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Bullis Community Update: August 23, 2023

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Bullis Community Update: August 23, 2023

Dear Bullis Families,

Bullis Head of School, Christian Sullivan

I suspect that many in our community have started to count down the days to the start of the school year–hint; it’s 13! Yes, there are plenty of events and activities before September 5, but proper school doesn’t get going for another two whole weeks. For those who need solace as summer is drawing to an end, consider any other two-week vacation during the year–it’s a long time! And for those of you who can’t wait for school to begin, well, we are almost there!

Whatever your perspective, I hope that you have all had a rejuvenating, safe summer. I spent a delightful time in China visiting with families, alums, current students, and incoming students and was lucky enough to be in Europe too. But here I am about to begin my 36th year in education, and however amazing the summer, I am always excited to start the new school year; I truly hope that the students are too.

On Monday, I welcomed our new faculty at the beginning of their orientation; their joy and excitement was palpable. I was thrilled, yet not surprised; our aim is to hire fantastic and qualified teachers, people who want to be around students. This is a terrific cohort of new teachers, and I look forward to you giving them an extremely warm welcome to Bullis. It’s not always easy to be new, and I hope that you will support them as they get their bearings over the coming year. The division directors will share their bios with you before the start of the school year.

Generosity of spirit, civility, and our Bullis culture have been much on my mind over the summer. Bullis has experienced explosive student growth during the last three years. On July 1, 2020, we had 708 [enrollment number correction: Aug. 23, 8:45 PM) students enrolled. This year, we will open school with 1020 students. In addition to this 44% [percentage correction: Aug. 23, 8:45 PM] enrollment growth, every year we have our seniors leave, and new students replace them. The result is that a very large percentage of our students have been here for three years or less. It is more incumbent than ever that we help our students understand our cultural and academic expectations; many have not had a long tenure at the school. This year, we will be more intentional than ever in imbuing our expectations, our culture of respect, and our values: Caring. Challenging. Community.

Our strategic plan is very clear on what is important; Bullis will prioritise academic and intellectual life within a framework of wellness; a joyful school experience is essential and we will not sacrifice students’ wellness for arbitrary academic goals. And these goals of priortising intellectual life and creating a joyful environment are not mutually exclusive; the outcomes for our students are proof.

Cellphones

A significant element of fostering a joyful community is encouraging engagement and connection between constituents. It has become apparent in recent years that cellphones very significantly disrupt engagement and immediate interpersonal connections. Moreover, emerging research is detailing the dangers that cellphones pose. While a cellphone policy is merely a part of a broader approach to engagement and connection, I do see it as an important area of school life where we can make positive change. I telegraphed last year that we would be making changes to our cellphone policy; here they are:

Philosophy

Bullis continuously examines its policies regarding teaching and learning based on scientific research and feedback and observations from students and faculty. Our top priorities, as expressed in our 2021-2026 Strategic Plan, are to “provide an exceptional student-centered experience” and “foster a culture of belonging and wellness.” To do this, we must “create inviting and appropriate spaces for all students” where they can maximize learning and build meaningful relationships with their peers and teachers.

To achieve these goals, the Senior Leadership Team has concluded that changes to our cellphone and wearable technology policies are necessary. The updated policies detailed below are based on the most current research conducted by education experts and input from our faculty. Two overarching factors drove our decisions—the effects of cellphones and wearable technology on (1) the depth of students’ learning experiences and (2) students’ social-emotional well-being.

Research

Research collected over the past decade tells an unambiguous story of a “significantly negative association between smartphone use and academic performance.” Furthermore, a study from 2016 showed a 6.4% increase in test scores among 16-year-olds when cellphones were disallowed in the classroom.

According to a 2022 study in which one group of students had access to their smartphones during class while the other group did not, “students whose smartphones were physically removed during class had higher levels of course comprehension, lower levels of anxiety, and higher levels of mindfulness than the control group.” A literary review conducted by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, analyzing 20 scientific studies, found that smartphone and social media use results in an “increase in mental distress, self-injurious behavior, and suicidality among youth.” 

