But before I get to the sizzle, let me say a few words about how far we have come in such a short time. I know for those of you that read Crossties regularly or attend Headmaster Coffees this may be repetitive, but on the off chance that there is someone in the audience who has not done these things, please humor me. Listen to what we accomplished in the past two and a half years. Remember, this was accomplished through the hard work of many, including the parents that paid tuition, gave to the annual fund, took part in school events, and above all… used their Kroger Cards. Working together, faculty, staff, Board, and our North Cross families, we have accomplished tremendous things.
- We completed a $1.26 million renovation of the Carter Athletic Center. If you have not seen the new lobby or are interested in joining the nicest health club in Roanoke, you owe it to yourself to take a look.
- We renovated every inch of Eaton Hall. It is hard to believe that this year’s eighth grade class is the first class in North Cross history to have air conditioning for their entire stay in middle school. There is new technology, new furniture, and with the new elevator, we are handicap accessible for the first time.
- A generous gift from the Fishwick family has allowed us to completely renovate our tennis complex.
- Here in Fishburn Auditorium, a gift from the Parents Association and a supporter of the arts enabled us to upgrade our lighting in Fishburn auditorium.
- We have made our campus safer by limiting access to classroom buildings and adding the ability to speak via intercom with each classroom. These are part of an ongoing risk management effort that is tasked with identifying potential risks in all aspects of our school program and recommending appropriate solutions.
In the area of technology,
- We are in the middle of the second year of our 1:1 iPad program in the Upper School and are in our first year of our 1:1 iPad program in the Middle School. While we have only scratched the surface of what we can do with this new technology, we have already placed ourselves at the forefront of integrating technology into the classroom.
- This past fall has seen us collaborate with the Virginia Tech Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology in offering an after-school program in creativity and entrepreneurship. We will continue to build upon this through summer programs and look to add programming in this area during the regular school day. Upper School electives in 3-D printing, robotics, and new for next year, programming, continue our focus on STEM-D (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and design).
- We have seen the addition of almost $400,000 in technology upgrades in all three divisions including 18 new interactive white boards spread throughout all three divisions, 15 new IMACs in the Graphic Design Lab, new MacBook Pros for all upper and middle school teachers, Apple TV in each Willis Hall classroom, and a campus that is Wi-Fi enabled. Behind the scenes, we have added $25,000 worth of new servers to run our network.
- We completely remade our website, focusing on what our various constituencies need most. Our resulting web traffic more than doubled in the first three months, and an increasing number of new families are drawn to us by the updated news stories and fresh look.
- Related, but well worth its own notation, is the presence of reliable calendars on our website.
- We have added Net Classroom to our middle and upper schools and will soon move entirely to electronic report cards and comments. For next year, we will move Net Classroom down to the fourth and fifth grades as well.
In the area of academic programs,
- You have heard me speak many times about our Lower School Spanish program and we remain the only non-immersion school in the State to offer world language instruction five days a week from age three through fifth grade.
- Approximately one in five upper school students are taking part in the Horace G. Fralin Program for Global Studies which includes advanced new course work, a speaker series, focused international travel, and other opportunities to expand our view and understand our place in the world and 21st century.
- We are participating in the Harvard Model United Nations competition for the second year. This year, we have two groups, one representing Ghana and the other representing United Arab Emirates, that will travel to Boston, MA tomorrow.
- Our Lower School teachers have been aggressively pursuing certification in Word Study, an innovative new reading program designed by the Curry School of Education at UVA.
- Both our yearbook and newspaper were recognized for excellence by the Columbia University Scholastic Press Association.
- Our Band and Choral programs have produced a myriad of all-district and all-state performers. Dramatic productions include the recently concluded The Crucible and our upcoming production of Oliver!
In the area of admissions,
- We had record re-enrollment this past year and inquiries, and admissions activity for next year is excellent to date. As a comparison, our retention rate for last year was 92.2% more than 2.5% better than any retention rate over the past ten years.
- We recently sent four students and two faculty members to the NAIS People of Color Conference, and we are thoughtfully examining our program through the eyes of people of color to ensure that we are the school of first choice for minority parents of talented students.
- We are playing host to 15 international students from four continents, whose presence has enlivened our upper school.
In the area of finance,
- We have achieved financial stability and clarity with greater oversight and board support, as well as developed strict procedures in our business office to ensure financial sustainability in the years to come.
- We operated under the first balanced operating budget in ten years.
And always a fan favorite, we have piggy backed upon the popularity of the jolly fat man to host a fabulous holiday bonfire and tree lighting ceremony.
I am sure I have left many things out, and I am aware that I have neglected what has been the most successful five-year period in our athletic history; but by this point, I think you get the picture.
