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Head of School Briefing: December 6, 2021

Head of School Briefing: December 6, 2021

Dear Bullis Parents,

Weekly Briefing from the Head of School Christian Sullivan

I hope your Thanksgiving break provided much-needed rest and recuperation, and a healthy dose of joy and gratitude too. Lisa, Lexy, Matt, and I stayed at home and enjoyed visiting with family and friends.

Gratitude

We started back after Thanksgiving with the most magical Giving Tuesday. Standing out in front of School, the SGA students were greeting cars as they rolled in, the Bulldog mascot was waving, and Freddy was happy to have canine company. What with the lights on the trees and the first few specks of snow, we could wonder if we were all unwitting characters in a Norman Rockwell canvas. And then the response from our community to the Bullis Fund was nothing short of magnificent. I can tend towards hyperbole in some of my letters, but to say that the community was incredibly generous is no exaggeration. We are so grateful that the community donated $153,000 to the Bullis Fund on that single day. Amazing! We are well on our way to the Bullis Fund target of $1,000,000 for this year. The Bullis Fund is a critical part of our operational budget and, in particular, supports enriched programming, our beautiful campus, and the Board of Trustees’ goal of ensuring that our faculty are very competitively compensated. The chair of the Board, Pat Caulfield, and I will write to you on January 3rd, 2022, with more news of our goals for faculty compensation.


Listening Tour Executive Summary

Late last month, we completed the last of six listening tour events. We held one in Silver Spring, one in Prince George’s County, two at Bullis, one online, and one for non-English-speaking Chinese families. The meetings were facilitated by the co-chairs of the DEI committee, Elise Kohan, Bryan Whitford, and Bobby Horsey, our Director of Teaching and Learning, Ryann Fapohunda, and me. The events were opportunities for community members to share perspectives about their experiences at Bullis, as well as their hopes and dreams for the future. Our job as facilitators was to listen and incorporate this feedback into our plans. Following is an executive summary of the comments received. I have attempted to categorize by themes and issues rather than reproduce the thousands of unique comments made.

Separately, but relatedly, I visited with an Upper School student group, the Prism Club. Prism is a forum for LGBTQIA+ students and allies. I met with them in order to hear about their experiences at Bullis.

Connection

There were multiple issues raised about students’ and families’ ability to connect with each other. This was seen as extremely important by many. Hopes and dreams about connection included students connecting with other students across racial and ethnic lines, across age ranges, and across socio-economic differences. Opportunities and hurdles mentioned included:

  • Lunch - ensure it is not rushed. Assign seats so that students are forced to meet others. Conversely, it was also mentioned that this was one of the only times that students could see their friends.
  • Transport - it is the reality that students who spend hours on a bus together will gravitate towards each other, and because they live nearer to each other, it’s easier to connect outside of school. How can the School encourage connections other than those made easier through neighborhood proximity? Bullis was asked to enroll more diverse students from the District.
  • Ensure that there are excellent orientation programs (especially in 9th grade) so that new students feel included and connected to the community.
  • Reinstitute the buddy program so that LS, MS, and US students can create relationships with each other. Older students should mentor the younger students.
  • Parents need to network and socialize with other parents - for the good of themselves and their children. The School should use the campus to facilitate this necessary socializing.
  • Excellent aftercare service will help students connect.

Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Faculty

  • Several constituents asked that Bullis recruit a more diverse faculty.
  • A constituent asked that faculty not be too stern - learning should not be done in an environment of fear.
  • A constituent asked that teachers not express their own political opinions to the students, stating that students should be taught how to think, not what to think.
  • There were comments made about ensuring that DEI issues are incorporated into the curriculum and that students are exposed to uncomfortable conversations and issues at an appropriate age.
  • There was a request for African American history to be a required part of the curriculum. Similarly, it was hoped that students would gain a broader appreciation for the history of the United States, including Japanese internment and the treatment of immigrants from different countries through the decades. Hope was also expressed that the different holidays of all communities and cultures present at Bullis would be appreciated and celebrated.
  • Some constituents expressed that Upper School students, especially those who travel a long way, would benefit from a later start time.
  • There was disappointment expressed that certain historical projects were not handled appropriately in the past, specifically immigration projects suggesting that immigration to the United States was voluntary and projects glamorizing the relationships between majority and subjugated groups.
  • There were also comments made about ensuring that the School not be overwhelmed with DEI and social issues and that it primarily be an academic institution. A participant asked that the School make its position on Critical Race Theory known.

