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

Optimistic Resilience in Gaming

Before I begin, let me announce that BU President Bob Brown — with regrets — has had to reschedule our February 19th BUA community evening. An unavoidable conflict has just arisen, so we will let you know when he can be with us in the future.

Last week I heard a speaker on…wait for it…video games! Her thesis revolved around what educators can learn from these games.

Did you know that the average “failure rate” on a video game (think of your avatar being killed — again and again) is 82%? And yet kids go back undiscouraged — again and again — to try to make it to the next level. How many of our students would be so optimistic if they failed a Math or English test 8 out of 10 attempts? Wouldn’t they just say they aren’t good at it, and give up?

What accounts for such optimistic resilience in gaming, and how can we tap into it in academics? The speaker suggested that games have a “noble purpose” (save that princess, kill that evil emperor), which day-to-day school work seems to lack on the surface. With this in mind, do we do enough to expose our students to higher principles and to show them the real-world benefits inherent in our subjects? In addition, gamers know that any failure can be a learning opportunity (watch out for that hidden booby trap next time), while in school a bad test seems over and done, not a way to do better in future. So how can we bring to learning that same sense of experimentation and growth, rather than an “all or nothing” despair?

I could go on, but you get the gist of the thesis. At the Academy, I believe we have a culture that does indeed capture much of what good video games provide, and that our students bring to their studies a real sense of adventure and enthusiasm. Much of this is due to our superb teachers, who have their own high sense of noble purpose and love of their subjects. Maybe we should dress our faculty in long robes with tall pointed hats to give them more of that wizardly look as mentors of the young…well, maybe not.

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

BU President Meeting with BUA Community

As our mission is to be a full-service high school embedded in a major research university, I have two exciting announcements to share about our University connections.

First, as most of you have already received an invitation, BU President Bob Brown will join members of the Academy community – parents and faculty – for an evening forum on Wednesday, February 19. Coffee will be served at 7:45 p.m. in the new Drama Room (former Dance Studio on the third floor above Sargent Gym); then President Brown will share some insights on BU at 8 p.m., followed by Q&A to 9 p.m. I hope you can join us for this exciting talk with President Brown; please RSVP on the electronic invitation to help us anticipate numbers.

Second, and also connected to the third floor spaces above Sargent Gym, the Provost has just this week given final approval to the third phase of our construction project: the elevator to that arts floor. This was always a significant component of our original design to be able to use the new Drama Room for regular public events and performances, such as admissions events and plays, as this floor is otherwise not yet ADA accessible. Some of you might recall that we had first planned an exterior (and striking) atrium in the corner of the parking lot, but due to budget constraints, we last year scaled the plans back to install the elevator in the corner of the gym. We now have the “green light” to order the parts and to do the installation this summer. Yippee! The only final phase of this construction project still to be pinned down remains upgrading the parking lot doorway to our lobby…so stay tuned!

There are many reasons to be excited about these two University announcements: first, it shows that the top administrators of BU know, support, and value the Academy’s hopes and dreams (as formulated in our strategic goals). Second, the successful completion of the arts floor renovations, growing out of our former Strategic Plan and first-ever capital campaign, positions us for positive momentum as we move into our current Strategic Plan and upcoming second capital campaign supporting its goals – two key ones being to support faculty and financial aid. So I repeat — stay tuned!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

Deciding Snow Days

Snow days….can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em!

It’s one of the worst duties a Head of School can have, balancing the need to protect class time with the need to keep the safety of our students front-&-center (the latter always wins). Most often, announcing a decision the night before seems considerate of families needing to plan for the following morning, while also opening up the high risk of making the wrong call. Once at my former school, a horrible blizzard was forecast for 6 a.m., so I announced “Snow Day” the evening before…only to have the storm not arrive till 6 p.m. (on a Friday night). The next week in school, a first grader asked me, “Mr. Berkman, do you live underground?” “Why do you ask, Andrew?” “Because you called a snow day…,”  he began, to which I finished his sentence:“…and there was no snow!”

Why do we care not to miss school? Clearly, at the Academy we cover a lot of material in relatively little time, so every day counts. That said, it is tougher to stay open if a third or a half of our students come from commutes that are unsafe or they can’t get to school at all – easier to push a lesson back for everyone by one day (or cut it out completely) than to have to make-up that lesson for a sizeable chunk of the class.

Obviously, we hope every family makes its own decision about safety when conditions vary around the city, as our Closing Procedures (sent out in the fall and available online in the Parent Resources page) instruct. We are most happy to honor a late or absent student who stayed home because local conditions so warranted, in the same spirit that we are happy to help a student who was out sick make up any missed work.

In this week’s case, though BUA closed a few hours ahead of BU’s decision for a delayed 11 a.m. opening, that latter university action would have forced a BUA decision anyway….and opening BUA at 11 a.m. for only lunch and two class periods would likely have made it more prudent for us to close for the full day. Again, having some class sections meet while others missed that day could have created havoc for students and teachers alike.

So I am pleased we closed, and most folks seem to think the day “off” was productive as well as restful. That certainly was my personal take on it, and I hope it worked that way for all of you.  Keep this “right” decision in mind, please, so next time I have to make a “Snow Day” call, if you don’t agree with it, I have some credit in the bank. I always have said that these decisions leave half a community happy and half upset – and that the two halves often live under the same roof!

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School

The Role of Teaching History & Civic Values

I had the privilege this week to attend a conference focusing on MLK Jr. Day and the role of teaching history/civic values in a k-12 education. The event, hosted by an organization run by an Academy parent, included an extraordinary group of “blue chip” speakers: two Pulitzer Prize winning authors known for their works on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement; a MacCarthur “genius award” winner who was a close colleague of MLK; a Tufts professor…you get the gist.

Crucial to the debate was the statistical reality that each generation of high school graduates knows less and less about American history. Why that is – and what we might do about it – occupied the core of the conversation. The results of less time on task and a breaking away from the “dead white male” political/economic canon – in favor of an evolving lens on race, gender and social issue – all reduce both the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze key core documents as well as the civic habits needed to maintain our democratic culture. More often the goals of education are becoming viewed as necessary for individual financial success and national economic health, and less as fundamental to maintaining the values of our culture found in a deeper understanding of our heritage.

One speaker shared his experiences trying to get illiterate black sharecroppers registered to vote in the Mississippi of the early 1960’s: when taking such aspiring voters to register one day, the driver of his car was shot in the neck by a passing vigilante, and the car crashed.  His point in sharing this vignette was that our most accomplished national achievements (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1965) resulted from a dark and troubling process, and that our history classes fail to paint that fuller picture.

Clearly, I found this conference provocative, and so I shared some of my reflections on it with our students at this week’s ASM. I suggested that during this three-day holiday weekend honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who is truly one of our greatest national heroes, despite his own dark and troubling issues behind many of his significant accomplishments), our students remember that education is not just to position themselves individually for a successful career, but in addition – and more importantly — to make them worthy citizens ready to sacrifice for the common good, as they inherit a nation with a noble but dark past, and a future in jeopardy if they forget the lessons to be learned from our history. At the Academy, it feels like our kids “get” this basic lesson.

Warm regards,
James S. Berkman
Head of School