2023 report from UNESCO, the UN’s education, science, and culture agency, states, “Even just having a mobile phone nearby with notifications coming through is enough to result in students losing their attention from the task at hand,” citing a study that found it takes students up to 20 minutes to refocus on what they were learning once distracted.

Conclusion

In order to provide the richest educational and social experiences for our students, the use of smartphones and wearable technology must be significantly limited. The Senior Leadership Team has crafted the policies below to reduce the use of these technologies during the school day.

Policies

Lower School: No phones or wearables are allowed while on campus. If a student does bring a cellphone or wearable to school, it must remain in the student’s backpack at all times.

Middle School: No phones or wearables are allowed during school hours (students may use them on campus before and after school). If a student does bring a cellphone or wearable to school, it must remain in the student’s backpack at all times during the school day.

Upper School: No phones are allowed during school hours (students may use them on campus before and after school) except during the lunch break when not in the dining hall. Wearables are allowed but must remain in theater mode, which keeps the wearable silent and the screen dark, throughout the school day.

Headphones: No student is allowed to wear any type of headphones during the school day, except in study hall.

Faculty: While understanding that it may be necessary, on occasion, for adults to use cellphones, we hope that adults will role model appropriate use, and, in general and as much as possible, follow the same policies as the students.

The division directors will be in touch with information about how we will enforce these policies at school.

Suggestions for Further Reading

I regard this as a pilot program. In November, we will review the program to identify any unintended consequences and evaluate if there are any changes we would like to make. 

Thank you so very much in advance for your support of this policy– this is a truly important effort to improve our students’ wellness. In order to make this change successful, I ask that you refrain from contacting your student during the school day. If you need to convey an important and time-sensitive message, please contact your student's divisional office. I also urge you to consider how your children are using smartphones and other digital devices at home, especially at night; late-night usage is especially worrying. 

Class Sizes

I mentioned above that the school will open on September 5 with 1020 students enrolled–the largest enrollment in our history. We are proud of the students who are returning to Bullis and those who are new to the school; the admissions season was very competitive, and we are now absolutely full…with the exception of two open spaces in Grade 2!

I do, though, want to reassure you that class sizes will remain small. In the Lower School, the kindergarten classes have 12 students each, and all other class sizes have a maximum of 14 students. In the Middle and Upper Schools, we target academic class sizes at 16. In the Upper School, the average academic class size is 12.9 students per class. There are 333 classes–305 have 16 students or fewer, 17 classes have 17 students, and one class has 18 students. In the Middle School, all academic classes are 16 or below except for one class, which has 18 students. We remain committed to small class sizes.

Campus Projects

With two weeks to go, we are now confident that the completely renovated and expanded dining room and refurbished kitchen will be ready. All the bathrooms in North Hall have been renovated. And finally, we have moved the buses from near the Democracy Road gate to behind the gym. I am very grateful to our Director of Facilities, Bob Butland, and his staff for getting the campus ready and to our Director of Administration, Meredith Wade, and trustee, Livia Christensen, for leading the charge on the beautiful dining room–they did an extraordinary job.

This has already been an eventful week on campus. You may have seen my emails that discussed the hoax bomb threat that we dealt with yesterday. We had new Upper School students on campus as well as many faculty. The students handled the situation calmly, and I am very grateful to the Montgomery County police, Falls Road Golf Course, and, of course, our faculty and administrators who dealt with the situation so deftly. I am also grateful to our parents for their understanding and patience. We look forward to continued excitement in the coming days, albeit of a distinctly different nature.

I will be in touch again shortly after school has opened. You can expect to hear from your division directors and, as usual, if I can help with anything, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Warmly,

christian sullivan signature

Christian G. Sullivan
Head of School