Middle States Visiting Team Oral Report

York Prep School recently completed a year-long self-assessment process leading to re-accreditation by the Middle States Association. The culmination of this process was a four-day visit by a group of five educators from other Middle States accredited schools. This Validation Team evaluated the self-study document, observed classes, and interviewed various members of the York Prep community. The following report was delivered orally to the York Prep faculty and staff on October 31, 2013, by Mr. Dave Mullen, Chair of the Validation Team, at the end of their visit.

York Preparatory School

Validation Team Visit

October 28-31, 2013

Oral Report

David E. Mullen, Chair

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

We’ve quite enjoyed seeing you and your students in costume today. As a native Bostonian, I come dressed as that most fearsome creature to the denizens of New York City, a Red Sox fan.

I am pleased to see all of you this afternoon to hear the preliminary observations and thoughts of your Middle States Validation Team. We leave York Prep at the end of this report feeling that we have had a full and rich experience of your school. We appreciate the warm reception we have received and the candor with which you have shared some of your deepest concerns and greatest wishes.

It is tradition that the oral report is presented without opportunity for questions, so I will be leaving right after I finish this report. This oral report is just a snapshot or glimpse of what the formal and considerably longer written report will say about the three elements of the Excellence By Design protocol: the school’s planning process, the content of the plan, and how well York Preparatory School meets the Commission on Secondary School Standards for Accreditation. I would like to provide you with a very brief summary of the major points we will likely make in the written report that will follow in a few weeks. Ronnie and Art will receive a copy of the written report for proofing and accuracy of facts. Then the report will be forwarded to the Middle States Excellence By Design Advisory Committee for review and their recommendation. The school will have a formal opportunity to respond to the written report prior to submission to the Commission. Finally, the advisory committee will submit the report with recommendation to the Commission on Secondary Schools for a vote on accreditation. Thus, while we will make a recommendation, there are several other layers of review that will happen prior to the Commission’s vote.

Before I begin, I need to recognize my colleagues on the team for their incredible effort and hard work during these very full and intense days. We came together as strangers and leave as friends. Your validation team came together for your school and your school alone. Sadly, we will probably never work together as a validation team again. I have served on and chaired many visitation and validation teams, and you should know that your team was particularly dedicated, thoughtful, concerned, and giving. This week was a learning process for us as well. Despite the long hours in analysis, discussion, and writing, they made this monumental task enjoyable. Had we been able to get away, and had you been able to put up with us, two weeks of visiting would have almost been enough! On the other hand, two weeks in Manhattan at your delightful restaurants may have exhausted your financial reserves! I wish to thank Paulyn Church, Michael Washousky, Karen Rolston, and Bill Buckley. Their objective professionalism, attention to detail, and good humor made my work easier and your validation report more meaningful.

I urge all of you to volunteer to be on a Validation Team at some point in the future to gain a more clear and comprehensive understanding of the protocol and the process.

I must also express, on behalf of the team and myself, our sincere gratitude to all of you who have welcomed us and made our visit to York Prep so enjoyable. The hospitality and friendliness that you and your students offered made us feel part of the York family. Like the self-study book, you opened up your school to us. We applaud your candor and honesty in our interviews. I would like to recognize the extraordinary work of Alicia Weschler and Heather Marshall-Fleenor in preparing for our visit, as well as the gracious generosity of Ronnie and Jayme Stewart. As much as I would like to inpidually thank everyone else for your very gracious hospitality and your contribution to the success of our visit, I fear I will miss someone who rightfully deserves public recognition for a job well done. Regardless, you should know that your efforts are recognized and appreciated.

In verse 33 of the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu states that “understanding others is knowledge, understanding yourself is true wisdom.” In choosing the Middle States Excellence By Design Protocol, you have opted to better understand yourselves. Our Team commends you for choosing this difficult, less cut and dry, but more reflective and student centered process. This was a courageous step.

In doing so, you made several commitments.

You reconfirmed your mission with emphasis on each inpidual student.

You committed to achieving improved student performance within that stated mission.

You committed to building your institutional capacity to carry out your mission,

You committed to including a broad-based representation and participation of community stakeholders in achieving these goals and furthering your mission.

You committed to a process of continuing evaluation of your progress.

You committed to participating in this peer review and validation process by opening up your dreams, visions, plans, and process to outside scrutiny.

