At a meeting this past Tuesday, the Sequoyah School Board of Trustees voted unanimously, 23-0, to authorize negotiations to secure a specific site for the purpose of establishing a Sequoyah High School. In a subsequent letter sent via email to the community two evenings ago announcing the development, Director Josh Brody expressed his administration’s belief that “these negotiations will conclude with our announcement soon of an extraordinary Sequoyah high school campus and historic partnership.”
If all goes according to plan, Sequoyah will be enrolling freshmen and sophomores in the fall of 2016, meaning members of today’s seventh grade class and below might have the opportunity to stay at Sequoyah through high school graduation.
The vote was the culmination of one element of the 2011-2016 Strategic Plan, which also envisioned the new buildings completed in 2013, along with the increase in elementary and junior high enrollment. Specifically, the Strategic Plan created a task force, headed by technology entrepreneur and new Board member John Underkoffler, charged first with developing a plan for a high school addition and assessing the feasibility of potential sites.
With the initial phases of its work successfully completed, the task force was then asked to propose a development plan for board consideration. Having passed the plan, the board and administration hope to enroll a first class of freshmen and sophomores in the fall of 2016.
The administration and board thus far have not disclosed the location of the proposed high school, or many details about the proposed program, citing the sensitivity of negotiations. However, Director Brody’s letter details a number of ways he and the board will be providing more information to the community regarding the future high school.
In the coming weeks, Josh will visit classrooms to speak to students in Junior High, Over There, and Out Back. He will also address the student government. To provide dates for parents to drop in with questions, a Director’s Coffee has been set for February 24th, and a Board of Trustees’ coffee for the morning of March 5th. Information sessions for families in Over There, Out Back, and Junior High will be held on several evenings in April.
On May 20th, the Board of Trustees will do a comprehensive presentation open to all families and staff. “As we further develop high school planning in the next several months, we will share information with the community. With more information, individuals can come to an understanding—and some will be more excited than others,” said Brody.
“The Board considered a large set of facts presented in a bunch of different formats,” said Underkoffler. These included “photographs of the site, historical documents, spreadsheets that analyze the financials associated with getting a high school off the ground, verbal presentations, studies of other K-8 schools that had added a high school, and so on. I’m sure that some of these materials will become available—especially those relating to details of the new site, the high school curriculum, and descriptions of how Sequoyah’s philosophies extend to a full K-12 experience.”
The diverse reactions to the news in the community track the Board’s own experience, according to Michael Barak, Chairman of the Board of Trustees and father of Junior High student Max Barak. “We too, at the outset, had differences of opinion whether proceeding with a high school was in the best interest of Sequoyah,” he said. “There were as many reactions among the board to the idea of a Sequoyah high school as there are members of the board,” Underkoffler said, adding, “But we try to model our behavior on the thoughtful approach that Sequoyah students themselves take to debate: all voices, all opinions are welcome and are part of the discussion.”
Barak said that “key considerations were 1) Is the high school proposal aligned with Sequoyah’s mission?, 2) Is the proposed high school program educationally sound and compelling—will it attract students, faculty and strategic partners?, 3) Is it financially viable?, and 4) Does the leadership team have the capacity to develop a high school?” After “months and months researching, evaluating, debating, and assessing the merits of the high school program,” Barak said, the Board reached a consensus that the answer to all those questions was yes.
Sequoyah’s primary interest in creating a high school, according to Brody, is to extend the Sequoyah experience throughout the entire pre-college education, offering families the value of a progressive education from grades K–12. “I believe very strongly that there are great things that happen at Sequoyah. It would be really exciting to see those things extend into a high school as well.” Brody also believes that there would be benefits in parental commitment, as well as decreased pressure and anxiety surrounding the prospect of high school.
Barak noted that the Board also had another main goal in mind: “The primary benefit to expanding to a K-12 is that it strengthens the school’s overall financial position.” Data from the National Association of Independent Schools suggest that K-12 schools tend to raise more money for capital projects and endowments (as opposed to annual giving and operating funds) than elementary-only schools. During the 2012-13 school year, the average capital gift from parents at K-12 schools was nearly 35% higher than at K-8 schools. From trustees, the average capital donation was nearly twice as large, and from alumni, over five times as large. “Overall, expanding K-12 places the entire school in a better financial position to purchase the current campus when it becomes available,” said Brody.
In response to concerns about existing financial obligations from the school’s recent expansion and new Upper buildings, Brody also added that, “the school used a combination of gifts, accumulated reserves, and financing to undertake the construction project. The school is paying off its debt on schedule. Expansion to high school does not increase Sequoyah’s debt or affect the schedule to pay it off.” Underkoffler believes that the project’s fiscal plan “will enable us to launch the high school while putting zero financial stress on the existing K-8 program. This was critically important to the board.”
Brody thinks that moving to a K-12 will eventually strengthen the school’s reputation as well as its balance sheet. “Sometimes when you have a bigger school,” Brody said, “more people, more tuition coming in, more families, and more capability to support the school, a bigger school can have a more powerful impact on the community’s opinion.”
The dream of a Sequoyah high school has been in the background for many years, even decades. In the early 1990s, Hannah McLaren, who was Director at the time, and Sarah Star, former Junior High teacher, put together the first high school plan. The plan stalled, however, primarily because the small size of the school at the time made the financing for a high school difficult, according to Brody.
Though previous attempts were abandoned, the goal of a high school remained in the school’s Strategic Plan. The strategic plan is a stepwise guide to the school’s goals, updated every five to six years. It is put together by the administration, with help from teachers, alumni, current parents, alumni parents, other community members, and a hired outside consultant who has experience facilitating strategic planning.
