Let me be perfectly clear at the outset. I support public school as an important option for the education of our children. I do not blindly support private schooling and the effective desertion of local schools. I qualify that with an understanding of some of the greatest barriers to quality local schools. Barriers like reliance on local property tax, equitable funding schemes, brain drain away from careers in education, and more. I know public schools are not perfect, but I believe we can make them better.
Today, though, I write about a chance visit and informational that shook my unwavering support for public schools. My family and I were out in Nashville on TN-100 enjoying Edwin Warren Park nature trails. We decided to drive the 5 miles up to road to the Loveless Café. On the way, we passed what appeared to be a well-funded high school nestled just off the road. We had to stop because I had never heard of Ensworth High School. My wife and I questioned why this school had never come up in our review of Nashville schools. The reason, we soon found out, is because the school is an independent school. It is not a public school.
As we drove deeper into the campus, mobile web on the phone, I became more and more energized. Yes, energized! It is my standard response to witnessing grandeur beyond my ability to envision. My wife and I began to formulate the back story of the students, the institution, and its impact on the community it serves. Three numbers stuck out in our review of the school: $24,000, 100%, and $52 million.
No Qualified Student Turned Away
Ensworth serves pre-1st grade through 12th grade and has just over 1000 students. The tuition for a high-school student is around $24,000. This is a main reason I am in favor of public, free, education: the cost of the alternative. But, I am also informed enough to consider that the average expenditure for public school per student is $10,694 (2009 data from http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=66). Match that with a promise by Ensworth that no qualified student will be turned away and a reasonable contribution from me approximating the materials I sponsor to my local public school. With that, $24,000 calculates to a reasonable fee. The fee also translates into a 1 to 8 teacher to student ratio. Try to find that at a public school.
This is my argument FOR voucher systems: it allows us to compare the costs of education as well as the quality and question the accounting of school finance. For example, at $10,000 per student, a standard class of 1 to 25 teacher to student ratio is worth $250,000. Could overhead for that class be so high that the teacher has to ask for supplies from parents? Note: Tennessee expenditure per student is $9123 (http://edu.reportcard.state.tn.us/pls/apex/f?p=200:1:3666338331333145).
One Hundred Percent Integration
I could talk about the 100% graduation rate, but that would be cliché. I could make a big deal about the 100% accepted into college. But, I am always more interested in the how. The how in my opinion is the 100% integration of Art throughout the curriculum. Rather than creating the perception and perpetuating the disconnect in learning, Ensworth has chosen to infuse a most important conceptualizing construct (Art) into every subject.
This choice may be subtle to some, but in practice it represents a grand opportunity for each student. Imagine Math, Physics, and Music presented with the basic rules and skills, but also infused with an appreciation and communication of the art. I imagine that it frees teachers to explain the philosophy behind number theory, the experimentation in the wonder of physics, and the beauty and moodiness of music. Students develop critical thinking skills in addition to competence. They master material. They graduate high school. They go to college.
Fifty-two million dollars is the amount of Ensworth’s endowment. My wife and I mused about the conversations that led to the ground breaking of the Ensworth campus. Surely the need was discussed for an independent option NOT constrained by the reporting and process-centered policies of the current system. Certainly, the curriculum integration, the holistic focus, the student-centered, student-teacher ratio, and the values of financial aid were discussed. I am sure that athletics, extra curriculars, and Summer programs were bantered about.
What is beyond my comprehension at this point in my generational status is how a K-12 campus, founded in 2002 raises $52 million for its endowment! I know universities serving thousands more students per year that do not have as large an endowment. Obviously, a group convened that was not just about TALK, but ACTION as well. A community of individuals made an investment in the future…an impressive school is the result.
The Ensworth Effect
My vision is that every public school look more like Ensworth. The Ensworth Effect for me was to contemplate three questions. First, where is the money going THAT IS spent on education? I cannot be sure that MORE money is needed until I have an accounting of each dollar–not just how it is spent, but how it leverages learning both explicit and implicit. Explicitly, what curriculum and classroom interaction is supported? Implicitly, what are the day-to-day impact and state of facilities, materials, and staff training?
Second, how do we move from a process-centered curriculum many teachers feel is a prescription of HOW, to a student-centered focus on outcomes beyond standardized testing? The key is in evaluating teachers by social control models other than direct control. How well do they know students? What alternatives to they provide to learners in their classes? Do their students progress in critical thinking as well as competence?
Third, how do we move the conversation away from lotteries, magnet schools, and system blaming and move it toward intentional investments, quality campuses, and system reformation? We must take examples like Ensworth as the standard to compare with the current state of infrastructure, curriculum integration, and funding structure. We can get more out of public education, but it will require that we put more in, strategically…with a vision beyond doing more of the same. How about changing the game? In my work as a consultant, I am often met with “…but we can’t do what they do. We have different rules.” If their rules are working, it makes sense to adopt them. We must no longer accept that private or independent schools are different because they are simply better funded. We can change the status quo. We MUST change the status quo. That is the Ensworth Effect.
[ Michael A. Wright is a leadership coach and org consultant based in Nashville, Tennessee. Follow @MAWMedia on Twitter or connect for a consultation at MAWMedia.com ]
6/23/13 Update: Ensworth Blog