“I so do not want your job.”
Over the past several weeks, I’ve heard this sentiment from several parents who have followed my posts summarizing our recent survey about what parents love and what parents don’t about Petra Academy. For those concerned for my well-being, let me say thank you, but let me also add that the job’s really not so bad! That’s because it’s not about me, but about our mission and our efforts to accomplish it that matters.
In this, my third (and final) post concerning the survey, I’d like to respond to some of the affirmations given, as well as to many of the critiques offered. I want to do this by letting our mission statement guide my responses, as it represents what our board, administrative leadership, and faculty have affirmed as the “how” to fulfill the “why” of our vision “to prepare students for godly, purposeful lives.” For review:
Recognizing our need for God’s grace, Petra Academy strives to awaken love and wonder in our students, teaching them to observe with humility, reason with logic, and articulate with charity for the flourishing of humanity and the renown of Jesus the Christ.
Recognizing our need for God’s grace…
We are not a perfect school, and I am far from being a perfect Headmaster. In reading your comments, it’s clear that we’ve missed some things on more than one occasion; “sometimes confusing” communication from the school, as well as interaction that has seemed less than “warm” were two of the critiques shared. While parents affirmed many of the improvements we have made with our weekly digital communications, we can always do better, which is why we’re bringing back Second Cup in hopes of being as personal as possible.
As Headmaster, I recognize that, in my enthusiasm to grow the school, I at times create more angst than intended by introducing new or different initiatives. This is more of a “read-between-the-lines” observation (no one came right out and said it), but I know that the jury is (justifiably) still out in some parents’ minds as to the “new guy,” as voiced in reminders like “please maintain and continue to improve Petra’s high academic standards” (as if those were up for debate). Indeed, my strengths of intuition and decisiveness could become weaknesses for us, which is why I’m grateful for the oversight of our Board of Directors and the teams I’ve built around me administratively and educationally to keep me from going off the rails.
With daily interactions among 198 students from 125 families, our 30 faculty and staff have undoubtedly blown it at times; we can be too impatient, too demanding, and too defensive when confronted with our own sin. We pray together about these challenges on a weekly basis, and ask for your grace, forgiveness, and loving engagement when we fail you or your student(s), for as Proverbs reminds us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6)
…Petra Academy strives to awaken love and wonder in our students…
Despite our failings as faculty, my observation (both as Headmaster, as well as a parent of four children at the school) aligns with much of your shared feedback that our teachers are amazing people who shape our kids in amazing ways. This, I believe, is due not only to the character of our staff and their hearts for your children (to which many of you spoke), but also the competence in how they implement and inhabit our scope and sequence. Our teachers do not just handle our curriculum; they are our curriculum, and I was glad to see so many comments from parents recognizing this inspiring aspect of our school.
…teaching them to observe with humility, reason with logic, and articulate with charity…
As a classical school (and as verbalized in this particular statement of our mission), the Trivium is the time-tested methodology we use to organize and implement our education of children. In talking with parents (new and current) about their educational goals for their children, I have found that the degree to which parents understand and embrace the Trivium as a complete and satisfactory philosophy of education is the indicator of how well they (and their student(s)) will fare at our school.
In light of our commitment to the Trivium, we will not be a school that chases the winds of “student-” or “learner-centered” education, nor of “21st century” classrooms in which teachers cannot teach without technology. Certainly, we are glad to engage God’s natural world of the great outdoors (and what an outdoors we have here in Bozeman!), and it is good for students to learn the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of technology as a subject matter, but neither is a sufficient enough end in itself to lose the forest for the trees.
Likewise, providing “honors” classes or making room for outside AP courses is not going to be high on our list of educational objectives. Academic Advisor Beth Stohlmann is working on a series of Scholar’s Forum articles that will more specifically address these topics (as well as our SAT/ACT testing recommendations), but suffice it to say that the majority of our classes are already “honors” (a very arbitrary term within education), and outside AP courses are more of a regression to grammar-level (as opposed to rhetoric-level) learning. Finally, we want to be careful diving into fast-moving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) streams without our oars of humanities training to navigate such waters.
We are not going to stop giving homework. While we continue to monitor homework loads and put into place systems to improve our coordination of assignments among teachers, the fact is that we are a school that takes academic scholarship seriously, both in its excellence and in its expectations. After reading through the survey results, I took an informal poll of the Great Hall (study hall) that I oversee on Tuesdays, made up of approximately 40 7th-12th grade students, and asked students to estimate how many minutes (minus the distractions of texting, music listening, television watching, Internet surfing, etc.) they spent doing homework each evening. The average was 92 minutes, which is very much within our accepted and reasonable range.
We’re also not going to schedule or pay for “dress-down” days for our student body. I recognize this is counter-cultural to much of our Bozeman informality, but as a classical and Christian school calling students to excellence in all that we do, counter-cultural is what we should be. As Douglas Wilson, in his book The Case for Classical and Christian Education writes, “Of course, we should dress for comfort, but the biblical view is that we should also dress for the comfort of others. Today our natural tendency is to dress to suit ourselves. In another era, students would dress to make themselves presentable. Now students want to dress to make themselves at ease. The former generations thought of others; we now insist on putting ourselves first.” Philippians 2:4 encourages the believer to “look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Our dress is just one area through which we can teach and practice the virtue of selflessness with our kids on a weekly basis.