The site proposal that passed the board was the crucial step toward realizing the high school plan. “A lot of what we really had to understand, related to the high school,” Brody said, “was the site: where it would be, how that would work, the logistics, cost.” The site identified by administrators had a narrow “window of availability,” accelerating the school’s timetable for implementing the high school plan. The Board was moved to quick action by a perception of the site’s unique suitability. “The site couldn’t be more ideal for our high school,” meaning the Board felt it had to “move quickly to seize the opportunity,” said Underkoffler.
In addition to the effort to secure the site, which will be conducted by Barak, along with Brody, Director of Communications Elena Phleger, and other members of the administration, Underkoffler cited additional planning to be done “around curriculum, classroom layout, recruiting and admissions, communication with the wider community about our plans, and a dozen other things that we get up to full speed on.”
The school would likely initially include only a 9th and 10th grade, with a target class size of around 50 students per grade, Brody said. Eventually the plan would be to include the upper high school grades and expand to perhaps 80 students per grade level, for an eventual addition to the school of around 320 students.
These enrollment projections are the greatest risk associated with the project, according to Board Chair Barak. If the enrollment is lower than projected, a tuition shortfall would pose a problem. “This risk is very low,” Barak said. “We have very conservative projections and don’t show full enrollment until year 7. We also commissioned an expert market evaluation. The results showed a strong demand for a Sequoyah High School. While we can’t be 100% sure we will meet the numbers as projected, we left enough of a cushion so we shouldn’t be lower than what we projected.”
The other risk is the opposite: that the high school will be too popular. “In that case,” Barak said, “we would need to manage this such that we grow in line with having the high teacher-student ratio we desire.”
Underkoffler is doubtful anything will happen to prevent the high school from materializing. “Now that the resolution has been passed, the Sequoyah community’s full effort will go into making the high school happen. Only very extreme events—like something going wildly wrong with the process of securing the high school site, or the U.S. government outlawing education, or a meteor wiping out Southern California—could really stop the process at this point,” he said. Brody also said that “having discussed initial terms satisfactory to both Sequoyah and the owners of the site, we are confident that we will reach an agreement soon.”
The entire task force was made up of Chair John Underkoffler; Board members Michael Barak, Stacey Mann, Rodney Nugent, Patrick Ferry, Luke Wood, David Grannis, and Laura Gabbert; and administrators Brody, Elena Phleger, and Marc Alongi. Other members of the task force included Steve Dahl, Laura Gowen, Paula Kessler, Peter Knell, Nicole Logan, Renee Dake-Wilson, Jenny Umhofer, Jordan Wallens, and Christopher Kirk. Teachers, Brody said, will become more involved as a site becomes a reality.
According to Brody, the new high school would extend the values of the current school, unique in the area. “I went to Poly, but I think that those high schools are different than what we imagine a Sequoyah high school would look like. To me Sequoyah is different.”
The new school would be guided by the current “Habits of Mind,” and its programs would also aim to create strong relationships between students and teachers along with an integrated community across age levels. “The mission statement would remain the same. The emphasis on diversity would remain, the emphasis on creativity and having a place where students feel supported to take risks and make mistakes and really apply with their learning. That would all be similar,” said Brody. “Camping would still be important to the Sequoyah 9-12. We would certainly want to include sports. I would guess that we would have most of the common sports except tackle football.”
The high school curriculum would reflect the school’s different approach. “What we’re thinking right now is that we would probably not have Advanced Placement courses,” Brody said, referring to courses at other high schools specifically designed to prepare students for pre-college placement exams offered by the College Board. “That is a very prescribed curriculum and we really want to emphasize our teachers there with our students, figuring out what they’re really passionate about and what they’re interested in. I think that if you don’t have AP classes it leaves more room for creativity.”
Underkoffler noted that “some colleges are starting to realize that AP Exams don’t tell as much about students’ abilities as they’re supposed to, and are no longer considering them as part of applications—and some high schools are declining to offer AP courses. As the country begins to realize that not all the traditional ways are necessarily working, it’s also stepping back and looking at alternatives. And so the timing is very good for places like Sequoyah to stand as models for other ways for schools to work. I think that Sequoyah is in an almost unique position to help the world define a new style of learning and teaching.”
Grades would be a thornier issue for students applying to college from a Sequoyah high school. Director of Curriculum Marc Alongi said that the point would still be to teach kids to love learning, not to work just for the grade. But the reality of college admissions presents certain challenges to the Sequoyah approach.
“We certainly are going to make sure that the Sequoyah high school curriculum prepares students to get into college,” Brody said. “But we would not want to emphasize grades. We would like to handle assessment like we do here. We would want to have portfolios and just take a lot of responsibility for setting goals, and with the teachers, understanding why or why not the students are meeting those goals. So I don’t think we would have the same conventional letter grades, but I think we would have to translate the work that students do into grades for colleges.”
A high school would also offer community-service opportunities the school cannot presently offer. “One of the things that we’re really interested in is having high school students have opportunities to work with people from for-profit and nonprofit organizations, or possibly with elected officials or government offices. Sequoyah high school students would be encouraged and supported and be working and collaborating with people outside of the school involved with social change and understanding what that looks and feels like,” said Brody. The goal would be “not only learning the content, but being able to apply that content to real life situations.”
The first application of this kind might be to apply student energies toward the formation of the school itself. Barak said that he wanted to draw students’ attention to the opportunity presented by “a new endeavor, a startup. The students from Sequoyah can bring their creative and innovative spirit to build and shape the high school, the community and the world at large.”