The State of the School 2018

Each year we aim to provide our community with inside information and perspectives from our school’s leaders as it relates to the current state of our school. Earlier this year a call for questions was sent via email, inviting members of our community to submit questions for this annual feature. Click on the link below to find answers to these questions with responses from our current Board President, Samara Meshel and Head of School Simon Owen-Williams. 

List of 8 items.

  • Strategic Plan

    Has there been significant progress in the first few months since the plan's approval?
    (SW)  The new plan called 20/20 a clear vision combines some ambitious objectives into more evolutionary elements that are linked to the previous document. The result of this has meant rapid early progress in some areas (such as the athletic plan and faculty hiring procedures) but moderate gains in other areas (such as master planning and the student experience). To date, we are on the track with where we hoped and expected to be when the plan was devised.

    How are you communicating the plans progression to the community?
    (SW) We have used a variety of methods to communicate the plan. Apart from regular social media updates (through Facebook and Twitter), the main forums we have used have been meetings into various constituencies and articles written in our newsletter and other publications. With our 5-year accreditation visit coming up in Spring of 2019 it is important that faculty are especially appraised of specific progress and initiatives in key areas. To this end, the faculty has received updates at meetings and through a detailed document called ‘The Implementation Update Chart’. This chart gives a detailed account of specific progress in each goal area.

    Was the recent tuition increase a result of the need to financially support the Strategic Plan?
    (SW) The recent tuition increase was necessary for us to deliver aspects of the strategic plan, yes, but this was targeted mainly at increasing salaries for our teachers. Our market research clearly indicates that in order to retain our excellent staff we had to do more with their compensation and benefits package. The majority of the monies from the tuition increase were channeled to faculty in this manner. We don’t anticipate similar tuition increases in the foreseeable future.
    Part of the tuition increase reserve was also to create new positions that were needed to
    implement the Strategic Plan. We have created a new Health and Wellness Department, a new STEAM institute, more extensive PE offerings and a new position called Director of Learning Pathways (to help connect the school with real life learning opportunities at other non-profits and businesses) to name a few.
  • Safety & Security

    What implications will the guardhouse have on entering and leaving the school?
    (SW) The guardhouse has been a long time coming but is a vital step in creating a safer campus (also a strategic plan initiative). The guard house will be equipped with the latest technology and cameras enabling us to do license plate checks and screening before vehicles enter our campus. It will also serve as a deterrent to would be intruders and give our current security team a base. It is placed near the cut out so that if someone is stopped for a check (let’s say they don't yet have their Portledge car sticker displayed!) it will not cause a congestion or traffic back up.

    Can you ensure that any new security enhancements implemented or planned will not negatively impact the culture of our school?
    (SW) Balancing school culture with security needs always involves a careful trade-off. This way we have formed on a ‘boots on the ground’ approach as opposed to other methods (gating, building access, etc.) Our guards have been instructed to get to know students and adults in the community to better fit with our school needs as opposed to feeling bureaucratic and unapproachable. So far, we feel that we have this balance right, but there is always room to improve. While schools remain a target, we have little choice, if we want to be able to respond to an emergency in a timely fashion given our location to take these measures.

    What resources are we using to measure the effectiveness and relevance of our emergency protocols and procedures?
    (SW) We use a wide variety of resources to see if what we are doing is effective and working as we want. Certainly, feedback from our community is one such avenue, but as importantly, the Security and Safety Committee is used to gauge our progress in this manner. The SSC meets regularly and has increasingly incorporated cutting edge technology (Navigate App) to coordinate response efforts. This technology informs us of what systems we have and how well they are working (for everything from a fire drill to an intruder emergency) and thereby provide an invaluable service of feedback. In turn, this feedback is discussed and improvements made.
  • Faculty / Staff

    What processes have been put in place to ensure that we are recruiting (and retaining) the best faculty possible?
    ( SW)The Hiring Committee, led by our Lower School Director had totally revamped our hiring procedures. The process is now structured and every candidate follows the same process from thorough background checking to multiple interviews to teaching a lesson. We are also continually gathering a bank of resumes in case we have a surprise opening during the school year.

    Without the use of standardized testing what checks and balances are in place to ensure that our faculty and curriculum provide the best possible education for our students?
    (SW) Our Curriculum Committee, Think Tank Group and Curriculum Mapping Group all ensure that what we teach, when we teach it and how meets or exceeds state and national standards. So we do actually have our own internal benchmarks and as members of NYSAIS, we are required through the accreditation process to demonstrate that our education product is ‘substantially equivalent’to that offered in the local public school. The quality control for these benchmarks is upheld through classroom observations, research and a schedule that guarantees enough time to complete a course of study during a given period.

    Do we anticipate any significant changes in the faculty for next year?
    (SW) It is normal for faculty turnover to be between 5-10%. People retire, people move, circumstances change, or there are performance issues that cannot be resolved. We do not anticipate this year to be any different from the norm.

    What is slightly different this year are the number of new hires we have made to support the Strategic Plan. New classes will be taught in Health and Wellness, Digital Citizenship, Blended Learning, STEAM and a new admin position of Director Of Learning Pathways that has been created to help us forge partnerships with onsite businesses and other nonprofits to give our students more real-world learning opportunities.
  • Academics

    Now that the IB is well underway and our first diploma candidates have we seen any evidence of how well this credential serves our students in the college application process and beyond?
    (SW) The IB is an incredible program but is not for everyone. Students who take the full diploma need to be organized and manage their time well. Colleges certainly see it as a gold standard of sorts. But it is only one way to pass through your later high school years. Many students will choose a combination of IB/AP and or honors and regular classes. The key is to match programs with skills, commitment, intellect and ability to achieve. That said, we are very pleased with the college placement for this year IB Diploma Cohort.

