By Daniel Rothberg
Partnering with a sister school for community service, expanding the summer program, growing the school’s endowment and exploring new teaching methods are goals the school set for itself for the next six years in a report submitted this month. The nearly 250-page report was compiled for accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges/California Association for Independent Schools.
Divided into 12 chapters, the self-study examines different areas of school life, including the curriculum, student body, faculty and staff, finances and facilities. The report also includes a statistical supplement.
“It’s a time for departments to set goals, which is really good,” math teacher Paula Evans, co-chair of the committee responsible for the program chapter, said. “In three years, you see how well you’ve progressed and that is how you evolve.”
The report’s final chapter, known as the action plan, summarizes the programs’ findings and outlines new programs directed toward five specific areas of improvement. These areas include increasing diversity, improving the use of technology, ensuring financial stability, building relations with the broader community and introducing new teaching techniques. The action plan was compiled by the Steering Committee, which was chaired by Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra, Head of Middle School Ronnie Cazeau and Head of Athletics Audrius Barzdukas. Salamandra likened this plan to the school’s “game plan” for the next six years.
“I think the most important aspect of this self-study is the action plan,” social studies department head John Corsello said. “This is where we have taken all of the materials we studied and came up with the areas we felt we needed to do better in.”
Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts said she is most excited about the prospect of exploring new teaching methods and developing the curriculum.
“I’m excited to see that the first item on the list is related to curriculum development and to expanding our ways of teaching,” Huybrechts said. “That hasn’t been the case in the last couple of accreditation reports.”
Huybrechts said that she also sees potential in expanding the use of technology and can foresee a day when every student would be equipped with an iPad or portable computer.
“We considered having a laptop school, where every student was issued a laptop in the beginning of the year. We didn’t go that way because it was just going to be so expensive but that’s not the case anymore,” she said. “It might not even be laptops. I’m waiting to see what the next few generations of iPads are. That’s a very clever tool.”
One problem the school has identified in its action plan is financial sustainability. Tuition has quintupled in the past 25 years, the report said. Though tuition has remained below the local median, Chief Financial Officer Rob Levin believes that if tuition follows that same trend for the next 25 years, fewer families will be able to afford Harvard-Westlake.
“People’s incomes have not gone up tremendously, certainly in the past decade, and our tuition has [increased], even adjusted for inflation,” Levin said. “That’s a problem.”
Levin said that the rising cost of tuition is an issue that is affecting schools across the nation.
“The problem is not that people are going to go to other schools rather than us because the other schools are cheaper,” Levin said.
“The problem is they’re not going to be able to afford independent schools in general.”
Some steps taken in the report to mitigate these issues include expanding Annual Giving, the endowment and the summer school program.
Levin said that the school had to consider an important question: “How do we rethink what a 21st century education means without compromising what makes Harvard-Westlake, Harvard-Westlake?”
“The school has acknowledged reaching an era of limits,” the report said. “Rather than expand offerings we have insisted that courses and programs be added only as fast as others get sun-setted. Operational savings have been identified wherever possible, and cost growth has slowed.”
The school has also committed in the action plan to “increase engagement with the broader community.” Some steps to achieve this goal include adopting a sister school for community service, increasing awareness for the Summer Enrichment Program and continuing involvement with worldwide educational organizations.
“Any of these things where there can be a collaboration of individuals is pretty exciting because I think that is really the way the world operates in this age,” Salamandra said. “Not to be in isolation is a good thing.”
Five initiatives in the action plan were conceived by students, faculty and staff who submitted their ideas to the Corsello contest, named after the teacher. The contest, which received over 100 entries, encouraged members of the community to offer ideas targeted at improving the five areas in the action plan. The seven winners received $100, a Corsello T-shirt and a WASC decoder ring.
In addition to the self-study, the accreditation process requires a report from a visiting committee of educators from other schools.
The committee is scheduled to visit Harvard-Westlake in mid-February and will be chaired by Benjamin Williams, Headmaster of the Cate School in Northern California. Members of that committee are selected by WASC/CAIS and will receive a copy of the self-study prior to visiting Harvard-Westlake.
“They are going to visit classes, meet with the various committees that wrote the different chapters and they are going to write a report,” Corsello said. “In [the report], they will make recommendations, probably based on our action plan.”
The committee will read the report aloud at the middle school on the last day of their visit, Salamandra said.
“It’s nice to bring in an outside group of people, because they see things in a new light,” Salamandra said.
Evans and Salamandra both noted differences in the process of creating the accreditation report this year.
“There was really an emphasis to try to streamline the process,” Salamandra said.
“In previous WASC [reports] it has been more of a huge compilation of routine data,” Evans said. “This time it was more reflecting on strengths, goals and testing procedures.”
If Harvard-Westlake is granted a six-year accreditation, the school will be required to submit a mid-report in three years. In the past 30 years, Salamandra believes the school has always received a six-year accreditation.
Though the ideas in the action plan are not binding, Salamandra believes it is in the school’s best interest to implement the programs.
“All five of these ideas are things that I think will help the community,” he said.