Specific Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

  • There was a request not to stereotype Black student-athletes as athletes; they are students first. Do not allow any stereotyping.
  • A different constituent commented that all students should be treated as unique individuals and not be categorized based on their immutable characteristics; students should not be reduced to being identified as members of a specific group. Students should not feel guilty or badly because of their ethnicity or any immutable characteristic. A different parent commented that students don’t need to feel guilty for their ethnicity but should feel a responsibility to ensure that discrimination, racism, or anti-semitism are not allowed to persist.
  • There were several comments about the importance of teachers calling students by the correct name, and certainly not mistaking them for a different student of the same ethnicity.
  • Many constituents praised the diverse student body and noted the benefits of being exposed to different types of students. This was seen as reflective of the real world and would help students develop understanding and character.
  • Uniform/Dress Code: There were many comments about the dress code. Many felt that it was inappropriately gendered and was unfair. Some found it overly restrictive. Others found that the rules were not enforced evenly. A specific commenter worried that Black students were disciplined more often for dress code violations than others. Some felt that it was an old-fashioned uniform reminiscent of a “country-club dress code” from a bygone era; it does not represent dressing for success in today’s world. Questions were asked about why we have the uniform. There was a comment made about the uniform being worn in distracting ways.
  • Several families asked us to make more efforts to attract LGBTQIA+ families in the admissions process. The comments were specific to the parents rather than the identity of the students. Parents also commented that LGBTQIA+ students need to feel more comfortable at Bullis. When meeting with the Prism group, I heard many corroborating comments about students being subjected to expressly homophobic behavior or language. I also heard that many students did not feel comfortable being open about their identity at Bullis.
  • There were many comments about the high value that Bullis and the community place on the diverse student body. Bullis has an excellent reputation in the community because of this diversity. Bullis must maintain this diversity while striving to be ever more inclusive; Bullis must continue to deliver. While hopes were expressed for a more diverse faculty, there were positive comments about the number of people of color on the Board of Trustees.

This summary is not intended to be a comprehensive accounting of every comment, but rather an authentic attempt to capture the nature and intention of what was expressed by the 120+ constituents who participated. After several weeks of reflection, I continue to feel both humbled and encouraged by what I heard during these gatherings. I am extremely grateful for the positive spirit with which people engaged and the straightforward, honest feedback that was communicated. Furthermore, the comments we heard were offered with such good intent; I felt that the constituents who participated did so while believing that people have the best of intentions.

Of course, the next question is, “What now?” How do we act on everything we have heard? As you know, we are in the process of hiring a Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and this person will be instrumental in building our DEI Plan and Vision, as laid out in the Strategic Plan that was recently affirmed by the Board of Trustees. There will be issues and concerns that we will be handling more immediately, including efforts to ensure that our LGBTQIA+ students feel supported at Bullis.


COVID-19 Update

With such a short intervening period between two holidays, perhaps like some of you, our thoughts are turning to the travel we are planning over the winter holiday, both within the US and abroad. And also perhaps like you, with the emergence of the Omicron variant, we are beginning to wonder if our plans will be affected.

While it is too early to tell what the impact of the Omicron variant will be, we continue to ask our entire community to engage in a multi-layered protective approach - vaccination, testing, masks, and physical distancing - and see no compelling reason to alter our current School protocols or plans at this time. I am very grateful for the high and ever-improving vaccination rate at School. In the Upper School, 97% of students are vaccinated, in the Middle School, at least 85% of students are vaccinated, and in the Lower School, at least 66% of students are vaccinated. Of our 229 faculty, including part-time employees, 220 are now vaccinated. We have conducted 13,482 tests since the beginning of the school year and had 16 positive cases, including one last week. While our overall test positivity rate this year of 0.12% is excellent, continuing positive results and increasing numbers in the community are nagging, dangerous reminders that this is certainly not over.

After the winter holiday (approximately January 18), once we have tested all students and faculty twice, we will assess whether we are ready to consider altering our mask mandate for Upper School students. By this time, we will also have some indication of the impact of the Omicron variant. I very much hope we can begin to dispense with masks at Bullis in the New Year, but you can rest assured that we will only do so if we believe it can be done safely. Please know that in order to lift the mask mandate while inside, I will need a high degree of confidence that we will not reimpose it in the near future; I have no desire to go back and forth.


Enrollment and Re-enrollment

As mentioned above, Pat Caulfield and I will write to the community on January 3rd with details of the cost of tuition for next year and the Board’s goals for faculty compensation; these two phenomena are intrinsically linked. On January 14, 2022, we will send out re-enrollment contracts. These are due back fully completed by February 11, 2022. I mention this ahead of time to frame for you the importance of returning the contracts by the deadline. As I believe you know, with regard to enrollment, Bullis is completely full. Last year, our attrition rate (students leaving) was 5.8%, and the national average is >10%. This year we have a record number of applications - we currently have 45% more applications this year than we did at this point last year. While this is a positive situation, the reality is that we will be denying many applications from mission-appropriate students and families who want to be at Bullis. It is absolutely essential that at the close of business on February 11, we know exactly how many spots we will have to offer. If your contract is not returned by that date, please know that you may be placed on a waitlist.

  • Re-enrollment contracts go out - January 14
  • The due date for re-enrollment contracts to be returned - February 11

The faculty and I are looking forward to an exciting nine remaining days of school before the upcoming holiday break. In these past few weeks, I’ve been delighted to witness and experience all that’s happening on campus - the joyful and creative learning in the classrooms, the very successful second vaccination clinic for our 5-11-year-old students, and winter sporting events and arts activities, to name a few. I hope to see all of you at the Festival of Light this Saturday from 5-7 pm on our beautifully decorated campus. And to our Jewish families, I hope you enjoyed a festive and fun-filled Hanukkah this past week.

Warmly,

christian sullivan signature

Christian G. Sullivan
Head of School

Head of School, Christian Sullivan, updates the Bullis community on celebration of life for Dwayne Haskins, Jr. '16, dining services, calendar changes for 2022-23 school year, sports and activities, and COVID.