The Ideal Post Oak School

As in the Weekly Post, May 21, 2010.
by John Long, Head of School

What would the ideal Post Oak School look like? That question has been at the crux of recent school improvement efforts.  Seven years ago, we began to offer a series of classes for prospective parents as a part of the enrollment process. Since then, retention rates for rising elementary students have been at all-time highs, and upper school numbers have grown. because of this enrollment demand, the school opened a new lower elementary class two years ago, and in august will open a new upper elementary class. 

During the same time period, the school completed the rigorous accreditation process of the Independent Schools association of the Southwest (ISAS). Twenty separate committees  comprised of faculty, administration, trustees and parents examined every aspect of the school’s operations, and produced a self-study (2005) that was an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Once ISAS accepted our self-study, the association dispatched an evaluation team to visit Post oak. The team’s report praised the school for “visible fidelity to its mission,” and unequivocally recommended Post oak for accreditation (2006). The report included both commendations for the school’s strengths, and recommendations for improvement.

The self-study, the ISAS report, and our recent enrollment growth have given faculty, administration, and board a full agenda. Some changes have already been implemented, but other issues are more long-term, involving greater complexity and expense.The board of trustees entered the current school year with strategic planning on the table, anticipating the need to expand current facilities in order to accommodate enrollment growth and enable new program initiatives, such as a music studio, a teacher training center, and a parenting center.

Before finalizing a plan, the board invited consultant John Littleford to help solicit feedback from a variety of Post Oak stakeholders. last october, Littleford met with small groups of parents, faculty, staff and alumni, and reported his findings to the board and senior administration. most of the conversations dealt with the already-known issues, but one surprise emerged: ”Why doesn’t Post oak have a high school?”  

In many ways, it was the right time for the school to consider this seminal question. by every measure of operational stability—including enrollment, financial standing, and parent satisfaction—the school is in a position of great strength. In addition, it’s been 10 years since other communities around the country began extending Montessori education into the secondary level. Of particular interest is the Montessori High School in Cleveland, Ohio, which opened two years ago after five years in development.  

“Why doesn’t Post oak have a high school?”  The board took the question seriously, appointing trustee Stuart Dow to head a committee to explore the issues. Dow, who was the founding head of Houston’s Emery high School, and Post oak trustee Windi Grimes accompanied Post Oak Head of School John Long on a trip to Cleveland to observe firsthand the Montessori High School in action.

They returned not only excited by the character and quality of the program, but intrigued by the possibility of creating a comparable school in Houston.  The committee set to work crafting a vision statement for the Post Oak high School, one modeled on the Cleveland school.  The potential high school would be located in the Houston Museum District in order to promote partnerships between students and experts from area museums, universities and medical center institutions. The school would also become Houston’s fifth International Baccalaureate Program (IB).

To assess the practical details of the high school initiative, the committee moved in several directions. It continued to investigate other montessori high schools. It contacted nationally-known private schools that have multiple campuses to learn from their experiences. and it formed a financial subcommittee to develop a multi-year, pro-forma, business plan to predict the costs of such a venture.

Finally, and critically, the board wished to explore in greater depth parent interest in Post oak high School. after interviewing several market research firms, we invited John Littleford to return. over a two day period, littleford met with 65 parents in small groups, and Stuart Dow met with eighteen more. Despite some on-going questions regarding certain particulars (such as size, sports, etc.), Littleford’s conclusion was that there is strong parent support for this initiative, enough for the high school to succeed—if the board and administration are ready, willing, and able to do the required work. 

On May 11, the board convened a special meeting to evaluate all of the information it had gathered about the high school, within the context of the other outstanding strategic initiatives. The discussion was thorough and wide-ranging. This is the board at work, assessing the long-term best interests of the school, in light of its mission, considering both immediate and long-range fiscal implications, and imagining the school from the perspective of the future children of our current students.  In short, the board decided to pursue a Post oak high School—and at the same time to address the needs of the current facility.  This decision reflects a powerful consensus to move forward with a cohesive and comprehensive vision of the ideal Post Oak School, serving children from walking to the onset of young adulthood.  In order to do so well, the school will pursue initiatives to train Montessori teachers as well as Montessori parents. Furthermore, there is a commitment to maintaining the scale of the school, accommodating projected growth on the current campus while developing a high school of 120 students on a separate Museum District campus.

You will have many practical questions in the days ahead. Board and administration know that the devil is in the details. know now that this is the starting point: board and administration are committed to do this work for your children and for your children’s children, and realize that there is much to be done. This decision marks the culmination of a year’s work, and represents the beginning of the next phase. and know this, too: your help will be needed.

© John Long and The Post Oak School