Partnership is Necessary
An effective partnership between the school and parents is essential for a school to fulfill its mission. Any school that attempts to pass on a complete education—to pass on the riches of a culture—without actively engaging parents is bound to fail. For starters, the best possible day school simply does not have enough time to adequately educate by itself. Students attend school for roughly seven hours per day for about half the calendar days of the year. It is not realistic to expect strong results if the home environment does not support the educative mission of the school, if students go home to an environment that is overly media-saturated, or if home lacks the peace and order necessary for real study. A school that is honest about attempting to educate will recognize that efforts to support parents and families must be seen as a key part of the mission of the school. The school as a do-it-alone institution is a broken model.
Granted, some schools have more limited educative goals that are at least partly achievable without a robust partnership with parents. It is possible to convey information and develop skills in a limited timeframe and apart from external factors. Students can learn how to interpret, analyze, and model data, as well as other practical career-related skills such as proficiency with technology. The Common Core tagline of “college and career readiness” captures well the more limited goals that define the majority of schools today, schools that have emerged from the progressive era of the early twentieth century, following an approach that values the institutional integrity of schools with limited parental involvement. Those behind such schools tend to understand that part of their mission is to be agents for positive societal change, a task for which parents are less important. Indeed, a strong partnership with parents could potentially derail efforts for the desired societal change, since not all parents are in agreement with what constitutes progress. It would be uncomfortable for many schools today to foster a strong partnership with parents.
In contrast, what has traditionally been understood as a complete education in which a cultural heritage is passed on is nothing less than a liberal arts education. It is not just the transmission of information and skills but an education that forms the intellect and heart, liberal in the sense of contributing to growth in personal freedom. More than just information, a liberal arts education provides formation. It contributes to human flourishing by helping each person to become the best version of himself. It fosters what St. John Henry Newman calls a philosophical outlook, a habit of mind, a broadminded approach to life and reality. Students are invited to participate in the great conversation about what it means to be human, a conversation that involves study and dialogue with some of the best minds from ages past and today. It is not surprising that schools that have embraced a do-it-alone progressive model have also moved away from the noble goal of facilitating a complete education and instead settle for more limited goals. Though many progressives, from the progressive era of the early twentieth century to the present, value the broadminded approach characteristic of a liberal arts education, the anthropological structure of the schools they have formed make this type of education impractical. Since it is very difficult to pass on a complete liberal arts education without a supportive family, the goalposts have been moved, and the purpose of the education offered has changed.
Parents as Primary Educators
This analysis of the current educational landscape follows logically from the principle, little understood in our times, that parents are the primary educators of their children. Primary means not only that parents are the first educators of their children but that, even when they partner with a school, parents maintain a fundamental role in the education and formation of their children precisely as parents. It is not only that the wholesome home environment provided by sound parental leadership facilitates study; the family relationships are also key for a student valuing learning and aspiring to understand reality and to claim inheritance of a culture. How a student envisions reality and the meaning of an education is heavily impacted by his personal relationships with his parents and siblings. A child necessarily stands before the world as a member of a particular family, and thus he receives whatever education a school has to offer precisely according to how he has been formed in the family. That parents are the primary educators of their children is an anthropological truth, descriptive of the fact that a child interprets whatever is proposed to him as one who has been influenced by the outlook that his parents have modeled to him. Those who see “parents as the primary educators” as a call for respecting parental decisions in educational matters are only highlighting one implication of what is actually a deeper reality. It is for this reason that St. Josemaría Escrivá asserted that the formational priorities of a school should be parents first, teachers second, and students third.
Programs for Parents (Extrinsic Collaboration)
The best schools have a vision of human flourishing rooted in what is true, good, and beautiful, and they seek to partner with parents who share this vision. They actively partner with parents in two ways: first, by supporting parents in their roles as parents, a task that is mostly extrinsic to the day-to-day educational program provided to the students, and secondly, by leveraging the insights of parents in matters intrinsic to the way education happens in school, while still respecting the integrity of the educational programs of the school.