    Are there any new curricular programs planned for next year?
    (SW) The main change for next year in the Lower School is our focused work on literacy. Training for this new literacy program begins this Summer for staff and, along with teaching digital citizenship represents the major change. 

    In the Middle School, we are upping our offerings in Health and Wellness as well as teaching new courses in Digital Citizenship. Students will also have access to the new media center located in the lower level of the Carriage House.

    The Upper School will have a sharper focus on STEAM-related fields. In addition, we are offering new P.E. courses for 9th and 10th graders as well as the new Junior LeadershipAcademy and Senior Launch (which prepares our seniors for life in college).
  • Enrollment

    Did the tuition increase have any impact on expected enrollment for next year?
    (SW) Rather surprisingly, the tuition increase did not have an overly negative impact on enrollment next year. I am certain that some families were more affected by it than others, but generally, folks understood that the monies were being used to improve faculty salaries and make our programs better. Better programs and retaining happier faculty equal a better learning environment and a better school. Most in our community are highly educated people who want the best for their children. I think they understood that we cannot afford to fall behind or underfund vital areas of the school.

    Outside of Financial Aid are there any other scholarships or awards that students can apply for?
    (SW) There is a small amount of money awarded each year to students for merit purposes. These awards are typically given to incoming families, but anyone interested to find out more about whether or not their child may qualify should contact the Admissions office.
  • Finance

    Given that the recent increase in school tuition was both significant and the first increase in a number of years, what is the plan for future increases?
    (SW) We do not plan to have further tuition increases on the scale we introduced this year. That said, we have already begun contingency budgeting in the event of a business cycle downturn or unanticipated economic problems to ensure that programs can be maintained without compromising quality or further dramatic tuition increases. Going forward, we anticipate our increases to be more in line with the market, inflation and maintaining existing programs. In spite of the recent tuition increase, it is worth noting that we are still in the middle of our local peer independent school set and a long way away from NYC prices of schools with whom we compete on the athletic fields and for college spots.
  • Equity and Social Justice

    Have there been any new diversity initiatives this year and is there a plan to increase these efforts moving forward?
    (SW) We have focused our efforts this year in a couple of specific ways.

    • Firstly, training faculty had been a key first step as many are not yet qualified and knowledgeable enough on recent trends in SE+J.

    • Secondly, we have worked hard on mission reviews, policy making and procedures to be sure that the community understands and supports the work we are doing.

    • Thirdly, we have made hiring minority candidates a real focus by attending recruitment fairs designed specifically for this purpose.

    • Finally, we have added programs within the school to promote awareness about SE+J. Specifically in the area of the arts, but also by looking at curriculum offering and special events that help deepen our understanding.
  • Board of Trustees

    What is the sourcing and recruitment process of the Board of Trustees?
    (SM) The Board follows the Strategic Plan and focuses on recruiting new Board members that will help us fulfill the needs and goals of the Strategic Plan. We look at what we are missing on the Board and who has the strengths and skill sets that are needed to execute the Strategic Plan.

    How do you ensure there a diverse makeup and representation of the Portledge community on Board?
    (SM) We are always looking for diversity but at the same time, we have to look for the people with the best qualifications for the needs that we have. We try to have a healthy balance in terms of gender, race, and areas of expertise.

    In an effort to provide more objective voices, are there any active initiatives to recruit members of the Board of Trustee who are not Portledge parents?
    (SM) The Board is always looking to recruit members who are not current Portledge parents. We are lucky to have such strong support from both current and former Portledge parents but realize voices from outside the community would be valuable as well. Names have circulated but we have not found the right combination from outside our community as of this time.

    Once recruited is there any formal vetting process that the candidate must go through?
    (SM) Once an individual is to be considered for the Board, the Governance Committee presents the name and any pertinent information to the full Board. The full Board discusses and lets the Governance Committee know whether or not they believe the Governance Committee should continue with the process. If the Board decided to proceed, the President of the Board calls the individual to let them know that his/her name is being considered and asks whether they would be interested in going through the process. The process involves an interview by one or more Board members and then a full vote by the Board.

    Is there a term limit to the Board and are we expecting new members for the upcoming school year?
    (SM) There are term limits for how long a Board member may serve. In accordance with our By-Laws, the term of office to which a Trustee shall be so elected shall be three years beginning the 1st of July following such election (usually at the annual May meeting). Furthermore, a Trustee is eligible to serve two consecutive terms of three years each.

    We are very pleased to announce that we have elected four new Board members to begin their initial term on July 1, 2018. In this edition of The Crest, you will find their biographical information.

    What are the most significant accomplishments of the current Board of Trustees?
    (SM) The current Board of Trustees has much to be proud of. We successfully completed a Capital Campaign that was able to build and open the Commons for the first day of school in 2017. The Board also passed the Strategic Plan and has just recently approved a Master Facilities Plan that will take Portledge into the future for the next 10 years. As a Board, we have taken annual giving to a new level and are leaders for the greater Portledge community.