Taken individually, this is a laundry list of successes we have achieved in the past three years. As a staff, just the ten-minute act of creating this list put a hop in our step. But what I find to be more rewarding is to look at the entire list and realize that this is evidence that we are changing our culture at North Cross School to one of student and faculty engagement. Data from the High School Survey of Student Engagement shows that independent school students are three times more likely to respond that a teacher knows them well compared to response of public school students. In my mind, this is the single most important feature of an independent school experience. Since day one at North Cross, I have preached engagement as my number one measure of success. Every success I listed either provides for, or supports, an opportunity for students and faculty to become more closely engaged in our academic programs. I look at this list as a reminder of my refrain from last year’s State of the School address, “There has never been a better time to be at North Cross.”
As I look to next year, we will build on our recent succeses and continue to focus on improving our curriculum, in particular, our Lower School math program, our K-12 writing program, and our continued focus on STEM-D. More will be written on each of these in the coming weeks so pay attention to your Crossties. Our improvements will be comprehensive, including the purchase of a new math curriculum, the increased use of technology to enhance both math instruction, and the editing process of student papers. We will add computer programming to the upper school curriculum and incorporate ICAT into our regular classroom schedule. Our goal is not only to teach students how to write or do mathematics, but also how to think creatively using the written word and mathematical expression. These will be the markers of success that will distinguish North Cross students in the coming decades.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video might be worth a million. Here is a brief video clip of students involved in our ICAT program this past fall. The students, working in small groups, were asked to create a new invention and then were guided through the production process. As a final assignment, they were asked to present their products in what was similar to a mini - “Shark Tank.” Remember, these students did not receive credit for this project, and the program required them to stay after school twice a week for fifteen weeks.
One of our new parents, a professor at a local university, remarked that she found it challenging to get her students to do in a semester all that our students accomplished in 15 weeks. I do want to comment on these students. Most of them were seventh graders, several of whom I taught as sixth graders last year. As a whole, that group has a strong work ethic and an interest in learning that is driven by a few key student leaders. These kids don’t even know who they are, but their academic interests and willingness to expand their knowledge base to diverse areas such as philosophy and design carries over to the rest of the class. In this way, they drive all students to higher levels of academic achievement, and I am already anticipating the college choices these students will enjoy.
My point is not to go on about this group of seventh graders but to point out the effect a group of smart and talented students can have upon their entire grade. Toward this end, we are announcing our Founders’ Scholarships, merit-based financial assistance for students that demonstrate exceptional academic ability, leadership, and diverse extra-curricular interests. These scholarships will be available to our current 8th, 9th, and 10th graders as well as outside students applying for grades 9, 10, and 11. In cases of highly qualified applicants, Founders’ Scholarships may be available at the middle school level. The amount of the scholarships will vary, but there is a $7,500 cap per scholarship. We will continue to offer need-based financial aid, and the total amount will remain consistent with the amount offered in past years. Merit-based awards may be used in conjunction with need-based awards although the total amount of aid awarded cannot exceed 85% of tuition. I believe that by keeping and attracting the best students possible, we will increase the academic profile of North Cross School and further enhance our reputation with college admission departments.
We also recognize that we are missing out on a very talented pool of applicants. When identified at the lower school level, and given specialized instruction, high ability students with dyslexia can rejoin a mainstream classroom within three to four years. Our Crosswalk program, having been piloted for two years, has received approval from our Board to begin full operation on our campus. With a separate budget and fee schedule, Crosswalk will provide small group instruction using techniques pioneered by the Academy of Orton-Gillingham. Specially trained teachers will teach high-ability students in groups of four students per class, the decoding skills necessary to achieve to their ability level. This type of program has been successfully operated at many independent schools, and it is another way that we can serve the needs of North Cross families and attract highly qualified students to our campus.
Directly connected to Crosswalk is the reality that these students will need academic support following their departure from their small class learning environments. Toward this end, we are examining several models for providing tutorial services on our campus that would be available to all students on a short- or long-term basis. Informal polls have shown that a large percentage of our parents have used off-campus tutorial services and providing services on campus should make getting extra assistance that much easier. In coming years, I envision a “Learning Center” that will meet the needs our entire student population whether they be tutoring, test preparation, or study skills classes.
This concept of a learning center is closer to a reality than you might believe. We recently received a very generous gift of $143,000 for the creation of a seven classroom learning center to be located in the rear portion of the Hancock Library. During the day, these classrooms will serve the Crosswalk program; but after school, they will serve our entire student population as a tutorial center. Each classroom is designed for privacy, yet with student safety in mind; and they will be equipped with the latest in teaching technology. It is my hope that this gift will serve as the seed for a much larger renovation of Old Slack Hall.