On the extrinsic side, schools support parents by offering programs specifically for parents. A school may host a parent lecture series with carefully chosen topics intended to support parents in their educational and formational roles as parents, including attractive presentations of perennial wisdom in developing virtue in children as well as topics specific to the current cultural challenges that families face. Evening classes for parents are another example of an educational program where parents can experience learning that parallels what their child is learning. Parents who participate in a seminar on a book their child is reading are better positioned to discuss aspects of the curriculum with their child. Schools can also sponsor social events where parents and faculty can mingle, getting to know each other better. And schools can encourage parent socials where parents of students in a particular grade gather in homes, forming friendships that overlap with the student-peer friendships. These efforts to promote friendships among parents and faculty are important for building a cohesive community supportive of the common educational mission. To the extent that these efforts are successful, a student experiences educative guidance from adults other than just his parents and parents experience the support of other like-minded adults, including other parents and teachers.
The Institutional Integrity of the School
St. Josemaría’s identification of parents as the first formational priority assumes a school that has a strong mission. Such schools are often aligned with and seek guidance from a faith-based organization. Those running the school must be committed to a vision of human flourishing rooted in what is true, good, and beautiful. They must have an understanding of the human person rooted in sound philosophy and theology. They must have an apostolic spirit, desiring to spread a faith-filled outlook, not by making the school an excuse to proselytize but through setting up a school that is both excellent on a human level and informed by an integrated understanding of reality. The first formational priority actually is for those who establish and run a school to seek ongoing formation so as to be able to serve parents, teachers, and students. St. Josemaría’s prioritizing of parents, teachers, and then students assumes this formational priority is already in place. It is not possible to give what one does not have.
Those who are committed to a true vision of education will establish a school with well thought-out formational programs. They will have confidence in their mission, which they adhere to as they set up the programs of the school to reflect, in various ways, this mission. This includes all aspects of the school from athletics, extracurricular programs, student trips, the physical spaces of the school, and especially student mentoring and the curriculum: what is taught, how it is taught, how teachers foster student engagement with the curriculum, and student ownership of the correct understanding of reality.
There should be well thought-out academic requirements that ensure students receive a complete education while still allowing for enough flexibility to account for the differences in academic ability and interests in students. It is good that the curriculum is the same for all students in some areas and allows for different options in others. At The Heights, much of the curriculum is the same for students in the younger grades. Elective options start to open up in the middle school, and in the upper school there are further options from which to choose.
In the upper school there are classes that are required for all students, referred to as the core requirements. All freshmen and sophomores take the same English, history, philosophy, and, for Catholic students, theology. While the philosophy and theology requirements for juniors and seniors remain uniform, in English and history the options open up somewhat, with students being allowed to choose different courses within certain parameters. Students are required to take at least three science credits. Most students begin with biology the freshman year followed by chemistry as sophomores before branching off into different options for junior and senior years. Students are required to take math each year, and the goal is for each student to take the math course in the sequence that is right for him (more on this later). Latin is the primary foreign language and is required through the intermediate level. Spanish and classical Greek are offered as elective options, as well as a variety of other electives in areas such as art, music, drama, computer science, and select history classes. There are eight periods where students can schedule courses (seven meet each day, according to our floater system). Students are expected to take at least seven courses freshman through junior year and at least six their senior year.
Most of our academic requirements are set and do not allow for exceptions. But there is some case-by-case flexibility. For example, we allow a student to substitute a computer science course for a traditional science class in some cases. There is flexibility in the foreign language requirement for students with learning differences. And we have allowed some students to complete coursework over the summer so as to allow for a lighter schedule during the school year.
Leveraging the Insights of Parents (Intrinsic Collaboration)
In addition to promoting programs and social opportunities for parents, the most transformative schools partner with parents by leveraging their unique insights and perspectives in ways that are intrinsic to the way the school educates. Central to this task is the way a school shares information and decision-making with parents and students, where such collaboration makes sense in the context of the overall school programs and requirements. The ideal is for a school to empower parents to make educative and formational decisions that they are in the best position to make, as the ones that know their child best and have the best comprehensive perspective on what their child needs to flourish.
That a school should aspire to collaborate with parents even in matters intrinsic to the day-to-day educational program is a direct result of the full significance of parents being the primary educators of their children. As noted, a student receives an education as a member of a particular family, filtering what the school proposes through the lens of his experience as a member of his family. Just as what is learned in school is brought into the home—forming part of the discussion at the family dinner table—the ideal is for the school to be able to leverage the unique insights of parents in how its education is applied to their child. Parents are uniquely positioned to have the best, most comprehensive, perspective on their child’s formation. Nobody loves a child like his or her parents. Parents are often the ones with the best insight into what is most needed at a particular time for their child to flourish—to grow in virtue and perspective. It is not an exaggeration to say that parents, as the ones tasked by God with the formation of their children, are the ones that have the grace necessary to make the best educational decisions for their children. Parents possess a grace of state that no other educator can match.
