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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Trying to work with Highland Hall

Below is an email exchange with Hasib Saiiefendic, board member then and currently board president at Highland Hall. These exchanges transpired in August of 2001, and came on the heels of Highland Hall lying about a signed "contract" with teacher Wendy Wilkins. By this time, the school governance had broken down and the board of directors was infiltrating the college of teachers. Here's the exchange which demonstrates how Highland Hall brushed off serious concerns from parents - even after harming their children. (Mr. Saliefendic's comments are indented).

August, 2001

Hello Hasib,

Thank you for responding.

The makeup of the Board and College has been pretty much as it is now since I have been involved, and as far as I know, the Parent Handbook is not the "charter" or any type of legal document which governs the composition and/or operation of the Board or the College of Teachers (but I'll need to look into that to be sure). I have always understood the Parent Handbook to be a parent directory and "quick reference" to the operations of the school, as I am sure most have.

Yes, I'm not sure either. You may want to read (and I'll also have to re-read) a book called "Economic Explorations" which describes the structure and charters of many contemporary Waldorf Schools throughout the US and around the world. It specifically describes the function of the College of Teachers and Board of Directors - and a similar body referred to as the Board of Trustees. It is quite clearly stated, as I recall (and I will acknowledge that it's been ten years since I've read it) that the makeup of the College of Teachers in each of these schools is intended to be exactly as our parent handbook states - ONLY teachers who are well established in the school, and almost always a significant Anthroposophical background is stated as a requirement. This is the very element that distinguishes a Waldorf school from any other school and I will get to this point a little later. There is no doubt in each of these examples that the College of Teachers is intended to be the body that runs the school. THAT is precisely what is wrong with Highland Hall and why all these horrible mistakes are being made!

It appears that as the College and Board evolved, noone noticed (except Pete! :-) ) that the descriptions in the Parent Handbook had become a bit outdated.

Yes, I've read Animal Farm, I know how ideas can evolve.

I appreciate you bringing it to my attention, and I'll make sure that they get updated.

Hasib, please forgive me if I remark that this is exactly the type of smug response I (and perhaps others) have come to expect from Highland Hall. You must not be paying attention if you think you can brush me off like this. I'm pointing out a serious issue here - the contamination of the two governing bodies of our school. If you don't understand the issue well enough to take it seriously, please direct my message to someone who does. And, for your information, I am not anywhere near being alone about this concern. I have been asked privately by staff and faculty members at Highland Hall to PLEASE address this issue. I'm addressing it and I will continue to address it regardless of whether Highland Hall changes the parent handbook - as if that weren't a ridiculous solution. You insult me, the parent body, the faculty and administrators with this arrogance. It occurs to me that this type of arrogance may be what happened with the "signed contract" too. When Highland Hall makes a mistake, does it just invent documentation to cover themselves?

It is my understanding that several teachers who have left Highland Hall have cited this very issue as their reason for leaving. This isn't Pete trying to nit-pick the parent handbook. I can assure you I've got better things to do with my time than to waste it trying to correct typos. This issue is, in fact, at the very core of the problems Highland Hall has been experiencing - whether or not you, personally, wish to take the effort to understand or acknowledge it.

In my experience as a Board member, I feel that the school has been better served by the Board and College working so closely. Far from it being a mistake, it has been tremendously helpful to have the benefit of their insight and participation in discussions as well as decisions.

Absolutely, the College and Board should be working closely together. This cooperation is provided for in the statement from the handbook (I won't call it the Charter for now) "The College of Teachers also has ONE NON-VOTING ADVISIORY SEAT on the Board." Hasib, you are on the Board, so I shouldn't have to be the one to explain this to you - but I will do it anyway since, apparently, nobody at Highland Hall remembers how a real Waldorf School is supposed to work. So, for your information (you may want to write this down) here is why the College seat on the Board is a non-voting advisory seat - and why there should be NO Board members on the College.

The College has no reason to vote on the Board - they are supposed to be running the school. They DIRECT the Board to do what they, the College, needs to have done. One of the Board's primary purposes is to try to achieve the goals of the College of Teachers in a real-world way. Here, once again, is the statement that confirms this (I've made extra copies in case work has already begun to obliterate it from the records):

"The College of Teachers is the main pedagogical and administrative body of the school. Members are teachers of long standing who intend to carry the present and future well-being of the school as a primary responsibility. Meetings are every Thursday and decisions are made on the basis of consensus. The group makes decisions on hiring, staff development, the curriculum, student affairs, and overall school policy. Day to day operations are delegated to specific committees composed of faculty, staff, Board, and/or parent volunteers."

