Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Five Cures for Common "Problems" with our Teens

As a long time principal and now president working in a Catholic high school, one of my unwritten responsibilities is to serve as a repository of good advice from parents, so that I may share this wisdom with other parents. In my 21 years here, these are the 5 best "cures"to common teenage problems I have heard from other parents:

1) The "My teen is always on the telephone" problem.

A parent once described the telephone as the "teenage umbilical cord", and indeed, the telephone is often more a distraction from homework than the TV. Also, there is nothing like calling your spouse at night and getting a consistent busy signal to stoke family frustrations!

"Not a problem", a parent told me once. "We got rid of all the cordless phones in our house, and placed our only phone in the family room. You'd be amazed how much shorter those conversations are between friends when they must be done in public." As a variation of that theme, another parent told me his rule was the cordless phones could never leave the family room after 6 P.M. If they did, the father would simply hit the "page/find" button over and over until finally his exasperated daughter would return the phone to its rightful home.

And cell phones? Ahh, there's the rub. One family I know has a designated spot in the house where all cell phones must be charged, and it's required that on school nights, they are all being charged by 9 p.m.

2) The "I'm going to my friend's house to spend the night" shell game.

Ask your teenage son in a more honest moment and he will tell you the best way to do things without you knowing is to play a kind of shell game: He says he is going to a friend's house, his friend tells his parents he is going to your home, and together they go do whatever they want for the evening.

Suspecting this, you'd like to confirm the arrangements with the other parents and make sure things are properly supervised, but you are worried that the other parents might take your call the wrong way and that your teen may resent you don't trust him.

A wise mother I once met had the solution: "I always called the other parents and asked them if my daughter could help out by bringing something with her, like some chips or drinks. By their response I would learn everything I needed to know." "After all", she smiled, "Who could be offended by an offer of generosity?"

3) The "My teen drives me so crazy fussing about chores that it's easier to do them myself" dilemma.

This one speaks for itself. But one father of 3 teenagers licked the problem by doing something very simple.

Every Sunday night he would list the chores he expected his children to accomplish over the course of the next 5 days after school, on the family bulletin board.

If the chores were not done by Friday afternoon, all "weekend activities" would be forfeited. How did he limit the whining? At the bottom of the list of chores, big and bold, were additional chores for those who whined or complained. "What really gets to my kids" this father commented, "is when they think I'm making up chores as I go along, in a kind of ad hoc fashion. Putting things in writing in advance creates the sense that chores are a matter of routine family responsibilities.

4) The "I don't have any homework" dilemma.

It's amazing that even though your child "doesn't have any homework" night after night, his teachers tell you he "isn't doing his homework" at report card time.

The problem for parents is you don't know, one night to the next, whether your children REALLY DON'T have homework or if they are just avoiding work. They hold all the cards.

Again, one family seemed to have the solution. "Every night at 8 P.M. the rule in our house is that our kids must be at the dining room table doing their homework until 9 P.M. minimum. It doesn't matter to us whether our kids tell us "they don't have any". They must still be at the table either doing their homework, or looking blankly at the desk for one hour. Those are the only two choices. Given the sheer boredom of doing nothing, even Algebra becomes interesting, and we've found that they begin to "discover" work they didn't know they had. And if the phone rings for our kids, we tell them our children have previous appointments and to call back at 9."

"Why the dining room and not the bedroom?" I asked. "There are too many distractions to pass the time in the bedroom" said these parents, "magazines, pictures of boyfriends, stereos, whatever. Also, we found the dining room is better because we can 'check up' on our kids without appearing to do so, as we do dishes in the nearby kitchen, for example. Our kids hated for us to peer into their bedroom to see if homework was being done, so we simply removed that problem."

5) "My child hates to read" syndrome.

Experts will tell you that your child's reading ability will be the most important indicator of his or her future academic success. But how do you breed a love of reading?

One mother I knew did two important things. First, when her children were younger, she made it part of her regular weekly routine to go to the library twice a week and check out books, which she read to her younger children each night. Younger children love to be read to by their parents!

Second, when her children became younger teens, she would continue to go to the library, but instead of reading out loud, she would give her children two choices: Either they went to bed at 10 P.M. lights out, no exceptions, or they could go to bed at 10 P.M. and read for one hour. Given that choice, her children became avid readers throughout their teenage years.

