Making Private School Education More Accessible

The following op-ed was featured in the Central Phoenix and Northeast Phoenix Arizona Republics on Saturday, August 8, 2015. 

Head of School, All Saints' Episcopal Day School

Leo P. Dressel, Head of School, All Saints’ Episcopal Day School

Making Private School Education More Accessible 

The landscape within private school education has changed dramatically and rapidly. Two contextual factors have played a major role in some of the most recent changes in that landscape. The lengthy recession has had long-term financial impact on schools, requiring the need to devote more tuition assistance to more families — including some who could previously pay the full tuition at a school. The “new normal” makes determination of annual tuition levels a more painstaking process, which in fact requires careful stewardship.

A second factor that has had significant influence is the growth of charter schools, a particularly impactful reality in Arizona. As school options have increased, private schools now have to demonstrate and communicate more effectively their educational and developmental value – and not just their cost.

There always will be a role for private education in our country, but in order for those schools to thrive they will have to be flexible, nimble and creative. I strongly believe that the best private schools have a clear community purpose and that purpose can be embodied in a variety of ways.

One way a private school can achieve its public purpose is by a commitment to easier access of education to traditionally underserved segments of our community, especially during the crucial early learning years. This commitment of inclusion is deeply rooted in the All Saints’ Episcopal Day School educational philosophy and school culture.

We recognize paying for an independent school education can be a challenge for many families, and it is our goal that economic standing should not be the only determining factor when weighing educational options. Therefore, we have adopted the Indexed Tuition model because we want to provide our offerings to as many deserving children as possible by working with each individual family’s situation.

Diversity on every level enriches the educational opportunity for all students, and participation of a wide range of families is critical to a healthy thriving school and overall student experience. Indexed Tuition allows us to further enrich the community, fosters inclusion, and enhances the educational and social-emotional experience for both children and their parents.

At a school like ours, which is pre-secondary in scope, we are acutely aware our mission is to prepare our graduates for extensive continued high-quality education and personal development long after they leave us. Our mission statement captures that sentiment quite well in its closing words: “preparing students to lead fruitful lives and to serve a world in need.” At the core of our mission is a commitment to enable all students to lead lives not only of success but more importantly of meaning and purpose.

Globalization is a reality that cannot be ignored by schools. While there remains essential value in a school being a safe haven, no longer can we be places of insularity and exclusivity. We must prepare our students for the world in which they will live their adult lives, and so we must open the world to them in developmentally appropriate ways while they are with us.

We have the luxury of offering a rich palette of enrichment experiences for our students on an intimate scale that ensures that no student falls through the cracks. We can set our expectations high without apology and with the support of the school community. One way in which we describe this dimension of our school is as a place of “maximum challenge and maximum support.”

The Episcopal identity of our school is also a wonderful asset since we have a clear religious identity, one core feature of which is a commitment to inclusion. We encourage every child and adult to respect his or her own religious and cultural traditions, and also the traditions of others. We are able to speak and act clearly regarding the non-cognitive dimensions of a quality education of children “in the light of God-mind, body, soul.”

While my life’s work has been in the sector of independent private education, most of it in faith-based schools, I am a strong supporter of public education. As states have felt the negative effects of the recession and its lingering aftermath, support for public education seems to have taken a disproportionate share of the brunt of budgetary constriction. This is certainly true in Arizona.

Accountability is important and necessary for all schools, but the budgetary approach taken in many states seems quite shortsighted. Both the educational and business communities seem to recognize this, but the political sector seems to be on a different page. I happen to believe that a community is strongest when the traditional public school, charter public school, and private school sectors are all healthy. That is not the case in most parts of the country, and we are the poorer for it- now and in the years to come.

Leo P. Dressel is head of school at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School.

For more information about the Indexed Tuition program offered at All Saints’, please call 602.274.4866 or visit http://www.aseds.org/.

The Interior Life

There were many intriguing and intellectually challenging presentations at the recent annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).  Design thinking was the centerpiece theme of the gathering, an idea that stretched my perspective in exciting ways.  However, the session about which I have reflected the most since the conference is the conversation conducted by a panel of four current and past university presidents and facilitated by John Chubb, President of NAIS.  The expectation for every student in our school- and in almost every independent school- is that every one of our graduates will continue his or her formal education long after leaving us.  Although our oldest students are in eighth grade, we think of ourselves as a college prep school.  The structure of the conversation among university presidents focused on what pre-secondary independent schools ought to be doing to make their graduates as ready as possible for university life.

