Enough Said!

Dear Academy Families,

Exams! Year’s end! Summer! See you next year! Enough said!

Warm regards,

Jim Berkman
Head of School

Beginning and Ending on a Strong Note

As we approach Commencement next week for Seniors and the wrap up a few weeks later for all students, it is time to look at the next academic year. We are ending on a strong note, with Seniors excited about their impressive college choices (and we’re pleased that the “match” seems strong for them), as well as with year-end Academy traditions like our spring concert to savor (if you missed the two world premieres by BUA sophomore composers and the Stravinsky piece — all performed in Marsh Chapel to a full house — you missed savoring a lot!).

Looking to next year, one of the most exciting factoids from this year involves our amazing admission results. I’ll remind you that our past Strategic Plan set a goal for modest growth, so that our traditional model, which divided our freshman classes of 39-42 students into three sectionsof about 13-14 kids, might grow to 44-48 new freshmen spread across four sections of 11-12 students each over the course of the coming years. Two years ago on April 10 (the deadline for our first round of offers), we enrolled more students than we had projected! That class opened in September with 49 students, our largest class ever, affirming our belief that getting bigger does not have to mean lowering our standards; it was also a very strong cohort comprised mainly of our first choice offers.

While our number of applicants has remained strong, and our acceptance rate has remained steady, one reason for a larger enrollment in 2012 was our improved “yield” results (the number who accept our offer to enroll), which improved significantly in large part because we focused on new yield strategies (such as local gatherings in BUA homes and more outreach to accepted students). This year we experienced another strong yield on our first round offers (6 percentage pointsabove our five-year average): putting us currently at a freshmen class of 50 – again, made up of our most highly qualified applicants.

As we did for the fall of 2012, we plan to accommodate this larger freshmen class by shifting to a four-section model. While we will have done this two of the last three admission seasons, I have indicated to Provost Morrison that we won’t restructure permanently until we show a sustained growth… again, that means a modest increase from our traditional high of 42 to a new minimum of 44 freshmen.

It is rare to be able to point to such quantifiable success in strategic goals, but on our planned modest growth, we can do so…in student numbers as well as in their academic credentials. Now if only we could measure our fabulous spring concerts so concretely…no, scratch that! Art is meant to be savored, not measured…and as we wrap up this good year and anticipate a strong one next year as well, there’s a lot to savor.

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman

Our Strong and Varied Student Body

It’s now May…and after such a rough winter, it’s hard to fathom!

Which reminds me of a story (apocryphal?) of one May when Gertrude Stein was taking a philosophy exam in a course given by William James.  As the story goes, all she wrote on her exam was, “It’s too pretty a day out to take this exam.” In that spirit, I’d like to say that it’s too pretty a day out to write my weekly letter.  But in fact it’s raining out today, so here goes!

One of our most important strengths – after our superb faculty and our connection to BU – is our strong and varied student body. I deeply believe that some of the best learning for each student results from a group of exciting peers, and I see that belief come to life in every classroom, every day. In order to enroll the strongest students, it is vital to have a thriving financial aid budget, which we are fortunate to have, due to both the support of BU and the generosity of our families. We have about 38% of our students receiving aid, and the average grant is around $21,000. But in truth, there is never enough aid in our budget to help each deserving family and student as much as we would like.

One way we maintain this strong and varied student body, therefore,  is by raising addition funds annually to supplement our financial aid budget, often with a gala and an auction. This year, we are trying variations on our usual events: We began in the fall with a barbecue to support financial aid, and this spring we are piloting a “Camp Wing Encore” challenge to see which two classes can raise the most money.  The winners will spend June 9 at Camp Wing, where among other activities they will face off in a game of Capture the Flag! Were all families to contribute – and if you had come to the gala or bid in the auction, this is easier to do! – we would reach our goal this spring of raising an additional $12,000.

Other ways to support financial aid and the Academy’s Annual Fund will be a raffle of two Red Sox Pavilion Club seats if you donate a gift to the Annual Fund greater than $100 by May 20. And please also join us at the parents-only reception we are hosting as part of our fundraising challenge, held immediately before the Spring Concert on Tuesday evening, May 13.

Maybe next week, if it’s not raining, I’ll say “it’s too pretty to take this exam!”

