Letter to the Community

[ March 30, 2009 ]

March 12, 2009

Dear members of the Riverdale community,

As I did in September, I think that it is time that I send an update on School life and what we are thinking about as an educational community. It has been an exciting autumn and winter at the School, and we are in the midst of planning for the next academic year. It has been a busy admissions season with very robust demand for the school on both campuses. We look forward to having a very strong contingent of students joining us in September.

Much of the work that has occupied the administrative team, the Board of Trustees and me this winter has involved financial planning for next year and the future. Because of our past conservative fiscal stewardship, strong enrollment patterns over the last years and the continuing demand for places at the School, our financial situation remains strong. It is true that we have had, as have most other educational institutions, a decline in the market value of our endowment, but we have never depended on a significant draw from our endowment to supplement our operating budget.  We definitely take the current financial situation seriously and have taken the appropriate kinds of actions to control expenses moving forward without affecting the quality of the educational program we offer our students and families. Looking toward next year, we have moderated the tuition increase by 2% less than previous years. This move is similar to those of most other schools and universities that have raised tuition by 3-5% this year. We have also moderated salary increases for faculty and kept administrative salaries flat for the next year. In addition to these efforts, we believe that we can reduce certain additional expenses in departmental budgets and support services by as much as 20%. As we move forward, all programs at the school will be assessed and evaluated for the essential part they play in a student’s experience at Riverdale. We take your faith in us seriously and want to exercise the utmost care in how we use the School funds to offer you and your children the best education possible.

Even though the economic times are tough, most of our challenges and opportunities moving forward are of a programmatic nature. To that end, we continue to look at and review our curriculum. We have made the decision to drop the Advanced Placement designation from our transcripts in the 2010-2011 academic year. This will allow a set of advanced courses not necessarily tied to an Advanced Placement curriculum and exams to flourish all departments. This is less about the Advanced Placement program, and rather more about building a 21st Century curriculum for the School. We think that we need to develop better thinkers who are more flexible and creative in their thinking. In many areas the Advanced Placement program focuses on content coverage to the detriment of developing nuanced and thoughtful citizens. We feel that we can instead dynamically develop a more exciting and rigorous set of upper level courses in our required disciplines that will both provide students with a thorough grounding in the disciplines while also developing such skills as argumentation, inquiry and research. Already the Language department will offer a set of exciting advanced courses for the next academic year. Riverdale has always developed distinctive students. This is one more step in that direction that plays to our historical strengths as an educational institution. It will allow students to craft programs in the last two years of high school that will be more engaging and, in some ways, more rigorously focused on developing good thinkers than our current program does. This will also make our students more competitive in a college admissions process that is putting more of an emphasis on finding students with broad skills and knowledge as well as special talents and passions. As we develop the courses and programs, we will be sure to keep you all updated as to our progress.

In order to achieve this reform of our curriculum, we have been offering various professional development opportunities for our faculty. Grant Wiggins, an internationally known assessment and curriculum expert, came to conduct a day-long workshop with our Lower School faculty to think about how we can develop a world-class literacy program for our youngest students. We are honing our outcomes and assessment techniques to teach better and understand our students’ learning in a more salient way. It was a tremendously effective next step in the work that Sandy Shaller, Jonina Herter, John Mathews and Tina Hayward have begun with the faculty on the River Campus this year. At the same time on the Hill Campus, I gave a presentation to the faculty on how we teach to improve critical and creative thinking on the Hill Campus. This work will be ongoing, but I think it relates directly to our principal aim in developing students’ minds. We are trying to move away from having our students simply “do school” and pushing more significantly in the direction of developing flexible, creative and ethical 21st century thinkers.

We continue to search for a new Director of Development. I have already met with a number of people to develop a pool of potential candidates.  We aim to have an office that uses best practices in the field of institutional advancement. It is our aim to build a Development Office that is warm, closely connected to the daily life of the school, and which listens well as it does its work to support Riverdale.  I also hope that as we move forward through these last few months, everyone will find ways to participate in the annual fund this year. I understand that it is indeed a historically difficult period for this country, but the annual fund helps us support the exemplary educational program that we offer at Riverdale while also allowing us to bring families and students to the school that may not have the means to consider an independent school education. It is essential that we continue, for our children’s sakes, to give as generously as we can to this effort. I am interested in seeing all members of the community participate in our annual fund to whatever degree is comfortable. This is what makes Riverdale special—the commitment of our community members to a special place with a very special mission of developing minds and building character through commitment and community. It makes us an exemplary School. Thank you for your generous support of the School.

As you can imagine, we need to engage in a number of different initiatives to make all this possible. I will list a few here that we are in the process of developing or already undertaking, most funded by interested donors:

MIND + CHARACTER
•    Reconfiguring the Hill Campus Library space as a “Learning Research Center” and the creation of a team of people in a common space to support student research and learning, a “reading culture” at the School, curriculum development, faculty professional development and use of technology.
•    Continuing our “Positive education” research and professional development with Marty Seligman and Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania.
•    Beginning a “Design Thinking” project with IDEO.
•    Taking steps to revise the school calendar and the schedule in all divisions.

COMMITMENT + COMMUNITY
•    Piloting a 9th Grade “One Big Thing” initiative with Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project.
•    Commencing the Lower School planning effort with a focus on the educational use of the campus and learning about environmental stewardship.
•    Opening a new Lower School Dean position.
•    Continuing our Community Development work
•    Finishing the fundraising for our Bertino Field synthetic turf project. If you are interested in learning more about this project or helping to fund it, please contact Soledad Fernandez Whitechurch in the Development Office
( swhitechurch@riverdale.edu ) or me directly.

