will practice a bit first.
Amidst all the end-of-year events and celebrations, I took a few days to go to my own daughter’s college graduation. She had a wonderful experience at Elon University, graduating summa cum laude and earning a Fulbright Scholarship to teach in Spain next year. We are very proud of her and happy to have her home for what may be her last summer in the house.
Our Commencement ceremony could not have been better. The weather was superb, the grounds looked magnificent, and the students were glowing. Compared to the three-plus hour ceremony at Elon, our one-hour event was just the right length. It was elegant and impressive. Afterwards I found out that one of our former teachers, Mr. Ken Dyess, celebrated his 50th graduation ceremony. The only one in the history of the school that he has not attended was the very first one. I was honored to participate in such a tradition for the first time as I look forward to many more.
Well, April started off with a bang in terms of the weather. After braving the storm on Monday the 3rd, we decided not to tempt fate on Wednesday the 5th. Once the Governor declared a state of emergency we followed suit by cancelling school for the day. As it turned out there were only a few brief heavy downpours, but with imminent threat of tornados it is best to play it safe.
The next day I had the pleasure of visiting Jasmine Hill Gardens for the first time. It is a lovely outdoor museum with an ancient Greek theme in Wetumpka. The site serves as the backdrop for our sixth grade culmination of the study of ancient Greece with a day of activities including a multi-part contest in mini-Olympics fashion. It was a fabulous day, but my red forehead afterwards reminded me that it is not such a good idea to stay out in the sun for several hours without a hat or sunscreen! As my wife says, I did not set the best example that day. We all have good days and bad days. I would still call it a good day, but maybe I’ll wear a hat next time!
That evening, I enjoyed seeing the impressive art work of our AP Studio Art students on display at Stonehenge Gallery here in town. These six students have done a great job of continuing the excellent tradition of the arts at The Montgomery Academy.
Speaking of the arts, I enjoyed presenting to a group of alumni at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in April for the second time. Last year I spoke at this event as well during my spring break as my wife and I were househunting prior to moving in June. We love that entire complex, with the museum, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the dog park. It is safe to say that not a week goes by that we are not there for one reason or another.
As the year winds to a close, the ceremonies begin to pick up. I was honored to participate in one of my personal favorites from my previous school (although we do a much better job of the ceremony here), the Cum Laude Society induction ceremony. As I mentioned in my remarks, it is appropriate that we pause to recognize academic excellence, since that is, after all, the central reason for our existence. With all the athletic and arts celebrations (which are also important and very enjoyable) we need to keep in mind that without academic excellence we will be missing the primary focus of our mission.
Another event that I have participated in at different schools is Grandfriends Day. It turns out ours only happens on the Lower School campus, which I think is a shame. I plan to expand the concept to allow grandparents and other friends to enjoy spending a day with their students no matter what age. I also discovered that it happens only every other year. I will be taking a look at that to see what periodicity makes sense. In any case, I enjoyed our Grandfriends Day this year and I hope all the friends who attended enjoyed it as well.
I was able to enjoy one of my favorite pursuits twice this month - with the Upper School play, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and ASF’s “The Tempest.” I can’t get enough of live theater and I am so thankful that we have great opportunities here on campus and in the city to enjoy these stage performances.
Sometimes the pace seems busy, but it is also important to set aside time for reflection. I try hard to give myself at least a couple of large chunks of time a week to think about the future, and rise above the day-to-day demands of the job. During one of those reflective moments this month I hit upon what I hope will turn out to be an excellent idea. I decided I wanted the thoughtful input of some of our most experienced teachers who have served in the trenches for decades. I created what I am calling my Council of Wisdom. I invited these 12 teachers, who have a combined more than 360 years of service to the school, to join me for breakfast while I presented my vision and sought their feedback. I will be continuing to meet with this group periodically as I greatly appreciated the counsel they provided me.
Another idea I had several months ago that finally came to fruition in April was for a fourth grade math contest. My goal was to celebrate the excellence in Montgomery Public Schools. That system seems to have had more than its fair share of bad press in the last year or so, at least from what I have been reading and hearing, and I thought it was important to let them know that I believe in the teachers and the students in Montgomery Public Schools. MA invited fourth grade students from every Montgomery Public School to attend a math contest on our campus with prizes. When I delivered the prizes, I was thrilled with the responses of the classmates of the winners as I presented the certificates and Visa gift cards. They were as excited as the winners, and it reinforced to me that there are great kids and great teachers everywhere.
The athletic seasons are winding down as we approach the end of the school year, and I attended two great soccer games during the final week of April, along with the senior day recognitions for boys and girls soccer, track & field, and golf (I had attended the baseball senior day recognition as well earlier in the month). Many of those teams were continuing to play into May, and I already know that the sports teams will factor into my May reflection.
The month ended with an annual tradition - Eagle Day! I would be surprised if anyone reading this is unaware of that tradition, but I will describe it briefly as best I can just in case. The school is separated into two teams that represent the school’s colors: cardinal and navy. The teams face off against each other in a series of field day competitions for a little over an hour. They spend the morning preparing (face paint, body paint, you name it - I’m sure you can find pictures on our Facebook page) and then they meet head to head by grade and gender while the running score is updated on the football scoreboard. The winning team is declared victorious (this year it was cardinal) and everyone heads to the Eagle Day Carnival to enjoy some activities, food, and a talent show. It was exhausting just watching! Eagle Day was an enjoyable way to close out the month. Now we set our sights on the final few weeks of the school year.
I spent the first few days of March in Baltimore at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference. One of the highlights for me was a reunion of my class from last summer’s Institute for New Heads. About half of the 75 or so in our class made it back for the reunion. It was encouraging and refreshing to share the joys and challenges of our first year with colleagues. It has been said that being the Head of School is lonely. I feel fortunate that I have such strong support in particular from my wife, Kristin; from my Board Chair, Ronnie Brown; and from my Associate Head of School, John McWilliams. I have also felt supported by the rest of the MA community including the board, the faculty and staff, the parents, and the alumni. I do not feel the loneliness many of my colleagues do, and for that I am grateful.
Our Spanish Honor Society honored me by asking me to speak at the annual induction ceremony. I brushed off the dust of my sadly underused Spanish and delivered a few words to the students in the language. They were kind enough to forgive my errors and we made it through the remarks. I do love languages and I told them I hoped they would continue to learn and speak Spanish for the rest of their lives. It reminded me that I need to take my own advice and make sure I am keeping up with Spanish myself!
In my spare time (yes, I do have some) I have enjoyed reconnecting with the piano. That is another area I have allowed to lapse, but I have been glad to see I have not lost it completely! The piano has often served as a great comfort to me. I first starting writing songs when I was spending a year in England between high school and college. I haven’t done so in quite a while, but playing some Billy Joel and Elton John is at least getting the juices flowing again. For some reason, it also seems to calm my dog. Even a song like Billy Joel’s “Pressure” somehow relaxes her.
Two of my children came home for spring break - Matt from The Hill School for three weeks, and Colin from Purdue University for a week. It was great for David to have his big brothers home for a little while, and Kristin and I enjoyed the time with them as well. We all had the opportunity to watch our very own Scott Bowman perform in “Sherlock Holmes” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Every play we have seen there has been superb, but knowing one of the professional actors makes it even more special. I also love being able to take my family to the theater.
Towards the end of the month, I had the privilege of witnessing Coach David Bethea’s induction into the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. He joins the distinguished ranks of MA coaches past and present, including Julie Gordon, Spence McCracken, Joe Mooty, and John Tatum. An impressive list indeed - congratulations, David!
The month ended with the annual “Head of School for the Day.” This year, fifth grader Mehtaab Sidhu met with a number of administrators to talk to them about their jobs, read his favorite “Fly Guy” book to the Kindergartners, and had lunch in the Aronov Leadership Center with a few of his friends, among other activities. I resumed my duties after lunch to allow him to return to class - a day well spent, and a great end to a busy month.
February started with one of the best basketball games I have seen. Our boys fought hard against Trinity, taking them to double overtime and just falling short of victory on senior night. It was a heartbreaking loss, but I was heartened by the halftime show. Cheerleaders from both schools demonstrated teamwork and camaraderie by blending together for a combined halftime show. Watching our girls lift Trinity girls and vice versa was a great picture of community that will last with me for a long time.
One week later I was treated to a wonderful performance of “12 Angry Jurors” by our Upper School students. After the final performance, we released our beloved theater director, Scott Bowman, to rehearse for and perform in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s run of “Sherlock Holmes.” He had asked me for permission to take a leave of absence in order to keep up his professional acting career in addition to doing what he loves. We found a substitute for his classes and proudly sent him on his way. I look forward to seeing him in the production in March, and then welcoming him back to campus after spring break.
After that, it was back to basketball, as the girls won the regional title and made it to the state final four for the fourth year in a row. They put in a great effort in that first game in Birmingham including a tremendous second half to come back from behind, but it was not quite enough to defeat a very strong Locust Fork team that went on to win the state championship. Although the defeat was disappointing, I know the soccer and tennis teams in particular are glad to have the basketball players back. One thing about the weather in Montgomery - spring sports can start early since it is so nice outside.
The final event of note for the month was the Gala. This was a fabulous success thanks to the efforts of a team of people, led by parent volunteer extraordinaire Kimberly Baker. I received a number of comments from parents about how perfect the venue was and how nice the atmosphere felt. I was impressed with the evening and the tremendous effort put forth to pull it all off. This was just one of many examples of what a supportive and engaged parent community we have. I have had a number of occasions recently to brag about the strength of our parent body. I truly consider it one of the great strengths of the school overall.
As we continue the march (get it?) towards spring break I appreciate the trust this community has placed in me and the support I have felt from all directions. I feel privileged indeed to do my part to continue the pursuit of excellence for all our students, faculty, families, and the entire MA community.
I have enjoyed continuing to meet MA Staff members and community leaders including members of the Alumni Council. I love to hear their stories and learn more about this wonderful city and school. The devotion to this institution by so many is remarkable. I feel honored to have a part in the shaping of the school’s future.
Speaking of the future, we have had a number of very successful admissions activities this month, including our annual Kindergarten Open House. I am excited to say that we have a large number of prospective families who have already completed their applications, well ahead of our mid-February deadline. On a related note, we have been hard at work to finalize details on a number of merit-based scholarships. These are important tools to help us attract the very best students to the school, including those who might not have otherwise considered attending. I appreciate very much the investment made by our donors to make these opportunities possible. I look forward to being able to unveil more details shortly.
I am pleased to report that our instrumental music pilot program is now underway! We have two levels of students (beginner and advanced) participating in an orchestra program before school. With such a strong tradition in the arts, including Chorus, visual art, and Speech and Debate, it is no surprise to find that we have talented instrumental musicians as well. In the list of fantastic arts programs, we don’t want to forget the Theater, one of my personal favorites. As season ticket holders at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, my family and I attend performances at that great theater often. This month we enjoyed watching one of our own students, Charlie Hill, perform in “Because of Winn Dixie.” This followed three students (including Charlie) in the ASF production last month of “A Christmas Carol.” These young actors are working alongside professional actors with impressive backgrounds and credentials, not to mention talent. I am proud that we have students involved in the arts at such a high level.I look forward to another great month in my dream job!
Happy New Year! The school calendar sets a rhythm that feels like a comfortable heartbeat. Excitement at the start of the school year in August, followed by some intense days and weeks throughout the fall, a quick break for Thanksgiving, a brief return to school to finish the semester, then a longer breather. I hope everyone else has returned from the break relaxed, refreshed, and recharged for another great semester. I know I am ready and excited to continue what has been a fantastic first year!
I enjoyed a visit in December to Indian Springs in Birmingham. I had been planning the trip since I met the new Head of School this summer when we were both attending the New Heads Institute in Atlanta. I enjoy comparing notes with other prominent Independent School Heads. Sharon Howell toured me around her campus as we talked about our first few months as Heads of School. She is an amazing leader and that is an amazing school - I look forward to our continued partnership over the years.
Closer to home, I enjoyed a number of events to celebrate the holiday season, including the tree lighting at ASF and the Glenn Miller holiday concert by the Airmen of Note at Troy University’s Davis Theater. Of course the big hit of the season was the Christmas Pageant at the Lower School. When I interviewed I asked the Search Committee what traditions or events they thought were important for me to know about the school to make sure I didn’t inadvertently change something that really needed to remain the same. The one I remember most clearly was the Christmas Pageant. Evidently alumni still remember the part they played, whether Drummer Boy or Narrator, or any of the long list of characters that have endured year after year. I think some children wore the same costumes that their parents wore in the pageant. It was indeed a great way to end the semester and head into the break.
As always, I appreciate the support I continue to receive from everyone in the community. Let’s all have a great spring semester!
This month I want to first share an excerpt from a reflection by Lower School Director, Nicole St. Amand, on a great event that my family and I thoroughly enjoyed:
The beautiful weather on November 4 provided the perfect backdrop for Montgomery Academy’s first ever STEAMfest. With the focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math, children preschool through 6th grade were able to choose from nearly thirty activities throughout the Lower School building. The event, which was free of charge and open to the community, was the first of its kind for MA. Some of the activities included virtual reality, a cardboard arcade designed and built by 2nd graders, a marble roller coaster, displays about water quality from Sarah Housley’s 6th grade, suminagashi art, a graffiti wall, paper airplanes and much, much more. Area organizations participating were the Montgomery Zoo, the Alabama Wildlife Federation, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Foomatic Makerspace, Auburn Robotics and Vizitech USA. With over 400 people in attendance, MA’s STEAMfest proved to be a success and set the stage for many more to come!
I am excited about the academic changes for next year. This is a fantastic school so I was hesitant to start implementing new programs right away, but with just a few minor modifications I think we are in a great position to improve on the tremendous education already being provided to our students. From instrumental music to Chinese, these enhancements to what is already an exceptional academic experience should be of immediate benefit to our wonderful students and families.
I have to say I can get used to the Alabama weather. I can still wear shorts when I take my puppy out at 5:30 in the morning. I know there will be some colder days coming, but not like where I came from.
Speaking of temperature, still the best part of taking this job is the warmth of the entire community. Students, faculty, parents, grandparents, alumni, and other friends of the school have all been very welcoming and supportive. The Southern Charm is alive and well and I appreciate everything everyone has done to make my first six months so enjoyable.
Our community lost a great man in October with the passing of Robert Schoenhof Weil at age 97. He was the last living member of the school’s first Board of Directors. He was also the senior living former Board Chair, having served in that capacity from 1970 - 1972. His contributions to The Montgomery Academy and to the greater community were tremendous and he will be missed.
Speaking of former Board Chairs, I have enjoyed my visits with nearly every living member of that prestigious group. I appreciate listening to their stories about the Academy in its earlier days. These men and women have sacrificed a great deal of their time to put the school where it is now and for that I am very grateful. I look forward to continuing conversations with these great individuals over the coming months and years.
I have continued my classroom visits and completed my initial meetings with teachers. I love to hear their stories about what brought them to the Academy and their goals for the future. Now that I have met with every teacher I am continuing my visits with staff members to hear their experiences and goals. I will now also begin monthly meetings with separate groups of the community, including parents, students, and faculty members. The purpose of these meetings is to hear what concerns people have to make sure I am considering the input of all those with an interest in the future of The Montgomery Academy.
As expected, when I announced the first changes for next year’s academic program there was a mixture of support and pushback. I am pleased that most of the comments I have received from parents have been overwhelmingly supportive, but I also appreciate the constructive suggestions I have received on how to improve communications in particular. I do not expect to please everyone with every change I make, but I do hope to communicate effectively in every situation. I continue to learn and will do my best to continue to improve, particularly in the area of communication.
On the personal side, as if we didn’t have enough going on with the construction in our house, we decided to adopt a puppy from the Humane Society, a “beautifully blended golden retriever” named Bailey. As much of a pain as it is to get up in the night to take her out, I have to say I have enjoyed having a dog once again after many years without one.
Thanks to everyone who has continued to make me feel welcome. I appreciate the tremendous support this community has provided my family and me.
During much of the past few weeks I have been touring the country meeting alumni from the class of 1966. Next weekend we will celebrate their reunion – marking 50 years since they graduated. This is the first 50th reunion in the school’s history, so I wanted to make sure the members of this class knew how much they meant to The Montgomery Academy. Of the 17 living members of the class we were able to track down 13. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting them all, as well as two members of the class who did not graduate but are still going to be honored as “Golden Eagles” in recognition of their participation in the class for a number of years. At least eight and as many as 10 of the 13 will be on hand for the celebration. I look forward to welcoming them back to campus.