Just as a school should not neglect the unique insights that only a parent can have, a parent should likewise defer to the school’s expertise and well crafted mission in certain matters. A parent should value a liberal arts education and want this great good for their child, but this does not mean that the parent should be expected to understand particular elements that make up such an education. A parent should trust the school to set up a system of academic requirements and design courses that help students engage with the riches of the tradition in age-appropriate ways. Parents should respect the professional expertise of teachers and administrators. Wise parents do well to trust the school to make sound educational decisions—decisions relating to selecting the curriculum and teaching in the best ways.
Collaboration should go both ways. While it is easy to assert this in such general terms, the task of working out exactly how a parent-school partnership should be lived will vary from school to school. A comprehensive treatment of all aspects of this question is beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, we will explore two case studies intended to help frame the possibilities.
Case Study #1: Course Scheduling
The first example has to do with the way course scheduling is done at The Heights. The fewer scheduling options in the younger grades are handled collaboratively, but it is really in the upper school that the multiple options require a more developed process. Upper school academic scheduling begins with an informational meeting for each particular grade of students, starting in early March for the rising seniors, followed by the same information being sent home in written form to the parents. Parents and students are also encouraged to read the detailed course information on the school website. During the informational meeting, students fill out a course interest survey that is used to begin to set up each student’s schedule in the scheduling software program. Each student then meets personally with the Head of the Upper School to develop a rough draft of his schedule, which he takes home to discuss with his parents. Parents are encouraged to reach out to the Head of the Upper School, a mentor, or any teacher if they have questions. With all this support, most students and parents are able to settle on a course schedule rather quickly. Some students and parents will continue to work with the Head of the Upper School, making a few adjustments to the course schedule as they think through what is best. This process continues throughout the spring until each student has a fairly settled draft of his course selections that informs his plan for summer study, a plan especially important for students who recognize the need to improve in a particular area to better prepare for a challenging course.
In this process parents, students, and teachers work together to discern the best overall academic schedule for each student. There is general agreement that the best course schedule is one that provides the right combination of engagement and challenge. A student should have some classes that interest him and some classes, but not too many, that stretch him beyond his comfort zone. It is healthy for him to feel the weight of his professional responsibilities, to have to work hard, but not to the point where his academic load interferes with other goods that should be in his life. It is a disorder when a student feels the need to spend an inordinate amount of time studying to the detriment of family, social, athletic, and other worthwhile endeavors.
This approach involves sharing pertinent information in an organized way and also collaborative decision-making. The general principle is that administrators, teachers, and mentors provide parents with helpful information on the classes available and solicit guidance from the parents on what courses are best for their child’s particular situation. Our goal is for students and parents to have the sense that the school is providing rich course offerings that are in theory open to any student, and that we are here to help parents decide what is best for their son. Teachers and administrators serve the parents and students by providing guidance and advice. At times the faculty will make recommendations, even strong ones. But the final decision in most cases is left with parents, who are uniquely positioned to make the best overall decisions for their child.
Governance is shared not only through giving parents the final say in some scheduling decisions but also through carefully thought-out school policies. School requirements that govern possible course selections provide for a complete education while avoiding an overly restrictive approach that does not allow for the needed flexibility.
This approach has the added benefit of harnessing a bit of the “free market” principle to provide positive pressure on faculty to teach in an impactful way. It has been our experience that the courses that “sell best” are the ones that are well taught by teachers who connect personally with the students. The teachers understand this, and even veteran teachers have made difficult adjustments and improvements, which have resulted in better courses. Some teachers have actively sought advice from administrators as to how they could better engage their students, advice that would have been difficult for them to receive otherwise. Schools that follow this approach need to establish strong requirements and parameters so that the “free market” does not drive education in a negative way. Thus far, The Heights has harnessed student and parent decisions without it leading to courses that cater to student interest in a way that detracts from the education offered.
