Kara Douglass » Blog: From the Head

Blog: From the Head

My name is Kara Douglass and I am the Head of School at The Fulton School. Every other week, I'll post here about the mission of our school, our curriculum, highlights of being an independent school, and even parenting (I'm the mother of five children, ages 3 to 24!). If you're a visitor here on our website, we hope these blog posts will give you a glimpse into our community.
Feel free to reach out to me. You can call the school at (314)469-6622 or email me directly at [email protected]
Click on a link below to see my blog posts:
Because our mission is at the core of everything we do here at The Fulton School -- from parent communication and homework policies to morning gatherings and student-run businesses -- I want to use the next few editions of From the Head to break it down. As a nonprofit, we are guided by our mission.  The board sets it and guards it, while the faculty, staff, and I implement it.  It is our compass, our map and our litmus test for everything.
Our Mission
To provide an academically challenging
and supportive environment where students
gain the knowledge and skills needed
to become globally minded citizens
with a passion for life and learning.
The key component here is to challenge your children academically. We want them performing at their potential, whatever that is.  This is an art more than a science, and it requires us to know them well and for them to feel safe and engaged. It is an ongoing dance between the child ("I can. I can't. I want.") and the teacher ("You can. Try again. Let's wait.").  
We also promise to support your child, which is also more art than science.  We support them through the environment we create, through our pedagogical philosophy, through our expertise, and, most importantly, by understanding them well.
We also commit to building their knowledge and skills, not just for the next grade or the next school, but for their lives. When we think through what knowledge and capabilities that students need, we start at the goal of a contented, fulfilled adulthood and work backwards. Such far-reaching goals (globally minded citizens with a passion for life and learning) raise the bar and bring meaning to the kids' efforts. The better they understand why they're learning, the more motivated they are to invest in their own education.  
Lastly, with an eye on being globally minded citizens with a passion for life and learning, we have a context for developing their character, their excitement, their critical thinking and communication skills, their creativity, their initiative, their self-confidence and self-efficacy, and their values.  It is huge and overwhelming, fun and fascinating, and, mostly, an honor.
We identify four values as part of our mission.  The first is Montessori.  
We believe the Montessori philosophy provides the best opportunity to build confidence, character, and leadership in students.
From the traditional Montessori classrooms in Toddler through 3rd grade, to the hybrid approach in 4th through 12th grades, the Montessori pedagogy we use teaches the whole child. As independence develops, self confidence follows. These are almost interchangeable terms because only when children learn what they can accomplish all by themselves, do they see all that they are capable of.  As children work through the Montessori environment requiring initiative, intrinsic motivation, and accountability, they develop character. And as they experience opportunities to lead, as offered by the teachers or as requested by the students, they build an appetite for leadership as well as the skills necessary for leadership.  
There is SO much more that a Montessori education fosters in children, but independence, self confidence, and character are the three areas we have identified as standouts because students don't all develop these characteristics naturally. Other programs don't prescribe opportunities to nurture these characteristics.  Most of this is usually left to the child to figure out, or maybe for the parents to nurture if they think of it, or if they know how.  Your children are practicing these three skills at The Fulton School every day... growing in these areas every day.  These skills will show through somehow or another in their personalities as they develop through our program.  
Continuing our work through the mission, I want to highlight our second core value: The type of community we are building.
We dedicate ourselves to building a joyful, innovative, educational community that develops communication skills, critical thinking skills, and creativity in every child through relevant, hands-on, student-centered teaching.  
We believe a school should be a happy place, buzzing with engaged children who are working hard and enjoying their work.  We believe this will happen when the adults follow the children's developmental cues, when the students' work is meaningful to them, and when the kids get to be active participants in class (as opposed to passively sitting back and listening to an adult).  We believe that taking the time to get to know the kids well will pay off academically in the long run.  Students who take responsibility for their own education, as we are teaching them to do in age-appropriate ways, will help them develop the skills mentioned above--communication, critical thinking, and creativity.
Some practical ways you will see/hear about this: 
  • Lots of projects! The Montessori rooms are entirely hands-on. As students get older and we depart from the traditional Montessori curriculum, the content grows more abstract so teachers find ways to create, apply, analyze, and experience the curriculum.  Textbooks are helpful for structure and reference, but learning really comes alive outside of textbooks! 
  • Gatherings.  Whether the group is a class, the Upper and/or Lower School, or the various groups of ages, gathering students together builds community. And when you have a community, relationships are built along with a sense of belonging in the building.  Our gatherings are planned at regular intervals, small groups daily, larger groups weekly or less.  Students practice public speaking, leadership, and listening at these gatherings in addition to simply getting to know each other. Our Homecoming Pep Rally was the first time we gathered the entire student body.  Soup Lunch in December will be the next all-school event.  
  • Time and space.  Students do not learn these skills when we hover, correct too quickly, or prescribe every minute of their day.  We have to watch over our students, seize teachable moments, provide some basic structure and accountability, and even let them be disappointed.