Unlike new initiatives in past years, our move to merit-based scholarships and the newly approved Crosswalk program are budget neutral. With this in mind, I would like to turn the presentation towards our budget for next year and, of course, a discussion of next year’s tuition.
Our budget for next year is based upon a slightly larger school, up approximately 10 students, an increase expected primarily because of Crosswalk and our new merit scholarship program. We remain very conservative in our expenses and have added in only three areas.
We have budgeted for an athletic trainer to be on campus for all home athletic events. In the past, we have only had a trainer on campus for those sports identified as “contact” sports; and as we all learned on the baseball field last spring, accidents can happen in the most unlikely of ways.
We have budgeted funds to lease/purchase a new bus capable of comfortably and reliably travelling long distances. This bus will have air conditioning, air suspension, under bus storage, bucket seats, and an entertainment system. No longer will we roll up to St. Anne’s-Belfield in good old bus #7 nor, will parents feel the need for charter busses… And I am pushing for stainless steel wheels.
We will spend more money on our faculty as well. We have returned professional development for teachers to our budget. For the past two years, “paddles up” at our annual gala has supplied the lion share of our professional development funding. Nothing is more important to the growth of a school than having teachers aware of the latest practices in their profession. Beginning next year, we will be able to provide our teachers with approximately $425 per teacher for professional development. A group of teachers have been tasked with ensuring that these professional development funds will be used in the most necessary and effective manner.
And finally, we are providing all faculty and staff with a meaningful raise. Teacher raises will not be across the board but will reflect past salary inequities as well as current performance. In determining the need for teacher raises, we examined past salary history as well as what our public school and private school counterparts have done over the past three years. Our goal, as always, is to ensure that we can attract and retain the best faculty and staff possible.
In order to afford teacher raises and professional development, by far the largest new expenses to our budget, we have increased tuition for next year by 4%. More than 90% of revenues generated by the tuition increase go directly to fund salary increases and professional development. In addition, we have slightly increased athletic fees and the cost of bus service.
I recognize that any increase affects the pocketbook at home, but I believe we have been remarkably conservative in our spending approach and this increase is consistent with our four-year trend of declining tuition increases. As always, we will offset our financial aid budget with a comparable increase in available funds; and should a parent find that this small increase represents the tipping point in family finances, I encourage you to contact our admission office. We value your family at North Cross.
In a traditional year, this would be the end of my address. You would have heard the news you came to hear. This year is a little different in that we do have two significant changes in our senior leadership. After 27 years as the only Lower School Director in the history of North Cross, Liz Holt is excited to be moving to the role of Dean of Students and member of the History Department in the Upper School. As Dean, Liz will be able to take many of the disciplinary duties off of Mr. Thompson’s desk; and as their former Lower School Director, many of her former students will welcome her back into their lives. We have talked about what it will be like on July 1 when, for the first time in 27 years, Liz will not have any summer responsibilities on campus. Of course, that all changes come August when school ramps up.
That raises the obvious question of what are we going to do in the Lower School. After consulting with Liz, we realized we needed in a Lower School Director, someone with management experience, educational experience, in-depth knowledge of our curriculum and goals, a proven ability to work with current and prospective families, and the ability to effectively work with our lower school faculty. I am a firm believer in promoting from the inside when I have quality candidates, and I am excited to announce that Deborah Jessee has agreed to serve as our Lower School Director. In her role as Admission Director, Mrs. Jessee knows all of the students in the Lower School; and I am excited that she will bring with her an admission director’s attention to detail. Deborah is in her 23rd year at North Cross; and for those of you that do not remember, Deborah was a resource teacher and taught second grade prior to her admissions work. Deborah has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Hollins College (now University) and a Masters of Education in Specific Learning Disabilities from East Carolina University. She is well versed in the craft of teaching, well respected by the Lower School faculty, and will be responsive to the concerns of our families.
As for the admissions position, Deborah will remain as our Director until June 30 so I have a little time to determine our course of action. In the coming days, I will meet with the admissions staff and you will hear more.
I know there may be many questions, and they would be hard to answer completely tonight. I will make copies of this address on our website and in this week’s Crossties. I will be happy to meet with you one-on-one so that any questions you might have can be asked in a thoughtful atmosphere.
I truly believe that we are in the midst of monumental, positive change and that the best days of North Cross lie in our near future. As we now enter our 70th year as the top independent school in Southwest Virginia, we are about to bloom into a mature and recognized presence as one of the top independent schools in the country.
Again, I thank you for your continued support of North Cross School and I join you in looking forward to an exceptional future.