Final thoughts:

Five years ago I remember asking a mother of five girls, on the occasion of her last daughter's graduation, what she had learned about raising teenagers after all those years of doing so. I'll never forget her response. She thought for a moment, then said, "Well, teenagers are like bucking broncos. If they think you are trying to ride them, they'll buck you every time. So the best thing is to build fences which lead them in the right direction. Then they think that they're the ones making the decisions as they trot along. "

Amen. May all of us become good fence-builders!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Catholic Teacher's Salaries (and ways to improve them!)

Nationally, private school teachers make about 14,000 less dollars less per year than their public school counter-parts, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. I suspect that Catholic school teacher salaries are even less. As a matter of justice, we ought to be doing better.

But it's not so simple. Raising substantial funds to bring our teachers to par with public schools means as much as 50-100% increases in tuition, all but eliminating middle income Catholic families from being able to attend our schools and making our schools less competitive in the market-place. It doesn't help to raise teacher salaries if there are no students paying tuition!

In addition to the sacrifices our teachers make, low salaries hurt our school, too. We've been looking to hire an A.P. Physics teacher for the last five months, and it's not hard to understand why we're not having much luck. Entry level positions for recent college graduates with degrees in Physics begin anywhere from 40K to 60K in our region of the country, and frankly, teaching A.P. Physics requires teachers ideally with graduate degrees and teaching experience.

So what can we do?

First, we really have to be shrewd stewards by collecting all possible revenues, so as to be able to give teachers healthy, incremental raises each year. I've written recently on the importance of developing a generous financial aid program, which allows a school to raise tuition rates more quickly, protecting its less wealthy families even while generating funds by filling empty seats. I also wrote much earlier here about practical ways a school can increase revenues by tweaking routine operational procedures. In this article, I want to focus exclusively on teacher compensation, and look at three ideas that have merit, I believe, in attracting and sustaining teachers without breaking the bank.

1) Merit Bonuses-- The problem with raising salaries substantially across the board is that it's too expensive, and allocates scarce resources to mediocre and excellent teachers alike. Merit bonuses, if set up correctly, allow us to target our resources to the teachers we most want to hire or keep. Yet we're reluctant in Catholic schools to implement merit systems--partly because diocesan lawyers fret about potential lawsuits and partly because merit systems require us as administrators to do an exceptional job of supervising, so that we can fairly make distinctions between teachers. And who among us wants to go on record publicly as saying teacher X is better than teacher Y?

But merit systems can be set up fairly, without requiring impossibly time consuming commitments from administrators. A Catholic colleague of mine has set up a set of 7 objective criteria for her high school teachers, five of which must "checked" each year to receive an additional $5,000 bonus that year. These criteria include such things as a graduate degree, a certain number of professional development hours, a portfolio, kept according to specifications, a minimum score on a classroom evaluation (done by her), a talk or workshop at a national or regional convention in one's field, etc. Were our Board to approve of merit pay, I would probably include a certain score on the end of year evaluations of courses by students and parents as an additional criteria.

Where does she get the money to write $5,000 checks? As she points out, the criteria are sufficiently demanding to weed out all but a few teachers, so the annual cost of the system is not as high as it might first sound! But the school did have a merit fund, developed as a subset of a much larger capital campaign, and donors to the school are now encouraged to give to this fund as an option within the school's annual fund drive. But it need not be this highly endowed. Instead of a 4% increase in salaries for next year, costing the school, let's say, $50,000, the board could decide to only give 2% raises, and let the other 25,000 be distributed according to merit criteria.

2) Signing Bonuses--We read about million dollar signing bonuses for athletes, but most of us don't think about using signing bonuses in our schools. Such bonuses could work for us, especially if we're trying to land a highly competitive teacher candidate (like an A.P. Physics teacher!). The advantage of a signing bonus is three-fold: it's only a one time outlay for the school, it gives them money at exactly the time a teacher likely needs it most (especially if he or she must move into the area) and it can be targeted according to certain criteria or positions. $3,000 or so, paid up front, makes our schools more attractive.

3) Joint housing agreements--Likelier than not, there is empty rectory or convent space in your area. It sits there, empty, all year, even though the parish or religious order must pay to maintain it. Packaging a job offer with a low cost housing rental agreement could make your school a financially viable place to work, especially for a young, single person. It's a "win-win-win" for all those involved: the school pays nothing but offers a genuine "benefit", the parish/order gets some income whereas before they got none, and the young faculty member is able to save more each month from what is, alas, too puny a salary!

