Heads Up

Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to: 

  • connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
  • share ideas about learning and human development;
  • spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy. 

Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing. 

Michael Ulku-SteinerHead of School 


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Our labor, refreshed and refocused by parent opinions

 Happy Labor Day!

Our youngest students have nearly two weeks of classes under their belts. Their elders spent a few days in class before heading out to the North Carolina coast, the Appalachian mountains or the Civil Rights landmarks of Greensboro, Atlanta, Selma and Birmingham (click here to see our experiential education trips for grades 5-12).

After a deep (and blissfully cool!) breath this weekend, we now buckle down – and buckle up for a full, fast, fall semester.

Labor Day offers a clean slate for resolutions and reinventions. In “September is Your Second-Chance January,” Melissa Dahl writes of the findings of researchers from Penn’s Wharton School regarding “temporal landmarks” and the useful opportunities they provide for fresh starts and changed habits.

At Durham Academy, September labors are refreshed by our vacations and refocused by the opinions of our parents – 595 of whom took the time in June to complete our annual Parent Survey.

That end-of-year questionnaire, in tandem with the Net Promoter Survey that we initiated last November (click here to see my blog post about that instrument and our findings), gives us clear, candid, comprehensive feedback on our work.

So, how do we use the data?

All members of our administrative team

  • review every box clicked and word written by parents (that’s 30 questions with a dozen narrative answers times 595 respondents)
  • discuss areas of general concern (conspicuous strengths and weaknesses plus areas in need of attention and communication)
  • share data and/or comments when appropriate with teachers and other academic leaders,
  • focus effort on people and programs of concern.

Among the most robust and salient findings from the 2016 June Parent Survey:

Teacher excellence and occasional inconsistency – The most common sentiment on this and every DA parent survey is gratitude for our dedicated faculty. Praise was abundant as always, with parents offering a whopping 708 personal commendations to 169 different faculty members. The survey gleaned critiques as well: 117 mixed or negative comments about 53 people. As always, some faculty members (myself included) drew both cheers and critiques – evidence of the variety of our student and parent bodies and the quantity and impact of our actions. We have to keep striving.

Parent Survey results inform dialogue regarding individual teachers’ evaluation and professional growth. It’s worth noting that summer feedback, while helpful, is less useful than more direct and timely suggestions during the school year. So parents – please! -- speak early and often with teachers about what they can start, stop, and/or continue to help your children thrive.

On an institutional level, the Parent Survey data reassure us that we chose the right objectives for our Strategic Plan (see goals 1 and 2 below). These objectives require relentless and collaborative work. I’m glad to see Lee Hark leaning into his new role as Associate Head. Lee will spearhead many of the academic initiatives on our plates this year – most notably our “Portrait of a Graduate” project and our continuing efforts to ensure consistency among teachers in the same grade and continuity across grades and divisions.

Veracross – Many parents expressed gratitude for this powerful, useful tool. Some find it overwhelming. Some requested additional training. Some wish faculty used it more consistently for posting assignments and grades. A few wondered if parents could use Veracross to sign up for PS/LS/MS classroom volunteer opportunities.  

We will continue to use Veracross as the central resource for internal communication. We’ll also expand online and in-person training and explaining resources. It may be useful to parents to know our baseline expectations for Veracross use among teachers in the. . . .

  • Preschool and Lower School: a webpage for each teacher includes the calendar, photos, links to resources, and class newsletters
  • Middle School: a webpage for each course includes links to all homework assignments, a habits of learning chart, grading rubrics, and grades updated once every two weeks (all visible to students, some - based on our desire for increasing student autonomy - visible to parents).
  • Upper School: a webpage for each course, links to all homework assignments, grades updated once every three weeks (some visible to students, a few visible to parents).

Communication – Here again, we see an eternal dilemma: how can we inform parents thoroughly but not drown them with too much information? This year, we have redesigned News and Notes to provide “Next week at DA” tabs for each division. We will also launch distinct (subscribable) channels for each division’s email updates. These will give parents the power to opt in or out of regular communications from specific school or program directors.

Student Assemblies – Many parents noted individual assembly presenters who made lasting impact on their children. A few parents expressed concerns about a perceived uniform liberal/progressive bias in Upper School assemblies. Given the way we prize our “big tent” community, we will continue to strive for variety – in topic, medium, presenter, and worldview.

Working parents – The majority of DA students have two working parents. Our abundant opportunities for parent involvement can sometimes feel to busy families like opportunities for stress and guilt. We will continue to strive to find the right balance – and make school events as accessible as possible to all families. In this vein, we have radically expanded our Extended Day, After-Care and Enrichment options, established (in 2015) a robust financial aid plan for those afternoon programs, and doubled many parent presentations. For example, all Middle School parent sessions are offered in the evening and in the morning – plus they are videorecorded and posted for later viewing. Moving forward, we will collaborate with the Parent Council to make more meetings, coffees and presentations accessible to all.

Creativity & innovation – A number of parents expressed desire for their children to build creativity in more school projects and assignments. This fits our own goals to innovate and activate our classrooms; we prefer a vigorous curriculum to a merely rigorous one. In addition to dozens of curricular experiments in individual classrooms this year, parents will see increased opportunity for innovation, building and problem-solving in our new LS makerspace, our new MS “STEAM by Design” course, our new Upper School Robotics course and First Robotics Competition (FRC) team, and in conversations underway to redesign our PS/LS playground for increased imaginative play.

New teachers and new initiatives -  Parent reviews of faculty hired in 2014 and 2015 were remarkably strong. Our work with faculty recruiting, selection, orientation and mentoring seems to be bearing fruit. Many parents were similarly enthusiastic about new programmatic offerings. Middle School Mindfulness, robotics, Ultimate Frisbee and various after-school enrichments drew numerous grateful comments.

ERB testing – Several parents wondered by we use the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP) test, how we use the scores, why we share them so late in the year, and how parents might be better equipped to learn from them. All fair questions. This year, we will communicate more thoroughly about the test, the meaning and implications of scores, and how parents can use them to support their children’s learning. A spring parent coffee on the topic of ERB’s will allow particularly curious parents to ask detailed questions. We are also exploring options for an alternative test for the 9th grade (ERB testing currently happens in grades 2-9).

In conclusion, we remain grateful to every single parent willing to share praise, critiques and questions with us. The next formal opportunity to do so: November, when we send our three-question Net Promoter survey. The next informal opportunity: tomorrow, when you see any teacher, advisor, coach or administrator – all of us trying to learn and improve every day.

Photo: DenKuvaiev/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Posted by mulkus on Saturday September, 3, 2016


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