Headmaster’s Thoughts – October 2005

Hurricane Katrina has put in perspective the whole world of school fundraising. Most people would say that charitable contributions should help people, first and foremost. This seems self-evident, and yet, in the world of private schools, most charitable giving ends up building magnificent new structures. The money goes to buildings. And heads of schools seem to be more in the business of courting donors to give money to build some new building, which suitably carries the donor’s name, than actually attending to the human needs of their schools and ensuring that the programs are running successfully.

A head recently wrote in the publication Private School Insider that he spends “more time on construction, logistics and fundraising” than running his school. Effectively, that is what the board of trustees requires and the head must produce. Indeed, a lack of fundraising ability is the kiss of death when an applicant applies for a headship. It was not always thus. There was a time when heads, such as Frank Boyden at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, were identified with their schools. Closer to home, New York had heads who served their headship at one school and knew their school intimately—Mildred Berenson at Brearley and David Hume at St David’s come to mind. But that was yesterday: now we have famous schools that have three heads in three years, traveling heads who lead different New York schools for a few years at a time, and scared heads who feel the constant pressure from boards of trustees who demand bigger and grander.

In fact, there seems to be an increasing disconnect in many cases between the community concept of a head of a private school and reality. The community thinks of the head as a visionary leader who knows every student and spends all day working in the school building. The reality is that the head is trying to hang on to his or her job by being out of the building raising money at lunches and dinners. In other words, he or she spends most of the time begging for funds for buildings. As buildings are acquired, they must be filled and so the school grows to a size that can no longer be personally managed.

Far too many schools place parents in some artificial hierarchy according to the amount they give. It creates a tiered parent body of big givers, medium givers, and non-givers. Surely, this is not the democracy we want in our children’s schools; all families should be treated the same. To no one’s surprise, the big-giver parents have more clout, get their friends’ children accepted more easily, and generally get better treatment from the school administration… and they give these clever and catchy names: Headmaster’s Circle, Tower Club, Founder’s Assembly, Headmaster’s Knee, and so on. Each category is carefully segregated by how much was given. One school in New York has a different category for those who give over $1,907. I wonder: Why was that number chosen?

So, back to the Katrina tragedy. It highlights how unnecessary the need is for more magnificent structures at our schools in an age of environmental catastrophe and personal calamities. Schools need to look after their students not provide facilities that are more lavish than those of some small colleges. Of course, schools should have clean and technologically up-to-date facilities. What they do not need—and boarding schools may be the prime culprits here—is a grandeur of such proportion that adolescents think that it is the norm and that they will be entitled to such extravagance for the rest of their lives.

York Prep raised over $4,000 for the victims of Katrina. Our donation to those victims is entirely consistent with our general fundraising approach for the York Prep School Scholarship Foundation. In our case, it is to offer a York Prep education to deserving students whose families could not afford it otherwise.

The Katrina tragedy is the people priority at the moment. Those victims have the immediate need. We hope, however, that after the hurricane disaster is resolved, the York Prep School Scholarship Foundation will continue to provide for the needs of our students in the months to come. The Foundation also represents a real need, and in the next few months you will receive additional information about how this Foundation helps the children in our own community. In the meantime, this headmaster asks that we support the victims of a devastating storm that so hurt the people of this country.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org