This collaborative approach is much better than allowing faculty from a particular department to select students who are eligible for particular courses, which is what typically happens in most schools, where information and governance authority are concentrated with the faculty in a non-collaborative way. If parent and student input is not adequately accounted for, the decision-making function typically rests with veteran teachers or department heads, who become like feudal lords of a particular academic fiefdom. This way of organizing a school too often involves power being wielded by faculty looking out primarily for the good of their academic department, which typically means ensuring that advanced classes have the “right” students and that the veteran teachers have the privilege of teaching such advanced classes as a reward for their seniority. This way of concentrating scheduling authority in the hands of veteran teachers can result in what is best for a particular student, but does not always do so. It might happen that a particular student who does well is invited to take numerous advanced classes, more than he should, while a less successful student is blocked from taking the one advanced course that would provide the right challenge for him to thrive. And in any case, the student and parents do not feel adequate ownership in the process and tend to see the school in an overly institutional way, with its particular mechanisms internal to its functioning principles.
At The Heights, shortly before the end of the school year, the Head of the Upper School sends this letter home to parents along with a copy of each student’s course schedule:
Dear Parents and Upper School Students:
As the school year draws to a close our thoughts naturally turn toward the summer and the change of pace it brings. For students this typically means more time outdoors, swimming, sports, family time, and all the elements that make up a fruitful, restful, and balanced summer.
While summer is a time for students to take a break from the demanding pace of the school year, a well-balanced summer should include some academic work. It would be a mistake to entirely set aside the life of the mind during the summer. As a muscle tends to atrophy with lack of use, there is an analogous weakening of the mind if it is not exercised for an extended period of time. The best results are achieved by continuing to foster good habits of reading and some time for study each day. Setting aside time for reading and study is personally enriching and leads to a well-balanced and enjoyable summer.
To assist parents and students in reaching this healthy balance, The Heights has a summer reading assignment and a few other summer assignments. These assignments have been updated on our website (heights.edu) in the academics section.
Summer assignments are typical for math, language, and some college-level courses. In math and foreign language classes the summer assignments help students to retain more material and to start the upcoming school year well. In some college-level courses summer assignments are necessary to help cover the volume of material. Students should contact teachers directly with questions about summer assignments.
Copies of the math text for the upcoming year are available for students to borrow (reach out to the math teacher or to Mr. _______). There may not be enough copies available until after current students turn in their texts, typically after final exams. Students who borrow math books for the summer are expected to bring them to class on the first day of school.
Included you will find a copy of your son’s academic schedule for next year. This copy is not set in stone: changes are possible. In some cases, I have not yet assigned which teacher your son will have for a particular class. These assignments will be made over the summer. Let me know if you have any suggestions or concerns. A few students still need to confirm course selections with me. Over the summer, I may change the periods that your son has certain classes to balance class sizes.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 301 365 0227 ext. 125. I wish you all the best for a fruitful and balanced summer.
Michael S. Moynihan
Head of the Upper School
The Heights School
Case Study #2: Math Placement
A collaborative approach to sharing information and decision-making power is also characteristic of our approach to math placement at The Heights. After the younger grades, where all students follow the same math curriculum, options for different level math courses are made available. Teachers make recommendations for each student, but parental and student input is strongly considered. The transition for students from middle school to upper school is seamless, with the same dialogue between teachers, parents, and students informing the math placement. In most cases the right math class is clear and little discussion is needed. When parents and students are considering the possibility of stretching to select the more advanced math option, they are encouraged to borrow a textbook over the summer and come up with a plan for preparing well for the upcoming year. Some students will meet with a math teacher to form a summer study plan and to make summer study a priority. In some cases, this results in student buy-in and leads to him developing a new level of engagement and ownership in his education.
New students entering the upper school are invited, but not required, to take a math placement test. From the beginning it is explained that this placement test is being offered as a service to families, to help parents and students decide which math class is best going forward. We clearly state that we know that a score on a placement test is just one datapoint and that there are other factors to consider when making this decision. We also give the placement test to our current eighth graders in class one day. We then communicate the results to parents using the following email:
Dear Parents of Rising Freshmen,
Recently, your sons took The Heights Math Placement Exam, either in math class (returning students) or here on Saturday (the 16 students joining the freshman class from other schools). This exam has been given for several years, and we have a substantial amount of data correlating student scores.
Your son, name, scored number.
This letter provides information about math at The Heights and guidance in interpreting your son’s score.
Math at The Heights
The math classes offered at The Heights are:
MATH 107-108 Algebra I
MATH 207-208 Algebra II
MATH 307-308 Geometry
MATH 365-366 Pre-Calculus
MATH 445-446 Pre-Calc and the Derivative
MATH 447-448 Calculus
MATH 451-452 Statistics AP
MATH 507-508 Calculus AB AP
MATH 527-528 Calculus BC AP & Analysis
MATH 537-538 Multivariable Calculus
An average progression through the math department is as follows:
- MATH 107-108 Algebra I (8th grade)
- MATH 207-208 Algebra II (9th grade)
- MATH 307-308 Geometry (10th grade)
- MATH 445-446 Pre-Calc and the Derivative (11th grade)
- MATH 507-508 Calculus AB AP (12th grade)
As you can see from the offerings above, there are other math options. Some students complete less than the average track and some complete more.