While we are a college prep school, we also claim in our mission statement that we are a life prep school (“… preparing students to lead fruitful lives”).  I was reminded of that when one of the panelists mentioned changes she has noticed in today’s collegians from those who have gone before.  While she certainly urged all of us to continue to help students develop language and quantitative skills (imperiled skills at that), she also lamented the fact that today’s college students have an inadequately developed sense of interiority (her word).  There is no doubt in my mind that external stimuli have overwhelmed the interior life for many of us- to our detriment as the panelist pointed out.  She further noted how many students on her campus are plagued by anxiety and depression.   While I have no clinical standing to make such a connection, I have wondered whether a healthy interiority might make us less susceptible to those maladies.

Student Chapel Presentation

One of the All Saints’ eighth grade students was the guest preacher in chapel on March 10, 2015.

On a brighter note I am consoled that at All Saints’ we consciously and intentionally make the effort to develop the interior life of our students in age-appropriate ways.  Chapel is an obvious means for promoting such development.  When all of us on occasion are asked by the celebrant to be still and reflect quietly, the result is extremely powerful.  The student presentations at chapel provide other invitations for us to be reflective – exquisitely demonstrated by our eighth grade preacher at this morning’s chapel.  We are committed to our weekly chapel services because they are uniquely powerful moments of community and contemplation, wonderful examples of educating our students head to soul.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Not The One Thing

At last month’s conference of the National Association of Episcopal Schools there were many wonderful moments and events.  While the biennial gathering is always positive, instructive, and inspiring, this year’s conference had an especially celebratory tone as the association proudly and gratefully celebrates its golden anniversary this academic year.  (All Saints’ Episcopal Day School counts itself as a charter member of the organization.)  While there were many highlights, one of the most lasting for me was the talk delivered by noted author and clinical psychologist, Madeline Levine.  Her book The Price of Privilege has had significant influence on Episcopal and independent schools since most of our school communities can rightly be described as privileged (in many ways).  Dr. Levine is not only wise but also very funny, so her cogent insights land fairly lightly into one’s consciousness.

One of her declarations at her NAES talk was that our schools are preparing our students for ambiguity.  I believe she is absolutely correct – most young people neither expect nor want to have one “thing” that they do for the bulk of their adult lives.  However, I have also been reminded since hearing Dr. Levine that there is something in us that resists that ambiguity.  Teachers and parents are constantly searching for the one thing that children need to succeed.  There has been much recent coverage in the press about the increase in the number of college applications being filed by high school students, especially those enrolled in independent schools.  In a recent New York Times article reasons cited for this trend include the advent of the common application, the need to cast a wide net for the most favorable financial package, and perhaps most fundamentally fear that the one right school might be missed if an applicant’s target schools list is too short.  A mere two weeks later, another article in the same newspaper noted that there are still plenty of fine options for talented, accomplished, and motivated students.  Colleges and universities are apparently in no rush to discourage this wave of increased applications since it makes their acceptance rates look ever more impressive – on the theory that the lower the acceptance percentage, the better the school must be.  Sadly, I believe that the theory is probably correct because of our search for the one school that will perfectly fit each student’s needs and aspirations.

Perhaps the one thing is not so tangible as a particular school or a particular occupation or a particular place in which to live.  In her NAES address Dr. Levine also said that she “is over happy, and is now into meaning.  Maybe meaning (or conviction or passion or values or principle, if one prefers) is the one thing – a “thing” that does not lend itself to reduction or confinement to the “one things” which occupy so much of our energy and attention, especially when we ponder what is most important for our young people.  The one thing may indeed not be the one thing for them.”

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Milestones, Not Millstones

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Dr. Carson and the Advanced Honors Language Arts class celebrate Bow Tie Day with Mr. Dressel.

I have experienced two life events in recent weeks that have had a major positive impact on me.  One was my birthday late last month, my 68th.  That is not usually considered a milestone natal day, but 68 has had significant personal importance for me over the past three decades.  Each of my parents died at age 68 less than one year apart and 30+ years ago.  So for many years birthday 68 has loomed on the horizon as an aspiration and a reminder.  So when I reached that life moment recently, I was grateful for a couple reasons- one for living to see that day and one for having the opportunity to reminisce about my parents that reaching that particular birthday inspired.

Last weekend I attended my 50-year high school reunion in St. Louis, definitely a milestone moment by any measure.  I attended an all-boys Jesuit high school (almost two hundred years old itself, by the way), and there were 212 graduates in my class.  We have been most fortunate in many ways.  Only 14 of our classmates have died over the past 50 years.  Even though many of my confreres served in Vietnam, not one lost his life.  Our alma mater has contact information for 180 surviving members of the Class of 1964, and well more than half of us took part in one or more events on the reunion weekend.  The tone of the gathering was extremely positive since life has been very good for the vast majority of us and also because we have reached the “nothing to prove, but much to celebrate” time in our lives.  Our class is on the leading edge of the baby boom, with almost all of us born in 1946.  For much of our lives my generation has denied our mortality, first by not trusting anyone over 30 (an ancient age in our youth) to deceiving ourselves that 40 is the new 30, 50 the new 40, etc.  I joked with some of my classmates that the best we can claim at this point is that 68 is not as old as it was in our parents’ day.  So 68 is the new 68, but 68 nonetheless.  And for me that is a cause for rejoicing.