Conclusion: All of us understand that the quality of teachers is the most important factor in how well we educate our children. In the "old days", we could rely on the heroic commitment of the nuns to carry this load. No more. We've got to be willing to explore new paradigms and act creatively.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Economics of Financial Aid for Catholic Schools

Many Catholic schools miss an opportunity to raise revenue because they don’t give enough financial aid to their families.

At first glance, that appears to be an oxymoronic statement: How can giving MORE aid INCREASE revenue? Simple, really. If there are empty seats available in a classroom, it’s better to fill them with families paying ½ tuition (or ¼, etc) than to leave them empty. It’s the same principle airlines use to discount prices: if a plane can carry 200 passengers but currently only has 150 booked for a flight, it’s in the airline’s interest to create financial incentives to fill those remaining 50 seats, since the plane is flying to its destination regardless.

Financial aid programs for Catholic schools can work the same way, provided two things are in place:

1) First, there are empty seats available in the school. If a school has waiting lists, there is an economic argument for giving out less aid. For this reason, I believe it’s prudent to process financial aid requests in June, rather than in the early spring, as many schools are apt to do. By then, it is clearer what the numbers are for each class, and the amount of aid can vary accordingly.

I anticipate this objection: Am I saying that the family’s ability to pay is a factor in the admissions process? Isn’t this contrary to the mission of our schools? It could be, but I’d argue if done correctly, that’s not the case. Admissions decisions should be made without reference to ability to pay, and ideally, by an entirely different person or committee than the person deciding upon financial aid. One cannot apply for financial aid unless one has already met the admission requirements and has been accepted. However, accepting a family doesn’t obligate us to provide for 100% of their financial needs! Some families, because Catholic education is a priority, may choose to scrimp and save to pay the rest, while others aren’t willing to do so. That’s their choice. Furthermore, it is entirely legitimate for us to be more generous, for example, to Catholic families, since our primary mission is to serve these families. Without knowing enrollment numbers, it is harder for us to make these kind of prudential decisions.

2) The second key to a successful financial aid process is there should be a truly objective third party to help determine the level of financial need. Three years ago, before I required this third party assessment, I would award need based entirely on a family’s own estimate of how much they needed. Some families, I observed, would really sacrifice, whereas others on significant aid would buy their 16-year old sons brand new cars! That convinced me we needed an objective process. At minimum, this process should involve scrutiny of income tax forms from the prior year to confirm income and analysis of current debts. Our school implemented a two-step process three years ago, requiring the family to send off forms for analysis by a third party vendor, and at the same time, to send us a separate application for financial aid. On the application sent directly to us, we ask “In your own estimate, how much aid will you need next year?” I then compare their own estimate with the estimate from the third party vendor to determine how “far apart” the two are. Surprisingly, a family’s own assessment of their need is often less than the 3rd party judges it to be.

Other Benefits:

I believe that with these two pieces in place, a healthy financial aid program can really be an asset to the school. It helps fill empty seats. It can be used as an incentive to attract highly desirable families to the school (colleges clearly understand this by offering generous “need-based” scholarships to these families). It allows the school to raise tuitions more substantially because it provides the means for its poorer families to pay. And ironically, by charging higher tuition rates, the school creates the perception of “value” in the community. Being the “lowest cost school in town” is not necessarily good for the school—-people wonder, WHY is it so cheap? I liken this to going to a doctor who charges FAR less than the other doctors in town. Does this make the patient feel better about the quality of his care?

A Concluding Comment:

Catholic educators often become uneasy about such coldly calculating measures to raise revenues. But at the same time, our programs are becoming less competitive with area private schools because we don’t have the revenue they have. Our teachers and staff are typically underpaid, not just in terms of salaries, but also often in terms of retirement and health insurance benefits. We must be shrewd stewards of our limited resources if Catholic schools are to remain a place where God’s grace continues to touch our students and families.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Father's Pride

Allow me, for just a second, to exhibit a little fatherly pride. My daughter Cynthia just finished a wonderful junior year. She played volleyball and was the junior class president. She was very active in the YMCA's "Youth in Government" program and was one of 8 students chosen in Alabama to represent the state at National Youth Judicial, held in Oklahoma City in early May. She was one of three to run for youth governor, though she didn't win. She is currently representing Alabama in the Council for National Policy and is debating bills in North Caroline with 600 other teens from all over the country.

Last week, she represented Alabama in the "National Right to Life" Oratory Contest, held in Nashville, TN.

Next year, she is the student body president at Montgomery Catholic. What I am proudest about of all, however, is that Cynthia is a person of faith and lives what she believes.

OK, I'm done bragging. Thanks for bearing with me!