Faculty Response to the Peat Marwick Report

Amidst declining enrollment in the mid-1980's, The Maguire Foundation retained the consulting services of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. to conduct a study to determine the financial viability of the school.
(View the report here)

Below is the response by the Faculty. I felt this had to be posted, because it says a lot about the dedication of Hammonasset's former faculty.

STATEMENT BY THE FACULTY TO THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES
REGARDING THE PEAT, MARWICK REPORT TO THE MAGUIRE FOUNDATION, INC

December 6, 1986

The Hammonasset faculty has from the beginning taken a lively and constructive interest in the report submitted to The Maguire Foundation assessing Hammonasset’s marketability. That document took roughly three months to compile. Unfortunately, we have had only three days to formalize our reaction to the report’s conclusion. We offer our perspective as teachers acquainted with the core of the school under consideration and hope that the report’s authors and Board of Trustees will not mistake brevity for a lack of things to say. We believe there is a great deal to say.

PREMISE

While the report cites various educational innovations that Hammonasset embraced at its inception, it presumes that Hammonasset’s thesis as an institution is similar to that of other private schools in the area. This leads to other presumptions: specifically, that parents and students content with the method and product of other schools ought to be similarly content with Hammonasset if Hammonasset is to be considered a viable competitor. The fact is that Hammonasset is and has always intended to be substantively different from other schools. Consequently, we target an entirely different segment of the market. A Hammonasset student may have felt under-challenged elsewhere, or may have needed (for very good reasons) a second chance, or may have sought to vent creativity and individual expression in ways that are constrained in more structured settings. There are many reasons why students come to us, and combined, they create an adolescent mosaic. The resulting diversity in our student body is what we consider to be fertile ground for intellectual and social growth and qualifies as one of Hammonasset’s great strengths. Hammonasset’s mission, in other words, is to provide an alternative. At best this has been imperfectly understood by the report’s authors. At worst it has not been taken into consideration at all.

We begin with a few particulars.

ENROLLMENT

The enrollment figures no longer match those in the report. While we did open with 104 students, far below our initial prediction of 128, we began the second trimester with 119 students. Last year the number of students who enrolled at various points during the first trimester ultimately doubled by the year’s end. If that happens during the 1986-87 school year we will conclude the third trimester with 135 students. If present activity on the admission front is sustained, and if the damage caused by the report to The Maguire Foundation can be contained, we believe there is a very good chance of meeting this figure. Further, the report interprets mid-year admissions as a sign of ill-health since most private schools satisfy their enrollment needs in the spring. The report entirely misses the point that an alternative school must by definition remain an alternative more or less all the time. It is both our policy and function to admit students during the academic year. This phenomenon does not in any way justify a qualitative judgment that all students seeking us in December are gasping their last breath. Disillusionment follows no particular schedule, and many of our mid-year admissions have been simply that.

FACULTY

The report presents quantitative teaching strengths of teachers and highlights a lack of classroom teaching experience — both at Hammonasset and elsewhere. We find that Table 1.5 misconstrues the data so that the full-time teachers appear to have very little experience. Four experienced full-time faculty are relegated to part-time status because they have administrative obligations. Bud Lichtenstein and Deac Etherington carry four classes along with the administrative function. Each teaches a majority of the students in the school. Their five and 2.5 years of experience are hidden within the roster of part-time faculty. Bud Church is deployed teaching only 0.2 of the time, but his 26 years of education are invaluable to us all.

We feel an important omission from the text is the impressive degrees and quality educations of the Hammonasset faculty. Ten of the 18 faculty listed have master’s degrees and two have completed coursework toward a master’s. One has a Ph.D. and one is completing a dissertation. Some of the institutions we attended include Wesleyan (6), Harvard (3), Princeton (1), Carleton (1), Cambridge (1), and Haverford (1). Obviously, each of us had substantial knowledge of the subject area before coming to teach at Hammonasset and are willing to dedicate great energy despite the low salaries.

Because the consultant did not attend any classes, he was “not in a position to comment on the performance or ability of Hammonasset’s faculty.” (p. 18) After attending classes, a parent skeptical about Hammonasset’s curriculum wrote the following “unsolicited” comment:

“Hammonasset’s strong point is its classroom teaching. Although it has been said that the heart of a school is its library, I feel that it is actually the teaching that goes on in the classrooms. I found the level of classroom instruction to be so extraordinary that it should be mandatory that any parents contemplating sending their child there be forced to spend an entire morning at the school...”

We believe this tribute to the quality of teaching at Hammonasset overrides the question of youth and inexperience emphasized in the report. We invite any trustee member to visit our classes, if they are not yet convinced that we are a school with academic expectations. We encourage you to visit before the Corporation Meeting.

STUDENTS

The report contends the school’s primary purpose is to offer a “second chance” to students, and contends it has “drifted to that position despite itself.” We welcome students who are unsuccessful in other educational environments and consider that a positive difference from other schools. However, the author implies that we have poorer students here as a result. We do not believe in a direct correlation between SAT scores and intelligence or creativity. On the other hand, the author presents SAT data to characterize the ability of the Hammonasset student. He misrepresents this data to come to the conclusion that Hammonasset students are less able than other private school students.