Following in the footsteps of Plato (among others), we believe that forms and structures are important, and while we keep our ear to the ground of the more modern forms and philosophies of education, its theories, and its research, we do so always in deference to the millennia of what classical and Christian education has taught us over the centuries: that God is the Great Teacher who is always teaching; that education of students has as much to do with forming their character as informing their minds; and that teaching students how to learn humbly, logically, and charitably is the best way to ensure that they continue to learn what they will need to know to live and love well.
…for the flourishing of humanity and the renown of Jesus the Christ.
Culture is an expression of community, and the culture of our community matters. I was heartened by many of your comments about how much you love our community and its culture, but I was also saddened by words from several parents who said they wanted to encounter more of it but couldn’t figure out how. We want to do better, which is why we’re at work to make your school interactions more significant for you and your family’s flourishing.
One of the things we’ve identified is that, beginning next year, we want to focus our requests for volunteer help on the most meaningful experiences parents have with us – volunteering in the classroom and as part of our musical, theatrical, and athletic endeavors. We’re a big enough school now that we should be able to figure out how to warm up meals at lunch and cover recess – things that happen in the middle of the day and are an impossibility for most parents and a hassle for others – without asking you to do that. Of course, we’re never going to turn away volunteers who enjoy those activities (and we still need you to finish up this year with us if you’re serving in these capacities now), but we want to facilitate volunteer experiences that build rather than burden our community as much as possible.
Because we are made up of 36 different churches (as well as several families who do not claim faith at all), we want to continue to be a trans-denominational school that welcomes (rather than forbids) denominational differences, as well as respects (rather than chastises) skeptics. As we have been and are clear with every family interested in or involved at Petra, we are a predominantly Protestant Christian school; this, however, doesn’t mean we have to be mad about it! While required as part of our accreditation with the Association of Classical and Christian Schools, ours is a Protestantism that is Augustinian in nature – a joyful and welcoming ecumenism that is friendly to those who do not espouse the Protestant particulars of our Christian faith, and loving of those who do not espouse the Christian faith at all.
As we look to next year, we think we’ve figured out a way to accommodate our Orthodox brethren’s slightly-different church calendar by moving Recitation Days to the first Friday of every month rather than the last (this also addresses several concerns from parents that weeks like the last one before Christmas were too busy, so it’s a win-win). And, while we’re still going to celebrate our Reformation/All Saint’s Day feast to honor both our Protestant and Catholic traditions, we want to continue to give families charitable freedom to abstain from attendance as we did this year. The Church’s history is messy and difficult, yes, but as I communicated in my message at the feast this fall, Christ’s call to unity can and should foster unity among us, as our trans-denominational identity may be our school’s greatest witness to the renown of Jesus the Christ.
Other “flourishing” feedback we’re thinking through:
After-school programs – we know it’s a need and that it could provide a meaningful service to several of our families, but we don’t want to just provide childcare for two hours each day; we want to see kids flourish (rather than just be babysat) even after school, and that’s going to require some time, planning, and focus to figure out.
More athletic offerings – we’ve had the most growth in numbers ever in our five years of athletics at Petra, but the reality is that athletic growth corresponds with census growth; the best way to see more sports offered is to commit to be with us for the long-term, encourage your student(s) to participate, and help recruit new students to join and do the same.
Re-enrollment – some have communicated that they’re a little nervous about the May 15 deadline for full financial commitment, so as we’ve moved up the start of re-enrollment (details here), we’ve tried to at least simplify and make it cheaper – $100 instead of $400 per student – to lock in a spot for next year; we’ve also tried to give as long a window of final evaluation (until May 15) as we can, but the reality is that, in order to make commitments to our teachers, we need parent commitments to our school by then.
Finally (and this is a big nut to crack), we want to begin working toward providing more help for parents who have students with some degree of special needs. I hesitate sharing this, not because I don’t want to be held to it, but because having taught four years at a school in St. Louis with a fully-developed special needs learning center, I know how much time, money, and effort it takes to build, staff, and maintain. This is an initiative that will take years to develop, and while I don’t know now what exactly it might look like when it’s complete, I do want us to begin taking steps to figure it out. Please pray for us and for those families with children struggling academically at Petra, that we may do all we can to help them as they seek to help their children learn and grow.
There you have it: my best attempt (on behalf of our Board, leadership, and faculty/staff) to respond to the feedback from you, our parents. Again, my goal in writing has been to provide as much background and thought so that, as you consider next year and possibly beyond for your student(s), you’ll have what you need to make an informed decision for your family as to whether Petra is your best fit. We hope it will be!
To serve as another means to that end, please consider joining us this coming Wednesday, February 17, anytime between 8:30-10:30 a.m. in the cafeteria for our Second Cup. Mr. Christofferson and I hope to meet with as many parents who want more answers on these or any other questions you may still have. Stay late after drop-off or come early before the 5th-7th grade Spelling Bee at 10:30.
Thanks for reading, and of course, you’re always welcome to send me your thoughts.