Being extremely thoughtful about our community is a hallmark of our mission.  Creating an ecosystem in which students will blossom and thrive is paramount to their love of school, love of learning, and love of themselves.
Continuing our work through the mission, I want to highlight our third core value: the family partnership.
We create a partnership between parents, teachers, and students, knowing that parental involvement is key to the success of the students and the school. 
You know your children better than anyone.  The faculty know milestones, benchmarks, skill development, and pedagogy.  Students may not always be able to articulate their needs, but they show us their needs and it's our job to observe and honor them. Increasingly, as students get older, they need to own their learning--their strengths and weaknesses, their goals, the styles, patterns and habits that work best for them.  This creates a three-way partnership that, when it's working well, creates the best possible opportunity for the child to thrive.  Each entity brings something important to the table and we are all stronger for hearing each other, respecting each other, and creating a balance between each person's expertise and role.  
For the purposes of this article, I'll focus on the parents.  We want to know you!  We want to know what you want for your child.  We want your child to see you here and to know that you are collaborating with his/her teachers – that you are on the same team. 
If your family is going through something difficult, if your child is not sleeping well, or if he is wrestling with his homework, please reach out to us. On the flip side, if your child loved a particular lesson or event, or appreciated something her teacher did, let us know so we can repeat it!  The Lower School homeroom teachers, the Upper School advisors, Peggy, Diane and I are all eager to support you.  
If you hear a strange story about the school day from your child at the dinner table, reach out to the appropriate teacher to clarify.  We will do the same if we notice something you should know about.  The trust between the parents and the school is key to the well-being of the child.  Parent involvement in education is one of the key factors linked with long-term student success and it ultimately strengthens the school as an institution.  
So thank you for trusting us with your children.  And thank you for partnering with us as we work to nurture, challenge, and grow your children.
Our last core value in our Mission is diversity.  We have had this word in our mission in one way or another for thirty years. In the broader culture, the word "diversity" has shifted both in meaning and reaction, but the heart of it remains the same in our little corner of the world.
Diversity: We respect, honor, and celebrate a diversity of cultures, learning styles, talents, and personal goals.  