In comparing Hammonasset’s SAT scores to NAIS schools (p. 14), the author compares our four—year average to a one-year average for NAIS. Closer scrutiny of the data shows that Hammonasset’s 1985-86 average verbal scores were only four points below the 1985-86 NAIS average (498 to 502). (This was pointed out by a student). For total average scores, the 988 of this year is substantially different from the 949 used in the written report and is well within the range of acceptable NAIS scores. This is despite the lack of preparation for these tests at the school. We are puzzled by such an obvious inconsistency in the report.

Further, the 1985-86 average score of 988 is comparable to the class of 1976’s average of 968 as stated in the report. This challenges the statement on page 12 that “as enrollment dwindled, it became necessary to admit students of lower levels of ability.”

We question the interpretation of data as to college admissions and its correlation to the ability of our students. The 1985 Comparative Guide to American Colleges states that such data, “used by itself, may give a grossly distorted picture” because of the increased communication between colleges and guidance counselors. “Therefore some highly selective institutions accept half of all aplicants, while some far less selective colleges accept only one out of five students who apply.” (p.xix) Given Hammonasset’s personalized college counseling system in which students are encouraged to apply to the colleges most suitable for them, rather than the college with the most impressive name, we wonder whether the data is an accurate representation of the Hammonasset student.

The report further challenges the school’s academic rigor by quoting isolated comments by a student or graduate “that one could ‘coast’ through Hammonasset.” We note that according to the report these were expressed “in passing.” Given that, we fail to understand how they could become one of the primary focuses of the report while the many positive comments were barely mentioned. Students have confirmed that their positive comments were largely neglected.

Actually, it is difficult to imagine that a student could coast through our graduation requirements which compare well to other private schools. We require four years of English, three years of math, and two years each of social studies, science, and a foreign language. Additional requirements include 30 hours of community service, a Junior Independent Research Paper, and the Senior Masterwork. All of these are part of Hammonasset’s efforts to challenge the student at their own level in a positive and supportive atmosphere; we believe the students would agree that they work hard to do well at Hammonasset.

OUR MISSION

In a subtle manner, the consultant has painted a portrait of Hammonasset as a sort of third-rate prep school, a place which exists to provide poor students with a “second chance,” but which by its very shoddiness has failed to attract enough of even those students.

He is wrong. We who spend our days at the school have no sense of third-rateness here. We are ourselves graduates of first-rate institutions and would surely detect the foul scent. Neither do we think of ourselves as providing students with a “second chance.” Many of them have simply never had a chance at all. They are wonderful young people who for various reasons have run aground in the traditional channels of academia. Their crime is that they could not, or would not, get along in school.

The consultant makes much of what he imagines parents expect from a private school. But this school is different. It is not a $6,000 mirror in which a student can see himself crowned with the gilded wreath of academic respectability. Rather, it is a door through which a youngster can walk in finding his way toward real excellence -- toward personal growth and self-respect and the genuine pleasure of learning. It does not bother us that we are sometimes a school of “last resort.” We are, after all, an alternative school, and it is human nature to stay on one path for a long time before giving it up for another. Our method is so obvious that many people fail to recognize it: we treat young people with respect. And, treated with respect, they blossom. It is a sort of miracle and it is why we agree to work for low pay -— for the satisfaction of watching the students grow, for the lessons they teach us, and for the pleasure of their company.

Of course, the consultant’s assignment was not chiefly to judge the quality of Hammonasset’s program, but to predict if the school could survive financially. And the critical factor there is enrollment. So: the enrollment has been rising impressively in the past year, and now stands at 119. Still the consultant is cheerless, because he does not see how we can continue to attract new students. And that is because he is looking to traditional sources -- pre-prep schools, or rejects from other prep schools. Actually, potential Hammonasset students can be found anywhere -- often sitting hopelessly outside the offices of public school guidance counselors, or even in detention study halls, or some times at the top of their public school honor roll. Further, although school age populations may be dropping in our geographic area, Hammonasset doesn’t need many students to survive.

Because there has been no long-established channel bringing students to our door, our growth has been slow. Our students have come largely by word of mouth; and for schools, unlike fads, the word spreads gradually. What keeps the word going is that students like Hammonasset. Many even love it.

Now, you could still view the school’s financial future as tenuous. It’s a betting game. When the facts are all in, bettors still go on hunches or gut feelings. The consultant’s gut tells him that Hammonasset is a sorry sort of place. So he bets heavily against us.

But we, the faculty at Hammonasset, are full of confidence and hope for the school. Our guts tell us the school will endure, and even thrive. Our guts also tell us, daily, that it is a good school, a rare school. Our students are rare people. They deserve not to fail, and if they fail because there was no place to give them their chance, there will be reason to grieve.

News Type: