Head Coffee Recap May 2020

Partnership and planning.

Doug Brophy Remarks

Appreciation: for Parents, Students, Employees, Governance

I am so appreciative and proud of how our school community has come together during these difficult days, to meet this crisis, specifically: 

We appreciate you, our Town parents, knowing how demanding these days are for you, juggling so much. Many of you are away from your own homes, or feeling crowded in a small space in NYC, perhaps caring for a parent or other relatives. And many of you are trying to now do a full-time job from home, while helping facilitate learning for your children. Some of you are working high-risk jobs in essential roles, outside the home, and working to keep your family safe while doing so. Some of you have taken a significant pay cut, or even lost a job. And some of you are managing all of this and more as a single parent. We see and feel these daily struggles, alongside your commitment to making this experience as safe and positive as possible for your children.
We appreciate how your children/our students are adapting in ways we could not have imagined, leaning into new ways of learning, finding new ways of being independent, and new ways of being successful. 
We appreciate our staff, in offering such support to us, working in ways beyond their usual jobs, and continuing to send their love for our community.
We appreciate our senior administrative team, my everyday partners, tirelessly and thoughtfully leading, so that Town continues to thrive.  
We appreciate our faculty, for having learned, created and implemented so much, so carefully and so quickly: moving into a virtual space, and then, demonstrating what it truly means to be a lifelong learner, reflecting on the initial weeks of distance learning, and refining their lessons, always keeping an eye on their students’ best interests. (With many also juggling parenting duties, alongside all of you.)
And I could not be more grateful for our school’s governance, especially during these times. Town’s Board, led by Chair Valerie Russo, has planned with me every step of the way, to ensure that we have the resources for serving our students and meeting our mission every day.

Planning: Program and Community

I began my remarks on Friday by acknowledging what often feels not within our control, but so much else is in our power, even now, and we are actively planning and working to move our great school forward to be even better.
We are ensuring that Town’s program continues to thrive. Beyond my own teaching, I still regularly visit Town classrooms, now virtually. Our foundational objectives of student engagement, challenge/healthy struggle, collaboration, and joy are alive across the program. Last week, it was such a privilege to sit in with the 6W scientists as they engaged a lab from home, and this week I’ve participated in N-K and Lower School morning meetings, where the children shared with and supported one another in ways that were so S.O.S., and so Town!

We are now taking even greater care to foster community:

  • Virtual Postscript and Clubhouse are wonderful moments for children of different ages to connect, with special guest visitors such as Chef Franco, Mr. Martinez, and Mr. Mangual. And I'll be returning next week!
  • We all loved last April's All School Assembly, and look for another special one in a few weeks, on May 22nd.
  • We collectively "busted a move" during Thursday’s virtual Dance Day.
  • Parent chats with Dr. Mooney and Mr. Gardino, have allowed you to come together and support one another.

We are continuing to celebrate and affirm our 8th-graders and their families.

  • Hosting a virtual reception and graduation, recreating the recognition and reflection so important to the close of the year. 
  • Planning for an in-person graduation ceremony towards the end of this calendar year, because graduation is also about the hugs, and appreciating our students, all together, in the same space.

We also are designing moments of closure for all grades, recognizing the importance for the children to have a real endpoint to this year especially. Look for details soon.

Planning: Academics, Finances, and the 2020-21 School Year

Also very much within our control, we are ensuring that Town continues to move forward:

Academic planning: We are continuing our annual summer curriculum grants (with our faculty always wanting to hone their craft), and always committed to taking a learning stance, we are asking how we can be even better. My summer letter will highlight these latest initiatives.
Financial planning: Building on what Valerie Russo and I wrote to you on April 29th: We remain committed to the best governance and budget practices to provide an excellent educational program Nursery through 8th grade, attract and retain outstanding teachers and staff to deliver that program, and support our families to the best of our ability. As we look ahead, admittedly not yet certain as to the COVID-19 crisis’s full economic impact, we are keeping all financial options on the table while continuing to invest in our school’s future, so that when we are back together in person, all that we love about Town will continue to thrive. 

2020-21 school year planning: As we plan specifically for the next school year, we are appreciating what the science is telling us, and therefore planning for multiple scenarios, looking at important logistics such as:

  • Building opening
  • Bussing transportation
  • Food service 
  • Cleaning 
  • Class and whole schedule management 
  • Co-curricular and athletic offerings 
  • Arrival and dismissal 
  • Security
  • On-site health practices
  • Continuing to reflect on and refine our distance-learning program

I cannot yet tell you precisely what we will do when, because so much will depend on the virus, on testing, the effectiveness of our current social-distancing efforts, and resulting government orders. We are preparing for all possibilities, and we will be prepared. As always, we will communicate with you every step of the way so that you and your family will also be prepared and know what to expect. 

In the meantime, I join you in longing for that day we all walk - or scoot - down 76th street, play on the roof, access our school’s learning spaces, invite our alums back, and celebrate the joy of being physically back together. This will happen, when it’s safe to do so, and it’s so important for us to hold onto that inevitable future. 