York Preparatory School is a unique and precious community, providing a safe and supportive academic environment for young people to gain confidence both as students and as human beings, and helping them move on to the next stage in their lives in college. York is more than a place; it is a culture where every student feels respected, valued, and supported. As one teacher told us with great enthusiasm, “It’s not a job, it’s an experience!” Recognizing the unique talents and difficulties of each inpidual, your school appropriately equips and challenges the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of your students. York Prep displays quiet confidence as your effective pedagogy turns what might otherwise have been frustration into success.

Some comments from your students make this clear:

“Everyone is friendly at this school.”

“The teachers are better here.”

“I love this school!”

“Other schools don’t let you explore the city like we do here.”

“We’re like one big family.”

“York is a great fit because it’s more challenging.”

“You can get a better education because everyone’s nice here.”

“I’m a totally different person than when I came here.”

“York has everything; they really cater to your needs.”

“It’s fun to come to school.”

“This school is amazing… It’s helped me and everyone so much.”

“This place changed me.”

And my favorite, “Here, I don’t get into fights.”

All is not sunshine and roses, however. Your students really hate the cell phone policy and don’t like walking to the 5th floor! The Visiting Team is sympathetic to the later sentiment.

It was also clear that York is a very special place for adults. Some quotes from your teachers include:

“Teachers are treated with tremendous respect.”

“Your opinions matter here.”

“This is a place where I’m allowed to grow.”

“You work hard or you’re gone.”

“The bar is high; it’s a tough faculty to measure up to.”

“There’s a family atmosphere.”

“Communication is open and easy.”

“There is tremendous support from the administration.”

“Decisions are made quickly and clearly.”

“The administration is fair.”

“We’re listened to.”

And from parents we heard:

“There’s nothing special-ed about this school. It feels like a school for gifted and talented with all that they do.”

“Teachers work with the kids and really find out about their passions.”

“I said ‘He needs all these things’ and they just said OK.”

“They’re incredibly supportive.”

“I wasn’t sure it would be challenging enough, but it’s been perfect.”

“It’s a special place–they honestly love what they do.”

“It’s been transformative.”

Now let’s look at the actions that the York Prep community has taken in the continuance of its dreams and service to young people.


The Planning Process

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll tells us why planning is essential: (and I quote)

Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in the tree.

“Which road do I take?” she asks.

His response was a question.

“Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” Alice answered.

“Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there and it doesn’t matter. But, as you show through your caring and hard work, it does matter, and you have determined where you want to go. In a fast changing world, where the knowledge base doubles every 18 months, it is not much of a stretch to say that for all of us in education, planning is a matter of survival.

You came together two years ago to begin to plan your objectives and review yourselves against the Middle States’ standards. As stressful as our visit may have been, Middle States Excellence By Design is not just a box to be checked off but, done correctly, a process of planning, improvement, and growth for the institution and all those working in it.

Particularly in a smaller school, where everyone is wearing many hats and dealing with challenging day-to-day issues, it is common for long term strategic work to get crowded out. With input from a variety of stakeholders, you developed two student learning objectives that are consistent with the academic and nurturing mission of the school. You also developed two organizational capacity objectives to improve the institution as a whole. Meeting as a planning team, you developed the objectives you plan to pursue over the next seven years and the measurements by which you will gauge your progress.

As the process continues with new faculty and students joining the community, it is important that communication and awareness activities keep all stakeholders informed and involved.

Michael Fullan and Matt Miles, well-known change experts, say “The message about planning is not the traditional Plan, then Do. Rather it is Do, then Plan, and Do and Plan and Do and Plan.” This ongoing nature of examination is needed to ensure effective change takes place. It is clear from the manner in which your school operates that there is a commitment to continually look at the results of what you are doing, making adjustments and creating change. We are hopeful that, by formalizing and institutionalizing this process through Excellence By Design, this commitment will continue to be a solid part of the York culture.


Objectives

You selected two objectives, one in high school writing and one in middle school mathematics.


Student Performance Objective #1: By 2020, York Prep Upper School students will demonstrate improved written communication skills, including expository and creative writing, in all disciplines as measured by a
10 percentage point increase to the 78th percentile for 11th grade students taking the Writing Mechanics section of the CTP 4 assessment; a 10 percentage point increase in the median percentile score for students taking the ERB Writing Assessment Program (WrAP) administered to them in 9th and 10th grades, and a 10 percentage point increase in the median percentile score for 12thgrade students taking the ERB Writing Assessment Program previously administered to them as 11th grade students; and 50% of the students in each grade (Grades 9, 10, and 11) moving up one classification based on an in-house York Prep Writing Assessment administered in the fall and spring of each academic year.