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Practice What We Preach

I receive a weekly report called the “Marshall Memo: A Weekly Round-up of Important Ideas and Research in K-12 Education” that summarizes articles from 64 core publications (and branches out to other publications frequently; in 533 issues, there have been articles from a total of 285). Here are the publications that have provided 100 articles or more in the past:

Education Week – 703 articles

Educational Leadership – 576

Phi Delta Kappan – 367

Principal Leadership – 274

The New York Times – 268

Harvard Business Review – 181

Middle Ground/AMLE Magazine – 161

American Educator – 143

The Reading Teacher – 123

Principal – 118

PEN Weekly Newsblast – 116

Journal of Staff Development – 115

American School Board Journal – 112

Reading Today – 105

The Language Educator – 104

Chronicle of Higher Education – 102

Middle School Journal – 100

Two topics on parenting in this week’s summary caught my eye, first from ”Parental Involvement Is Overrated” by Keith Robinson and Angel Harris (The New York Times, April 13, 2014, p. SR7). Despite common assumptions that parents can help children do better in school, this research suggests that some basic parental attempts do NOT produce better results: observing class; contacting school about a child’s behavior; checking in with a teacher; attending PTA meetings; helping decide a student’s high-school courses; and helping with homework. None of these yielded better test scores or grades.  Actually, helping with homework resulted in LOWER achievement (probably since the parent, not the student, was engaged in learning). There were some cultures, however, where parent help raised grades but not test scores, mostly from Asian ethnicities. Still, the authors felt parents could be positive by, among other things, communicating the importance of education and discussing with the student what is happening in school.

The second topic that gives me more hope that we as parents really DO make a difference is from “Raising a Moral Child” by Adam Grant (The New York Times, April 13, 2014, p. SRI, 6-7). It is best to praise character, not praise or reward behavior (“you are a helpful person” rather than “that was helpful”); nouns work better than verbs (“Don’t be a cheater” sinks in deeper than “Don’t cheat.”); evoke guilt not shame by explaining your disappointment (make them feel remorse about their action, not about their character); and model caring and generous behavior (children learn more from observing than from being told how to act).

So, refrain from helping with homework – though it is still fine to discuss how your student will best structure and organize that work. Ask how the day/week is going, and remind your teenager that academic and personal skills developed at the Academy will help not only in college (including at BU) but also in life. And practice what we preach!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Note to the Editor

Last week I read an interesting op-ed column by David Brooks on “The Employer’s Creed,” in which he makes a number of valid points about hiring to promote cultural values (The New York Times, April 1). Who wouldn’t want workers imbued with resilience, honesty, and humanity?

That said, Brooks assumes that uniformly high grades are a signal of conformity, and that switching to less prestigious options would be a sign of courage and nobility. These are superficial and unhelpful measures to identify people with the values he esteems — I know from my experience with BUA students that his assumptions are not uniformly so.

Someone can have a passion for a single subject as well as be able to speak truth to power (both of which Brooks advocates rewarding) while maintaining a straight-A average (which he says points away from these traits); and someone who steps off the fast track for a less prestigious alternate route might be doing so not because of some noble goal (as Mr. Brooks posits), but because she or he is conflict-averse. Our students show that non-conformity, creative out-of-the-box thinking, and high integrity can all go hand-in-hand with high grades and fast-track options.

The values Mr. Brooks admires should indeed be sought by our employers, and he rightly predicts that such an employer’s creed might guide our culture more strongly toward such traits. His assumptions about how to test prospective hires for these values, however, belittle the very qualities he encourages us all to attain. At the Academy, we “hire” new students all the time, keeping all of these admirable factors in mind.

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

The Budding Warmth of Spring

It’s that time of year: admitted students checking us out; college acceptances arriving for our Seniors; and April weather peeking its balmy head above this winter’s cold!

I hope many of you can join us at our Admitted Student Reception this Sunday, April 6, from 4-6 p.m. in the SMG atrium and theater; please let our Admission Office know if you can attend. It’s a cast of thousands, and gives our prospective freshmen a great opportunity not only to talk to current students, parents and faculty, but also to get a sense of the cohort they’d be joining as classmates and friends for four years. I’ve always found it to be one of our most uplifting events.

And I’m pleased to report that our Seniors all have a home for next year, and many will spend the next few weeks making decisions about their exciting choices. Later this month, the final versions of their Senior Theses will be due, followed in early May by their oral presentations. We’re in the chute to Commencement now!

Perhaps most telling, the cruel winter has finally broken, and at last we can enjoy the budding warmth of spring.

On that note, have a great week!

WARM  regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

On Censorship

Periodically a question of “censorship” falls into my lap…though I have a different label for it (which we’ll get to below). Sometimes it involves a choice of dramatic production (Urinetown? some provocative 10-minute play to show at assembly?), sometimes it comes from the creative writing of our students submitted to our literary magazine The Muse. One such example of the latter has just arisen, and I’d like to share the process by which these questions are addressed at the Academy.