Long-Range Planning Update

We are continuing to plan for Town’s future, evolving our program and moving our school forward. And we are doing that by continuing our Long-Range Planning process.

  • As you remember from the fall, we began with full-community input through a survey of all constituencies, discussion forums, and a town hall meeting. 
  • In the ensuing months, Town's Board, Admin Team, and the Long-Range Planning Steering Committee have worked continually with our planning consultants to distill key takeaways from our community’s input.
  • The Steering Committee has begun a draft of our plan, and we are now in the process of revisions. 
  • We have settled on four primary strategic areas of focus, which will be described more fully in our plan roll-out.  
    • Teaching excellence
    • Learning excellence
    • Town in the community
    • Sustaining our school
  • Next steps: The Steering Committee will move into the final drafting stage, receive input from the Admin Team and make refinements, and then submit the plan for Board approval. We will share the final plan, and our plans for initial implementation steps, with the school community in June.

Parent Questions

A commitment to sharing, to open communication is always so important to me, not least during these days - it remains the heart of our partnership with all of you. Over the past month, I’ve spoken to, Google Met and Zoomed with so many of you, and I always welcome this opportunity for us to chat together. 

As I shared on Friday, we are moving towards greater clarity on some of the questions below, and I will continue communicating with you regularly, ensuring you have the most current understanding of what we know, how our plans are evolving, and what to expect in the short- and longer-term future. 

How closely would Town adhere to CDC guidelines around whether/how to re-open schools?

In short, fully. Information around this topic is evolving quickly, and we will follow official guidelines as carefully and closely as possible. We are learning as much as we can from scientists and other experts, and we are already planning for multiple scenarios of what reopening our school building may look like, from classroom protocols to our front entry to cafeteria service and transportation. 

Are you planning any specific professional development around distance learning, with an eye towards the potential for continuing this model in the fall?

Yes. We had in March a very short runway to begin this new teaching and learning model, and I know from your feedback that you join me in appreciating how much our faculty did so quickly, and how they continue to reflect upon and refine our distance learning program. We have an opportunity now for some sustained professional development around distance learning, with our thinking and planning led by our Division Heads: Odette Muskin, David Wood, and Carol Seeley; our Academic Dean, Janie Vance; and our Director of Technology, Grant Olds. 

If summer camps are cancelled, will Town offer online summer programming or classes?

We are looking at a number of options. It is likely that our SummerSault camp (for early childhood students) will not run in person, and we are exploring plans to provide some virtual camp options for slightly older children. We are also looking at the potential for some summer distance learning classes, balancing this idea with our need to make time and space for faculty to engage with professional development.

How can we be there for families who are in need of support? We as parents wouldn't necessarily know who needs help, but of course we want to reach out.

Town is approaching this in two important ways: CFO Freda Gimpel has reached out personally for 50+ conversations with families receiving financial aid to check in and to understand whether/how Town can be of support. But this crisis is evolving so quickly, and touching so many aspects of our lives; folks who weren’t vulnerable in certain ways before are now vulnerable. We have also put together a task force to help identify families we know/suspect are struggling with significant COVID-19-related challenges or changes in circumstances, and seeing what type of support we can offer. We also cannot say enough: please reach out to us.

Are you considering extending the school year? Or would we start the 2020-2021 school year earlier?

Are you considering extending the school year? 
Not at this point in time. I was in a meeting on Thursday with fellow heads of independent schools in NYC, and we are working together to align our calendars. I will add that, where we may have scaled back quantity in recognition of the realities of distance learning (for example, reading one less book than usual over a period of time), we are deepening skills, so students will end this school year with the skills and understandings they need to be ready for the next grade. 
Would we start the 2020-2021 school year earlier? 
This is also something Town’s leadership team, and my fellow heads of schools and I are talking about. If it is a direction we even think we are going, we will let you know as soon as possible so you can plan your family’s calendar around that change. Alongside the intent to extend and enrich learning, we also want to make sure that faculty have time over the summer break (which is as deeply valuable for planning and deep curriculum work time as it is for physically and mentally recharging) to prepare for the year ahead. Whether we need to begin the year remotely, or must go back to distance learning during a new outbreak of the virus during the fall/winter, targeted summer professional development time will help ensure that our distance learning program is even richer, more successful than at present. We will ensure you have an understanding of our plans as soon as we have sufficient clarity to share with you. 

Is it possible to extend school “office hours,” to have teachers available to answer questions at different/later times to help accommodate families with busy parent work schedules?

We absolutely want to be sure faculty are available within reason, recognizing they are also dealing with home and family obligations while frequently using evening time to prepare lessons for the next day. The better choice is likely to establish some set extended times as needed, and you should feel welcome to reach out to your grade-level team and Division Head to discuss. 

If we are doing remote learning for any significant portion of next year, will tuition be the same?

As you know, we cannot yet accurately predict the future even through this fall, but if we are offering mostly distance learning for most of the coming year, we will need to adjust tuition. We are budgeting for the coming year based on multiple scenarios, recognizing the financial and circumstantial realities impacting our families and our city. I am in ongoing planning discussions around this with our CFO and the Board Finance and Executive Committees, and I will communicate every step of the way, but we need to be a little closer to next year to understand the realities of our budget. I also encourage you to continue to reach out to us individually around your own family's finances or other challenges.