The objective is clearly defined. You have valid assessment tools, and have developed the baseline measurements. This objective reflects the school’s commitment to improving the education of your students. It was clear from our discussions that writing is an area that you have consciously selected from the constellation of academic activities as one in which great academic growth can be obtained from your efforts. You have created and adapted appropriate instruments for measuring growth, and have set out a path toward achieving this objective.

The accreditation criteria for Student Learning Objective #1 is met, with the recommendation that Action Plans be refined and extended with specific activities in the later years, and that the Annual Review be incorporated as a formal element in the Plan.


Student Performance Objective #2: By 2020, York Prep Middle School students will demonstrate improved mathematical ability as measured by a 20 percentage point increase to the 76th percentile for 8th grade students taking the Quantitative Reasoning section of the CTP 4 assessment; and a 30 percentage point increase in the median score on a course level summative assessment administered in the fall and spring of each academic year.

Your objective has been clearly defined and you have a valid assessment tool. Baseline data has been provided in order to effectively measure progress. This objective reflects the school’s commitment to improving the academic progress of your students.

The accreditation criteria for Student Learning Objective #2 is met, with the recommendation that Action Plans be refined and extended with specific activities in the later years, and that the Annual Review be incorporated as a formal element in the Action Plan.

You have also taken on growing your institutional capacity as a school, setting two objectives for improving the experience of new faculty members and improving student fitness.


Organizational Capacity Objective #1: By 2020, York Prep will demonstrate improvement in its mentoring programs for York Prep faculty as measured by a 20 percentage point improvement for new teachers rating their first year’s teaching experience at York Prep as “satisfactory” or better on an in-house survey measuring areas of communication and understanding of policy and procedures.

Your objective has been clearly defined and you have a valid assessment tool. Baseline data has been provided in order to effectively measure progress. This objective reflects the school’s commitment to improving the academic progress of your students.

The accreditation criteria for Organizational Capacity Objective #1 is met, with the recommendation that Action Plans be refined and extended with specific activities in the later years, and that the Annual Review be incorporated as a formal element in the Action Plan.


Organizational Capacity Objective #2: By 2020, York Prep will demonstrate improvement in its ability to advance student physical well-being as measured by a 20 percentage point increase to 25% in the percentage of students achieving Healthy Fitness Zone® ranking in 5 out of 6 events as specified by the Fitnessgram assessment of the Presidential youth Fitness Program; and an increase in the offering of innovative and ergonomic student seating options in 25% of the classrooms at York Prep.

Your objective has been clearly defined and you have a valid assessment tool. Baseline data has been provided in order to effectively measure progress. This objective reflects the school’s commitment to improving the academic progress of your students.

The accreditation criteria for Organizational Capacity Objective #1 is met, with the recommendation that Action Plans be refined and extended with specific activities in the later years, and that the Annual Review be incorporated as a formal element in the Action Plan.

We noted in many conversations that one aspect of the Middle States self-study that teachers liked—perhaps the only part—was having the time to think, reflect, talk with colleagues beyond subject boundaries and grade levels, and collaborate for the betterment of York. We urge you, as part of carrying out the action plans, to continue to build in time for these conversations between and across subject areas and grade levels. It is difficult to create and protect this gift of time, but we believe you have seen its value and hope that you can build upon your experience.


Standards

Now, let’s proceed to the Commission on Secondary School Standards for Accreditation. The validation team sensed that York Prep exhibits a consistent stability, accountability, excitement and confidence. The School affirmed its mission, philosophy, and beliefs. The mission permeates every aspect of the school’s service to young people.

The validation team found that the School is led by a very capable and compassionate Head of School, with a great team including the Associate Head, co-Principals, Deans, and the co-Founder, all of whom support an outstanding faculty and staff. The school’s leadership has provided vision, stability, and growth through more than four decades with various periods of transition.

Those of you who have been at York for a while have noticed that as your school has matured more of your students have arrived with more pronounced learning needs. Your commitment to supporting these students through the JumpStart program is a model of what an independent school with the commitment to serve perse learners can do to move them on to success in college and in life. We were likewise impressed with the challenge you offer to your intellectually advanced students through the Scholars Program. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the Stoics yesterday, though I prefer a more Buddhist approach myself. Our team was impressed with the differentiated instruction you offer through the structure of the tracking system, which appropriately challenges each of your students. We commend you for the flexibility you all show in placement, instruction, and assessment of your students.