The Freshman Class
We are anticipating a freshman class of approximately 70 students next year with 16 of these students coming from other schools / homeschool.
The Placement Exam
If your son has not yet taken the placement exam, I recommend that you have him do so at home and email the completed exam to me, Mr. ________, at email@example.com.
I want to share the results of the placement exams with you and then offer some thoughts on how to interpret these results. Over the past five years, 240 students have taken this placement exam.
The highest possible score is 57.
Mean Score: 21
Median Score: 20
Highest Score: 49
Thoughts from Mr. Michael Moynihan on how to interpret these results:
- When placing a student in a math class, it is important to consider both ability and the current level of mastery. Students with strong ability in math are often able to catch up with the help of a good teacher and hard work.
- The Heights math placement exam should be primarily seen as testing whether a student has mastered the content of Algebra I. It is less helpful in determining mathematical ability.
- The choice of which math class to take is up to the parents. We will offer advice and perspective but leave the final decisions up to the parents. We believe that parents are the primary educators of their children. This is a specification of the more general principle of subsidiarity, which stipulates that certain decisions are best made on the “most local level” possible, that it is a disorder for a higher level of authority to over-manage situations where those closest to the situation would be better able to decide.
- It is possible to start the year in Algebra II and then drop down to Algebra I. It is much more difficult to go the other direction.
- It seems to us that any student who scored less than 20 on the placement test should do extra work over the summer to prepare for the Algebra II class, meaning work in addition to the short summer assignment for the class. If a student scored under 15 and elects to take the Algebra II class, it is particularly important for him to work on improving his foundation over the summer.
- It is possible to use the summer months to better master the content of Algebra I. We are willing to lend copies of our Algebra II textbook to interested families. The first two chapters and most of chapters 3 and 7 in this text review the key material from a good Algebra I course. Past students who have prepared well using this text and other resources such as Khan Academy have been successful in our Algebra II course. Helpful worksheets from our own Algebra I course are here.
- We offer an excellent summer math program here at The Heights. Students can do this program for one or more weeks. The full program of six weeks is intended to cover a full year of math. More information is here.
- In some cases, the best decision is not to push a student to do summer work to take the more advanced class. Factors to consider include how busy the summer is as well as the need students have to take a break from a full schedule of academic work.
Please feel free to reach out to me or Michael Moynihan with any questions you have.
After you have reached a decision on next year’s course, please email Michael Moynihan to let him know if you would like to change the math class for which he is currently signed up.
To borrow a copy of our Algebra II math book please reach out to me and I will provide additional information on how to do this.
Realizing Practical Benefits
Our experience has been that this approach has significant benefits. Not only do the vast majority of students—if not every student—find their way to the right math class, but this process builds goodwill and a collaborative spirit between parents, students, and the faculty of the school. Some parents, who are used to a more institutional approach which distances parents from many such decisions, are in awe of an approach that actively engages and respects parents as primary educators. These parents greatly appreciate the trust we have in them and correspondingly trust us more. In some cases, the conversation changes quickly from a semi-adversarial negotiation to one of trust and collaboration for what is best for the student. This approach has been so transformative in helping parents to see how deeply invested we are in supporting them that they have sought our advice on other matters pertaining to the education and formation of their children. A conversation that begins with a discussion of math placement sometimes proceeds quickly to more significant formative matters. This level of trust and cooperation would not happen if our approach were more institutional.
In addition, this approach has led some students to make mature decisions to strive to achieve in a more advanced course. Students who previously felt like they were shuffled along from math class to math class by a system that makes this decision apart from their own agency, discover the possibility of investing themselves personally in their math education and striving to achieve more. This has contributed positively to students developing personal study habits and ownership of their education. And some talented students have embraced the challenge of learning math so as to advance into higher math sooner. Our practice is to allow students who independently learn a math class to assay our final exam. If successful, these students are awarded credit for the course and allowed to advance to the next math class. Many students have done this over the summer months, and a few of our students are correspondingly so advanced that they end up taking AP Calculus as early as eighth grade.