How is the school planning to provide the psychosocial support children will need when they do return to in-person school, to help process what they have experienced?

It will in more accurate terms be deepening the work that is already ongoing. Dr. Mooney and Mr. Gardino have been meeting with classes, and with individual children to help them share and process information and feelings, and they are also thinking ahead to the particular needs that will be present upon our return to in-person school. 

How are the school’s finances?

How is Town doing financially? I know a lot is up in the air with both some increased costs and some savings while our physical building is closed, and that some of the budget still relies on Annual Giving. 
Board Chair Valerie Russo and I touched on this in our recent letter: of course tuition is our largest source of revenue, but it does not fully cover our annual operating costs. To fill that gap, yes we count on Annual Giving, as well as on income from auxiliary programs (now paused) and earnings from our endowment. We are also taking a very careful look at our budget to identify where we can cut costs without impacting student experience. We are already deep in conversations about where we can consider savings, and the Board’s Finance and Executive committees are meeting regularly, planning for multiple scenarios. 

Related question: Would you disclose minutes of financial discussions so others with expertise in that field can be sure you’re hitting the appropriate discussion points? The answer has to be “no” at this moment, and any decision around this needs to be made in partnership with the Board. It’s not about secrecy, but about confidentiality, as these discussions often include information about parents or employees. What I can commit to is continuing to share financial updates similar to our letter on 4/29, alongside our ongoing updates around distance learning and other planning for the near- and longer-term future.

In the case of COVID-19 flare ups that don’t necessarily shut down the city to its current level, Is there a plan to adjust schedules for students and employees who commute by mass transit?

Related question: Is there a plan for families and employees who remain high-risk and cannot return when the rest of the city and schools open up? 

On all issues like this, we will always adhere to CDC guidelines, and will be doing everything we need to be doing to ensure our community's health and safety. We will be as flexible as we need to be, and I’ve already begun conversations with the Division Heads about these questions.

Some schools have hired a director of online learning; is that something Town is considering?

No, as we have the equivalent skills and knowledge of such a position already in place at Town. We have the good fortune of an outstanding technology team - not just for IT support, but for academic technology implementation and learning enhancement (including student support and in-house teacher professional development). Our success thus far is due to the educational technology team’s partnership with our academic team - the Division Heads, Academic Dean, and faculty - because ultimately it’s about the best teaching and learning, which must be developed in partnership between the tech and academic teams.

Trying to follow all the different news - CDC, governor, etc. - it’s hard to process all the facts. I know it’s not your job, but what is your understanding of the potential for children to pass the virus on?

Your question is good in that it speaks to discernment: we need to continually discern, and to learn. In response to that particular question, my understanding is that children can be carriers of the virus, often asymptomatic, but I would always bring such questions first to our school nurse and consult other sources of reliable information. But to the point of furthering learning and discernment, we are looking to put together an in-house team of experts to have sustained conversations around these very matters. If you are an epidemiologist, or have access to that field knowledge or other relevant areas of expertise, please let Melissa Bauman, Phil Bien, or me know. We need to be as informed as possible. 

I notice my 6th grader getting really excited about and enjoying the small-group breakout sessions during some classes and I hope that will be a feature of the program moving forward.

In my 6th grade social studies classes, when those 20 video squares pop up on the screen, it is such a beautiful moment. We’re working to integrate even more live sessions with students and teachers into our distance learning program, as those interactions and relationship-building become even more important the longer we are teaching and learning in this model. In N-K and Lower School, where we understandably started with less and have been ramping up, we’re rolling out more live experiences as well, designed to foster good collaborative academic work and social connections among students and with their teachers. 

Do you have a sense of any changes in population the school might have next year?

We will begin to know more about this question soon, as May 1st is when tuition becomes due for the year. I have a meeting with the Board’s Finance Committee on Monday morning (5/4), the full Board of Trustees will meet Monday evening (5/4), and the Finance committee will meet again the following week on this very issue. The business office team and so many more of us are continually working to understand families’ changing needs; we will know much more by the end of May, in terms of family circumstances (a change in income or a job loss, a move, etc.) that might impact enrollment for the coming year.

Closing remarks

During last month’s All School Assembly, our 8th-grader, Anum, read from Emily Dickinson’s poem reflecting on nature, which reminded me of a favorite and very timely Dickinson poem.

 “Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Town, and each of us - we are like that strong-willed bird that lives within the human soul, and sings its song, no matter what. All in partnership, as you continue to entrust us with your children’s education, an obligation that we will always hold dear.

And when this storm passes, there will still be no school that I’d rather lead, no group of students whom I’d rather teach, no other colleagues with whom I’d rather collaborate, and no other parents with whom I’d rather partner, than here at Town. Thank you, as always, for joining me in hope and in partnership, focusing on our challenging present and looking to our exciting future, as we (like the bird) continue to sing our song, making our great, beloved school even better.

Take good care and we’ll talk soon.


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