We believe deeply that all of our differences make the world a better place. Children see adults wrestling with differences constantly -- intimately in their family lives and in the larger world scene online and in the news -- so that makes it ever more important that our school community needs to be a safe place to be different. Through a child's eyes, differences may be skin and hair color, diet, dress, blended families, culture, and religion.  But it can also be who is strong in math, who talks too much or too little, who is a natural athlete, or who has the desire to be an astronaut.  Children who like something too much can be "different"; children who like something too little can be "different".  We may chuckle when they act traumatized that they don't have an iPhone, but even material differences and family decisions separate kids from each other. And that's good!
The examples above may seem trite (they are not big political or mental health issues), but we find that when we teach them to celebrate all of the differences that matter at their age, it translates later to honoring differences at later ages--differences that may be more serious, more emotional, or more life-changing. We also find that when we have a culture of acknowledging and celebrating how different we all are, children accept themselves more readily.  We lay a foundational message that says, "You are worthy, you are enough, and you belong." These lessons are SO important to helping them thrive -- emotionally, socially, and academically -- for the rest of their lives.  
Diversity really translates to identity. If we are here to challenge our kids, support them, and nurture them, we have to know them and value them first.  This is one of the greatest challenges of education, but it's one of the greatest privileges too.
You probably (hopefully) noticed our November push for Annual Fund. While philanthropy is vital to a non-profit like ours, we aim to resist overemphasizing money, or even giving, as a status symbol within our community.  We have focused on it through the month of November, and we will revisit it a couple times before our fiscal year ends on May 31, but otherwise our need for strong philanthropic commitments from our constituents will remain relatively invisible.  
If you felt puzzled or chafed by the fact that we approached you for a donation knowing that you are paying a substantial tuition already, an explanation of the nonprofit business model might help you understand our actions.  
Research and experience have shown that for nonprofits to be strong long-term, they need a robust group of supporters who not only want to benefit from that nonprofit in the moment, but also want to see it thrive for years to come.  Our tuition, as substantial as it is, simply pays for this year; salaries are by far the largest expense, with facilities a close second. Materials, professional development of teachers, memberships, student activities, and peripheral programs are all smaller portions, although they add up. There is a certain precariousness to dependence on tuition, as those numbers can go up and down unpredictably. Picture a family living paycheck to paycheck versus having money in the bank, or even better, investments and savings. This is the difference a strong Annual Fund can make. Strong philanthropic support (like  Annual Fund) is the difference between a bare-minimum program and an excellent program. It allows us flexibility to add staff and programs as needed, and plan for the future with confidence. What about capital campaigns? Those are are reserved for establishing things like new buildings, endowments, and scholarships.
Consistent Annual Fund revenue allows our Board of Trustees to responsibly award tuition assistance which increases accessibility to the school. It also allows them to make budgetary decisions that enable the school to thrive, rather than just survive.  If we truly charged what we needed financially to accomplish everything we want to accomplish, tuition would be remarkably higher. But by appealing to a larger group of people (who are incentivized by tax breaks) and relying on your enthusiasm for our school, fundraising drives like Annual Fund make a HUGE difference.  
As we head into the holidays and reflect upon the end of another calendar year, it’s a great time to think through your family’s values.  It’s so easy for all of us in our busy lives to be led by our calendars, moving from one commitment to the next obligation without much opportunity for reflection.
I encourage you to take some time this break to think about what’s most important to you in your life. Specifically, what values do you most hope to pass on to your children? What are you doing to pass those values onto your children? Do your rules, your consequences, and your schedule reflect those values?
Dr. Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University is actually one of my favorite go-to writers on children and families (she focuses on research and data and helps us interpret all of the information out there). In her book, The Family Firm, she talks about having a mission statement as a family. If you consider the family to be like a company, you would make every decision based on whether that decision supports the mission of the firm. I have never created a mission statement for my family, but that analogy really resonates with me as the head of a mission-centered school. If you had a mission statement for your family, how would it inform how you spend your break? Would it change the gifts you buy, the screen time you permit, or how you spend your days?  Beyond break, how would identifying the values you want to pass on to your children affect your decisions about their extracurriculars, the school you choose for them, or your own emotions and reactions to their behavior?
Lastly, if your children are old enough to articulate their thoughts (perhaps five-years-old or so for this example), ask them what they think your values are.  What do they think you want most for them?  What do they think you care about most? Our actions speak louder than our intentions; they are already learning your values.  If they're honest with you and you're open to it (for me it has stung a little!), the conversation can be really interesting. 
Wishing everyone a holiday filled with sparkling laughter, cozy hugs, and peace in every way.
I hope you have been experiencing our "Promise to Parents: To rethink education, making The Fulton School an extension of your home, cultivating your children's capabilities and character to best equip them for the future."  We look forward to hearing your responses to our Parent Survey, but most importantly, we hope you continue to enroll your children here, providing them with the environment and relationships we cultivate.
It is almost re-enrollment time. As we begin preparations for the 2023-24 school year, everything we plan hinges on who is returning--from class sizes, sections and program offerings to faculty contracts, athletics, and supplemental programs like After Care.  Our community thrives on relationships that teach, learn, challenge, and support, but at the same time we are also a business with employees to take care of, fiscal responsibilities to anticipate, deadlines to meet, and commitments to honor.   
We are trying to make re-enrollment as convenient as possible for you, so the process will be entirely online this year.  Stephanie Coulter, our Director of Enrollment, will be sending out the details and links early next week.  Please watch for her email!
We are grateful for your trust and your sacrifice as you make the annual decision to honor us with your child's education. As always, if you have any questions or concerns at all, please let me know; there are no dumb questions or unimportant concerns in my book.
Thank you to everyone who filled out our Parent Pulse survey.  We are grateful for your feedback. 
Out of our 130 households, 42% completed the survey.  Of those respondents, 67% were Lower School parents, 28% were Upper School parents, and 5% were parents with both Lower and Upper Schoolers.  
What do we do with the survey ratings and comments? The quantitative data is collected, organized and then compared to previous years -- we're looking for trends or dips. Several administrative team members do a read-through of the individual surveys (it is not our practice to share the surveys directly with faculty members). The admins then create task lists so that we can proactively follow up on comments and/or suggestions.  Some information/suggestions are extremely specific and easy to tackle immediately (like adding social media posts to our Tuesday Memo for those not on Facebook/Instagram). On the opposite end of the spectrum is the higher level, more theoretical feedback, which takes time to affect and influence culture/practices.  I will handle any curricular-specific or student-specific feedback with more nuance.  I may reach out to some of you to hear more about what you're thinking or to clarify our understanding. 
I will also pass the positive feedback on to teachers and staff.  Our programs are always a work in progress (this year more so than others), but we all bloom when we know our hard work is recognized and appreciated.  
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Please know that I always welcome your observations and concerns--but you don't have to wait until the next survey. Email, call, or stop by anytime!
On the recent Parent Pulse Survey, a few of you shared some curiosity about the Board of Trustees’ perspective on the union of the schools and the next steps.  I wanted to answer those questions here. 

The Board's duties are threefold:
  • To establish and protect the mission
  • To manage the financial viability of the school
  • To support the Head of School
The responsibility of the Board does not lie in the day-to-day running of the school. Their sole responsibility is to hold the school in trust and respect of past generations, and more importantly, to ensure the future of the school for generations to come. 
When The Fulton School at St. Albans moved to the Chesterfield Day School campus, we combined forces, merging the trustees from both schools. In fact, the new Board became 50% former Chesterfield and 50% former St. Albans, both among trustees and among officers.  Although both schools' missions and by-laws were very similar, the Board finalized semantics and details before the June 1 "go" date. There have been many behind-the-scenes business transactions, notably selling St. Albans campus and moving those funds into the reserves for the future of our school. 

The current focus of our Board is to continue to support the reunion of the two schools and to establish, with the administration, conservative enrollment and financial objectives. Currently, we are working to institute a new endowment to secure the financial future of the school. Governance for the endowment will be in place soon, and we anticipate the first deposit within the next 60 days.  

Please don't hesitate to reach out if you have further questions -- [email protected] or call 314-469-6622 ext. 0222.