That same night, Friday the 14th, we will hold a dedication ceremony to honor the memory of John Tatum. Coach Tatum’s family will be present as we dedicate the grand archway, the “John H. Tatum, Jr. Eagle Walk,” that will lead to the football field. All who pass through will be reminded of his remarkable legacy.
I have continued to enjoy my meetings with faculty members, former board chairs, and other key members of the community, as well as my visits to the classrooms on both campuses. In particular, my visit to the Calculus AB (AP) class brought back great memories, as that is the class I taught for the longest time in my previous position.
We welcomed John Catone as Director of Advancement at the end of September. He lost no time in acclimating as he immediately became involved in the planning of the many exciting events happening during homecoming/alumni weekend, October 14 and 15. I look forward to showing off our beautiful campus and our wonderful community to our returning alumni from all over the country.
Many have asked me how things are going. I have taken to responding by saying that “this is my dream job,” because that is exactly how I feel. This is a fabulous school with terrific people surrounding me every day. I have been warned that there will come a time when “the honeymoon is over,” but I don’t believe a word of it. I am enjoying every day at The Montgomery Academy and hope to continue doing so for many years to come.
August saw the passing of a giant in our community. I am sorry that I never had the opportunity to meet John Tatum. At his funeral I met a number of the many hundreds of people who came to celebrate his life and his impact on others. John Tatum was a coach, a teacher, a role model, a mentor, and a friend to many. David Bethea did a superb job of capturing the essence of a legend during his remarks at the service. John Tatum will be dearly missed.
August also saw the return of the students to school, with their energy and enthusiasm that makes this profession such a joy. I have had a wonderful time in the classrooms in all three divisions, learning the special culture that is MA: from Sydney Herbert’s picture stories in Kindergarten; to Dinah McLemore’s lower school STEM lab; to seeing Writer’s Workshop come alive in so many classrooms; to spending most days at lunch with my own son, David, in the cafeteria; to seeing a master at work in the Chorus room in Damion Womack; to Ivy Asworth’s AP Chemistry class; and many more fantastic experiences. I have also enjoyed the athletic events, including a particularly enjoyable football game in which our 3A team was able to defeat a larger 4A team quite handily, and two volleyball tournaments in which we went undefeated. I have even started to use Twitter to post the scores of the events in real-time (or as near as my one-finger typing will allow). This is a new experience for me, but I am pleased to say that it seems to be going just fine so far.
I am also pleased with the appointment of John Catone as the new Director of Advancement. He brings decades of experience to the position, along with a genuine spirit of compassion and caring. I look forward to his arrival to begin full-time later this month. Then I won’t be the new(est) guy any more!
In July I attended the New Heads Institute in Atlanta. This conference, hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools, is intended to help new Heads of School around the country start the year off right. I enjoyed meeting more than 70 colleagues from all over the country and even a few from overseas, and I look forward to maintaining some of the relationships begun during the week-long conference. Someone pointed out how ironic it is that we had lectures for more than two hours straight each day, even though research has shown that schools would do well to consider moving away from the exclusive use of the lecture-style content delivery method. To be fair, we did also participate in some small group discussion sessions each day, which were much more valuable.
As I look ahead to the school year about to begin, it is hard for me to picture a year without teaching or coaching. I plan to teach a leadership seminar course for seniors at some point, but I don’t know that I will be able to pull it off during my first year. What I will miss the most is coaching. I can’t imagine getting back into that world at this point, mainly because it wouldn’t be fair to the kids. I recognize that I will not have the time to devote to the pursuit of excellence in coaching, so I will have to pass the torch to those who do still have the time to devote to that vital role.
What I have enjoyed most so far this summer in my meetings with administrators and teachers is listening to their professional goals and thinking about how I can help them achieve those goals. This is one of the main reasons I decided to accept this position in the first place – knowing that I could make a difference in the lives of those who are called to educate our precious children. I balance my move away from coaching students with my move towards coaching adults. The team concept still applies, and I am excited to be working with the great team at The Montgomery Academy.