We were impressed with the way you clearly nurture and celebrate the artistic lives of your students. From the artwork hanging in hallways and classrooms to the sounds of actors coming from the chapel to the ceramic tiles, photos, and posters celebrating your history, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing this creative young talent. The growth in of your performing arts program in recent years is likewise cause for pride. You have used your facility well to offer physical education to your students, for which you are to be commended. The way York uses its time with students to nurture all aspects of their growth was remarkable for us to see. We heard great pride as students discussed their growth during their time at York. The robust college counseling program gives students not only the support they need in finding and applying to appropriate colleges, it also gives students the tools they need to wrest ownership of their lives from anxious parents and tutors. The enthusiasm that students displayed in this was impressive.

The concern for students’ health and well-being is evident, both mentally and physically. The addition of a full-time school nurse has met a clear need for your students, and the formal and informal counseling you offer has your students feeling supported and cared for.

We all now work with students who have been tagged by technologist Alan November as “Digital Natives,” which distinguishes them from those of us who remember Atari and Pong, whom November calls “Digital Immigrants.” Technology is a double-edged sword, but it permeates the world our students inhabit. There are many ways in which aspects of technology that drive us crazy can be turned to our benefit as educators, and we were pleased to see that York is using technology in productive and education ways. We were impressed with the use of technology with research, writing, and digital art, and look forward to your evolution as you explore areas in which your students expressed clear interest: school-wide wireless, one-to-one laptop computing and e-textbooks.

Bob Rice, in the book Three Moves Ahead, discusses how business is like chess. He notes that while Grandmasters have a good sense of how the game will progress, they really only plan three moves ahead. Your Grandmasters, Ronnie and Jayme, have created a tremendous institution over the past forty-five years by taking advantage of opportunities that were presented while keeping the big picture in mind. Even such initiatives as the bee hives on your roof show the power of opportunistic planning. There is, however, a great deal of institutional knowledge that lives with them, and “physics being physics,” your visionary and charismatic founders will not be around to celebrate York Prep’s 90th anniversary. Well, maybe Jayme will be. The one area of concern that you will see in our report deals not with the work you do or the way in which you do it, and really not for the next seven years, but for the next 45 years. We urge you to begin to look at mechanisms and systems that will continue the work and legacy of York Prep beyond the lifetimes of any of us in this room, as the work you do is critically important and deserves to extend to the children and grandchildren of the students you serve today.

As a Validation Team, we are asked to make an accreditation recommendation to the Commission on Secondary Schools at the conclusion of our visit. Our five-member team has unanimously concluded that York Prep will satisfy the twelve Standards for Accreditation and has appropriate strategic objectives and planning processes to guide decision-making over the next seven years.

Therefore, the York Prep Validation Team will recommend full accreditation to the Commission with no stipulations.

Middle States Accreditation is the “gold standard” of accreditation. The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools accredits Columbia University and the University of Maryland, NYU, and the tiny Nora School in Silver Spring. Transcripts coming from these schools and others accredited by Middle States carry greater weight in the world. I am hopeful that the Commission on Secondary Schools will follow our recommendation in your pursuit of achieving this Gold Standard.

We have been privileged to witness the excitement of the work you do at York Prep. You should take great pride in creating a unique program that is magical for the discouraged student as well as the high achiever. I wonder where we find these great young minds that you have awakened in future years. What genius and creative spirits are inside these walls now? How will these students weave their own special fabric of greatness? What will be their gifts to the world?

One member of our team used the term “awesome” to describe your school. You do what you say you do. You not only remove roadblocks, you accept these young people as they are and show them what they can be. You are committed to making your objectives realities. You are guiding your students toward becoming healthy and capable adults. You change kids’ lives, and you save kids’ lives. Keep doing what you are doing.

I would like to leave you with the following thought.


Excellence can be attained if you…

Care more than others think is wise.

Risk more than others think is safe.

Dream more than others think is practical.

Expect more than others think is possible.

Undertaking the Middle States Excellence By Design protocol is a daunting task for any school, but particularly so for a small school. The Visiting Team recognizes the tremendous effort that went into preparing for your self-study and our visit, and on behalf of your students, current and future, wish to thank you for undertaking this important work.

Michael, Karen, Bill, Paulyn, and I appreciate having been allowed to be witnesses and a part, albeit brief, of your special place.

Thank you and God speed.