One of our seniors recently submitted a brilliant short story to The Muse that had originally been written for a University creative writing course…and we had just had an ASM on a topic that the author felt would be relevant for our community.  The piece uses shifting points of view, following four different characters plus a semi-omniscient narrator. As far as quality goes, it’s an extraordinary piece of writing, well deserving of being published somewhere, maybe even in a national publication. So what’s the problem with printing in The Muse? Simply put, the story is about a school lock-down and shooting…

…which raises the question, should the Academy be publishing pieces on such distressing and provocative subjects? On one side, in addition to its high quality, the story addresses a real issue with which our students and our society are grappling, and BUA should never be an ostrich with our collective head in the sand, ignoring the real world. On the other side, first and foremost is the risk of causing deep distress at passages that include murder and the shooter’s suicide (though none of these is gratuitously written), followed by the fact that not all social issues need to be given a platform in a high school publication (especially ones that might have been over-saturated elsewhere). Yes, art does address provocative topics (sex, drugs, anorexia, death); that said, not all worthy topics need be aired in high school publications.

So how do we address this kind of question at the Academy? First, the faculty adviser of The Muse called it to my attention and we discussed it. Second, I asked my administrative team to debate it at our weekly group meeting. Next, we solicited the feedback of the student editors of The Muse, and perhaps of some other constituents at BUA (a sampling of parents and teachers). I have also talked with the author. And given the sensitive nature of this topic, we are consulting an outside expert to help make an informed decision that is in the best interest of our community.

There is a clear consensus on a few key questions and values:

  1. We want our students to stretch their limits in creative and constructive ways.
  2. Our students should also be encouraged to engage with real social ills, not just academic topics.
  3. If there is a factor making publication worrisome, might there be some educational framework to help describe the context surrounding the provocative piece (perhaps a preamble printed at its head)?
  4. While the “up side” of a well written piece is clear, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves what might be the “down sides” (we worry less here about a copy-cat student actually imitating this story, than about others finding it upsetting…though this latter factor should weigh less in the artistic realm, where emotions are intended to be moved).
  5. Are there better alternatives to publication (perhaps a public reading where the educational message will be sure to be heard by all present, rather than skipped in a printed preamble)?

Where will we land? I’m not sure yet. Just remember from past examples that we could go either way (so, for instance, we did produce Urinetown, but there have also been some 10-minute plays we cut). Ultimately, I will make the final decision, after vetting the pro’s and con’s widely among our community.

And you’ve been patient in waiting for the label I prefer to use over “censorship” in cases like this: it’s simply another form of “education.” We can all learn from each other – about our values, our hopes, our concerns, our cultural resilience – while addressing these good tough questions. So I encourage our students to write away, and we’ll take each case on its own merits. Might we err sometimes (permitting some examples we later regret; denying others we might have let pass)? Absolutely! But it’s the process by which we get there, not the decisions themselves, which defines us at the Academy. And that definition is pretty amazing!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

The Spirit of Philanthropy

I want to reflect on the spirit of philanthropy in independent schools like BU Academy. While it is true we have a significant tuition, I think it is important to point out two facts: first, in relative terms to most prestigious peer day schools in the Boston area, the Academy is still a good value, especially given the notable tuition savings most of our students receive from their BU class credits later in their education. Second, we rely on our Annual Fund to supplement our tuition, so that even full-pay students have some “subsidy” from this other form of “income.”  It is about our Annual Fund that I would now like to share some good news.

Let me offer some background: In past years, we have grown our Annual Fund from about $170,000 to a high of $280,000 several years ago. Most recently, as we successfully raised $1.7 million for our first-ever Capital Campaign to create our exciting new Arts Floor, we reduced our Annual Fund goal to $225,000 for several years, since the same families tend to help with both needs…think of the Annual Fund as the “grocery budget” for operating expenses, while the Capital Campaign is more like a “college or retirement fund” for larger strategic needs above our day-to-day program…it requires discipline to fund both, without merely shifting funds from one to the other. Fortunately, we have been blessed with amazing participation in our Annual Fund: 100% of our faculty, an increasing percentage of our young graduates, and consistently 85% or higher of our current parents (a fact that is remarkable when you realize that national averages are more in the 65% range for parents). And our average gift size also tracks well by national standards.