These events made me poignantly aware of the mystery of time and the important role our perspective plays in our perception of time.  Years ago one aspect of this mystery was brilliantly illustrated by Joni Mitchell in her song “The Circle Game.”  But in addition to its circularity, there is also a clear linear quality to the passage of time as we are reminded by Five for Fighting in their much more recent pop hit “100 years.”

But in the end, no matter where each of us is in relation to life’s circularity and timeline, what each of us has is today- and only today- to live.  And today is thus the most important milestone of all.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

One of One, Not One of 50+

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Eighth Grade Lunch with Mr. Taylor’s Advisory

At the beginning of each school year I enjoy hosting lunches for each of our eighth grade advisory groups so that I can connect with our oldest students in a smaller group setting as they embark on their last year in our school.  At these lunches I ask each group if anyone has any questions or suggestions for me.  At today’s lunch one student asked me how long I have taught.  There were looks of disbelief around the table when I mentioned that my first teaching job started in the fall of 1971.  The looks were understandable since that year is three lifetimes ago for our eighth graders.

Coincidentally, I had recently counted how many school years I have enjoyed as student, teacher, or administrator.  It’s well past 50 years and could be even higher were I to count some years when I had oversight responsibilities for a group of Jesuit high schools in a particular region.  I did not do this tally in order to pat myself on the back for my durability and staying power but rather to savor the gratitude I still felt as I began this year at All Saints’.  I am graced to have spent so many years in environments I love and that I find deeply enriching and engaging.

That in turn led me to reflect on something from that first teaching assignment, which took place at a Jesuit high school in Kansas City.  One of my colleagues there was a jovial Jesuit priest who at that point had been teaching Latin at the school for several decades.  Whenever anyone remarked about something that happened at school on a given day, the priest would chuckle and utter the following: “It happens every year!”  I found myself annoyed by that response, and I finally figured out the reason.  The priest, who clearly had admirable qualities of persistence and commitment, apparently did not embrace the newness- in fact the uniqueness- of every year.  From his perspective he had replicated the same year dozens of time, and in that approach is something unsettling and unsatisfactory.

So ultimately it matters less that this is my fiftieth+ school year than that 2014-15 is the one and only year that each of us at All Saints’ have been gifted.  If I do not embrace this year as precious and unique, I shortchange my eighth grade lunch companions and everyone else at our school.  If “it happens every year” is my default response, then I shall have ignored the special possibilities that this year offers.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

The Virtue of Single Tasking

Since so many of us pride ourselves on how much work we can accomplish, myself certainly included, I think it time to make the case for the virtue of single tasking as opposed to the limits of multitasking.  Actually I do not have to make the case since multiple research-based cases have been made that multitasking is not all it has been cracked up to be. 

Of course the negative consequences of multitasking vary wildly in term of the damage done.  The most tragic consequence is chillingly and graphically presented in public service announcements urging people to refrain from texting and driving.  The case could not be more compelling, but this phenomenon has not been eliminated in spite of the dire warnings.  

On the other end of the spectrum are those moments of leisure where the stakes are not very high: reading a newspaper while glancing at the television perhaps with headphones sending music in our ears.  Perhaps in that instance we are not really multitasking; we’re escaping from all tasks through sensory overload.  

My concern is about those middle-range activities, important but not necessarily life-changing in and of themselves.  I include items like reading a book, writing a letter, paying bills, having a conversation, doing homework, watching a performance, or writing a blog. 

One can only conclude that we all think we are better at multitasking than the research evidence indicates.  If doing one thing is good, two is better, and on and on.  But we are definitely in the land of diminishing returns.  In fact we are not saving time, the quality of our task performance is diminished, and mistakes are more plentiful.  Nonetheless we resist these realities, perhaps because the menu of options for each of us grows daily.  There is no little irony that the term multitasking was first used to describe computer capabilities.  Alas, we are people, not computers.  (That’s good news, by the way.) 

For me a great aid to single tasking is list making.  Such lists have proven invaluable to me over the years as I have worked to sharpen my focus.  Lists need to be limited.  Otherwise we are sorely tempted to multitask since that is the only way to address (inadequately) a list that is too long.  Lists also need to be prioritized: first things first.  If on a given day, I have not accomplished one or more tasks on the list, it is most likely for one of two reasons.  My list is too long, or I have deferred a challenging task that ought to have been first on my to-do list- not last.  

Until next time… 

My best,

Leo