You will find more comprehensive descriptions of these projects at the end of the letter on page four. If you are interested in learning more or supporting any of these initiatives, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Finally, I have also recently reconfigured my office space to make it the communications office at the school with Mary Ludemann, Director of Communications, and Laura Desmond, my assistant, taking the lead with me in helping modernize the ways we communicate with our various constituencies. We will have a much more collaborative office space, and, once we have determined the future plans for the development office,  I will spend some time on a regular basis at my conference table in the student center where I shall be able to hold impromptu and informal meetings with both students and faculty. I also will develop a way to mirror this communications effort to some degree on the River Campus. We will also publish an expanded school weblog that will replace my current blog and cover more of our school life by late Spring. In the meantime, I hope that you will visit my weblog from time to time as I continue to add ideas connected with education, Riverdale and where we are going in the years ahead.

I appreciate your support of Riverdale. I see our current global difficulties as a time of challenge but also of opportunity for us. Riverdale is a strong community, and I know that we will become even stronger as we move forward decisively in the next years. Please remember to join us for our Epicurean Evening on April 23rd.

If you would care to share any ideas or comments, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me (drandolph@riverdale.edu / 718.519.2711 / weblog: http://www.dukrabit.org/blog/ ).

Yours sincerely,

Dominic A.A. Randolph
Head of School

INITIATIVES—DETAILED DESCRIPTION

MIND + CHARACTER

– We are going to reconfigure the library space on the Hill Campus to offer students and faculty greater support for their learning, academic research and technology use. We will ensure that we continue to promote an interest in extensive reading in all our students, but the area will emphasize in more innovative ways how we all develop as learners in collaboration with the academic departments. We have already changed the name of the educational support groups on both campuses to Learning Research Teams–a group of people and set of resources for all students. This group will be composed of people who are already working on curriculum development, academic technology, professional development and research skills but have them work in one space as one team. The library on the Hill will become the principal space where adults who work with students individually to support their learning, adults who support research and reading and adults who support technology will reside.
– Marty Seligman at University of Pennsylvania coined the term “positive psychology”. He has now started to turn his attention to schools and has called this effort “positive education”—how do you have students develop both character and mind in a way so that students can live purposeful and meaningful lives? We have started a research project with Angela Duckworth, a colleague of Marty Seligman’s, this year and will continue with that effort. We will also put together a school team with a group from the KIPP charter schools to undertake a project that will think about the implications of his theories for schools. If you wish to read a book that will introduce you to some of these ideas, Authentic Happiness by Professor Seligman, would be a good start.
– Later this year, we will begin a project with IDEO, one of the world’s best design firms, on bringing “design thinking” into the faculty development and student learning experiences in the Lower and Middle Schools. As we think about the Riverdale of the future, it is essential that we consider how best to broaden our students’ thinking and how we can inspire creativity in our children. Sandy Speicher, an educational consultant with IDEO, will be working with us on this project. If you are interested in reading her recent article in Metropolis, here is the link: http://www.ideo.com/publications/item/ideos-ten-tips-for-creating-a-21stcentury-classroom-experience/.
– We have been working on changing our calendar and schedule to better support the aims of our educational program. Changes will start next year with a slightly expanded school year and a new schedule in the Lower School.

COMMITMENT + COMMUNITY

– Debbie Bolger, the Director of Teaching and Learning, and a group of faculty have started the “One Big Thing” pilot project with a group of 9th graders to see how we can intentionally develop passion and engagement in our students. A brave group of 9th graders have decided to engage in this initiative with the requirement of undertaking some personal project in the next few months. Three groups of 5-7 students meet with a faculty advisor every two weeks to share their progress on their projects. We believe that if a student can find and develop an area of strength passion during their high school career that this will galvanize their work in their whole life and generate more interest in the student at the college level. Tony Schwartz, a Riverdale alumnus and founder of the Energy Project
( http://www.theenergyproject.com/  ) has been advising us. His article in Harvard Business Review entitled “How to Manage your Energy, Not Your Time” can give you an insight into some of his ideas.
– We had a group from Whole Systems Design visit the River Campus to ensure that as we move forward with focused campus planning effort there this spring that we leverage the campus more significantly to ensure that we have  strong place-based educational program that emphasizes sustainable practices and environmental stewardship. We will keep the community updated as we continue to think about how we treat and use our immediate and greater environment.
– Next year, we will have a new part-time Dean position at the Lower School that will help the administration and faculty respond more proactively to student life issues and help foster an even more intentional community on the River Campus. This structure on the River campus also helps us move towards a more consistent administrative structure across the entire school by introducing the concept of a Dean, which works so admirably on the Hill campus, to our youngest students.
– Our Community Development teams headed by Michele Sanchez and Demetra Caldwell have continued to support planning around diversity and investigations into the student experience at the school. We are continuing to think about ways to have Riverdale become more diverse and how we inspire our students to become broader, global, respectful thinkers. The Parents Association have been helpful in helping the School think in productive ways about diversity and we hope to see such fruitful collaboration continue.
– Thanks to the generosity of several lead donors, we are hoping to restore the Bertino Field on the Hill Campus with an environmentally-friendly synthetic turf field. This will help support our program in four sports: field hockey, football, lacrosse and soccer for both our boys and girls teams. Even though this is not the best time to find funds for this project, we are about two-thirds of the way towards the first phase of the project, which entails putting down the synthetic turf. We still have approximately $500,000 to raise towards a $2 million target. The second phase of the project we can undertake in a number of stages depending on funding. It will require approximately another $1 million in order to restore the surrounds of the field, including the bleachers, the fences and the landscaping. We are committed to this project because it will help us support the excellence of our co-curricular program and help us build an even stronger community.

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