Since our next Capital Campaign to support the current Strategic Plan is not yet up and running, we are working to regain our higher level of Annual Fund dollars. So our goal this year is again $275,000. To help us achieve that end, a former parent has stepped up with an amazing challenge grant of $20,000, contingent on our finding three other families to give at the $20,000 or above level for the first time. I am pleased to share that we have already found two of those three donors, and the original donor has therefore modified the terms of the challenge to allow me to invite the last slot to be taken either by a third new pledge of $20,000 or by two new pledges at $10,000 each or four new pledges at $5,000 each (“new” meaning from a family who had not previously given at that level). So I invite any of you who might be interested in helping us bring this challenge to a successful conclusion to let our Director of Advancement John Friborg or me know. And I invite all of our families to continue to support our Annual Fund, at least at previous levels and I hope at any increased level you are able to consider…everyone’s support is necessary to achieve our ambitious goal, and all of these dollars benefit the Academy (even though you might on occasion receive thanks and a tax notification letter from the University, which is the parent organization from which the Academy’s non-profit tax status derives).

So what might be the lessons to take away from this good news? First, we can emphasize that even past parents continue to be supportive, as well as current parents. Second, we all benefit and can be grateful when families who are able to help philanthropically do so (and all levels of giving are appreciated and needed, not just these high levels). And finally, we need to understand that our business model requires not just tuition income but also Annual Fund support to balance our operating budget. Such generosity is all the more helpful this year to offset less tuition income (given a slightly smaller freshmen class).

We are truly blessed with a caring community, and support of our Annual Fund at all levels helps to keep the Academy healthy and strong. Many thanks!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Being Prepared to Face Our Future

Have any of you seen the film Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson? It takes place in the near future, and is a brilliant story about a man falling in love with his computer’s O.S. (operating system), which is an artificial intelligence that has a true consciousness (despite lacking a body). What does this portend for our futures?

In an op-ed by David Brooks earlier this month in The New York Times (“What Machines Can’t Do,” February 3, 2014), he stresses what mental skills will be more or less valuable as humans compete with increasingly intelligent machines. Clearly, machines can beat us hands down on tasks involving memory, as well as on quick calculations. But here are the qualities at which Brooks suggests we might excel, because computers can’t do them well, and which therefore would become more and more important:

  • Enthusiasm: having a voracious curiosity to know more will be rewarded
  • Strategic vision: machines will be better at tactical decisions (think chess), but those people who can keep a disciplined eye on long-term strategic goals will thrive
  • Procedural frames: those will prosper who can construct systems in which others can then collaborate in a productive but loose network of teams
    (think creators of Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia)
  • “Essentials:” by this Brooks means those who can grasp the heart of issues, see the gist of several matters, and creatively combine such essentials into something new

As Brooks explains in his conclusion, “Unable to compete when it comes to calculation, the best workers will come with heart in hand.”

Just so, the culture at the Academy values analytic skills that one day might be accomplished better by computers, but we also value human qualities – such as enthusiasm, strategic thinking, constructing the larger frame, and getting the gist of the matter – that Brooks suggests will make those like our graduates increasingly successful in the future. So go see Her (though be forewarned of some graphic parts making it less appropriate for younger ages — plus men don’t wear belts!), and be prepared to face our future!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Improving Work/Life Balance

In a recent Harvard Business School article by Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams, “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life: Zero in on What Really Matters” (summarized in the Marshall Memo # 524), the gist — while focused on corporate executives, the lessons apply to all of us – ties directly into one of the Academy’s Strategic Plan goals under “Community Building:” improving the work/life balance for everyone in our community. Which of us as students, parents, teachers, or staff hasn’t struggled with the competing demands of home and work? Here is a summary of the Marshall Memo summary, highlighting the recommendations to consider:

  • Define success: both at work and at home, know what you want to achieve, or you will “fail” by having nothing against which to measure your actual accomplishments.
  • Manage technology: have a plan to handle emails, being available without constantly multi-tasking, and also without micro-managing…let others do their jobs without you, without endless questions, so that you can focus on home at home, and work at work.
  • Build support networks: this includes finding others to help with daily tasks, as well as building rapport with those to whom you can vent safely when under pressure.
  • Travel/Relocate selectively: with a growing family, traveling and/or relocating become much more complicated (and studies show this is even more a factor for women, despite our society’s attempts at gender equity).
  • Collaborate with your spouse/partner: a well planned partnership at home makes the demands at work less daunting. Making tough choices together avoids later surprises!

Groysberg and Abrahams end with three final reminders: expected the unexpected; there is no “one size fits all” solution; and don’t try to succeed alone. I might add to these common sense recommendations, “Less is more!” Rather than doing part of a long list of goals reasonably well, it is often better to select a few goals of the highest priority to do very well (some at home, some at work)…and it’s only taken me over 30 years of attempting to balance work and family to figure that one out (which does not mean that I actually live that way)!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School