Hasib, please pay attention: The College and Board have two distinct and totally different functions. The College is creating the INTENTIONS, the Board is producing the ACTIONS. The Board is unqualified to create the INTENTIONS, and the College is unqualified to produce the ACTIONS. That's why there are two bodies and THAT'S why they are supposed to be separate. Unfortunately, when Board members are on the College, it hinders the process of creating intentions because the intentions are filtered through the reality of having to produce the actions. That is why a teacher who is a "team player" is suddenly more desirable than a teacher who might prove to be problematic among administrative circles. The College of Teachers have a special, spiritual function to "carry the present and future well-being of the school as a primary responsibility" - and it is a huge responsibility. I'm sure they all take this responsibility seriously. It is absolutely essential for a properly functioning Waldorf School to work in this way or some way similar to this.
Moving on to the Board - Here, once again, is what I've saved out of the fire:

"The Board of Directors is the legal entity of the school. All financial and legal issues are the ultimate responsibility of the Board. The Board is comprised of parents, teachers, alumni and friends of the school. Each year the president of the Parent Association is an ad-hoc voting member of the Board. The College of Teachers also has ONE NON-VOTING ADVISIORY SEAT on the Board."

Anyone who's ever met a Waldorf teacher knows how (if I might make a generalization here) unprepared they are to make decisions about financial and legal issues. Indeed, if the separation of these two bodies was in place during the events that happened recently, the witnesses to the events may have gone immediately to the Board - as there were obviously legal issues. The fact that the distinction between the Board and College has been obliterated (I describe this as the Tashlan effect), may have caused the conditions under which the Board (who would probably have been best equipped to deal with what happened) didn't learn about the events until way too late in the process. Again, the College and the Board have separate and distinct functions. These bodies are supposed to be separate. In non-dysfunctional Waldorf Schools, they ARE separate.

If you really want to re-write the handbook - you might look closely at this section:

"When vacancies appear on the Board, members nominate candidates. These potential members are discussed and those whom the Board would like to have join them are then invited to attend three meetings. The candidate can then decide if he/she would like to become a member."

Maybe there should be someone besides the Board choosing the makeup of the Board. How in the world could that be a healthy policy?

While I agree that the Board and College have a lot of serious work ahead, I do not see how arbitrarily changing the Board and College makeup to match the description in the Parent Handbook would lead to the healing and positive improvements we all want.

Yes, I can see that there are a few things you don't see (no offense meant). I don't fault you for not seeing the problem at first glance. But now that I have described it in detail, PLEASE, Hasib, try to see it - and ask around. Of course there will be some people who won't like to give up their seats in both places. It's like asking politicians to impose voluntary term limits. But Highland Hall makes the claim that it is a Waldorf school. That description carries a responsibility to work in a certain way. It takes more than beeswax and fancy crayons to make it what it REALLY is supposed to be. Don't take my word for it - ask some of the teachers of long standing what they think - they are far wiser than I am. Let them read this letter and let them tell you that what I have described is not the way it's supposed to be.

In my opinion, a more responsible approach would include honest inquiry into what is working for us and what is not, then use that as a basis for considering what specific changes are appropriate. I already see this process in motion with regard to yard safety, as well as other areas.

OK, and of whom would I make this inquiry? The people already in the system? I don't think what we have now is working... do you? Does anybody? It is painfully obvious that it ISN'T working and hasn't been for several years. Is it responsible to pretend it's working when it obviously isn't? And let's get real, Hasib... Yard safety? There is WAY more wrong with Highland Hall than yard safety. Why don't you poll all the parents and ask them if they think the issue we have all been so upset about is yard safety? Again, you don't seem to be paying attention. This crisis we're going through has absolutely NOTHING to do with yard safety and EVERYTHING to do with how the situation was handled after the incidents occurred. I think a more responsible approach would be to look at what is actually wrong, make some hard decisions, and fix it. I am doing you a tremendous service by spending my time every night describing to you exactly what's wrong. You can continue trying to discredit me and insult me or you can pay attention and consider that perhaps I really know something about what I am talking about.

I'll let you know what I find out about the "charter" question.

I don't think it really matters - if you can change the handbook, you can change the charter too. If you don't see the truth in what's written in the handbook, there's no need for a charter either. We seem to have developed a dynamic system of government that doesn't need to follow any rules. That's why we are in chaos.

Pete Karaiskos

When the new Parent Handbook was released, I had a look - Subtle changes alright... just like Animal Farm:

Hello Friends,

As plans for our inter-school communications network are apparently moving slowly, I would like to invite everyone who isn't already on this email list to join. If you know of anyone who might be interested in discussing political or other important issues of Highland Hall, please have them email me so that I can add them to this list. I especially invite Board members, College members, administrators, staff members and faculty members to join the many parents and friends of Highland Hall who are, through their courage and by their participation, becoming involved in the often difficult work of ensuring the best possible education for their children and the children who will follow them. If you would like to address the people on this mailing as a group, use the "Reply All" button on your email software or just reply to my emails and indicate that your response should be made public - so that I can forward it to the others who have expressed an interest in this subject matter. If you would like to be removed from this list, please contact me and I will remove your email address.

I've just received the new "Community Directory". Naturally, since I recently had discussions with Hasib about the school organizations, and was advised that the wording would be "updated", I immediately looked up the new wording that describes the College of Teachers (page 24 in the directory). Today, I would like to address this issue and the impact that the new wording has. Fortunately, I have preserved the old wording so that we might make a comparison and discuss the implications of this apparently "minor" wording change.



The College of Teachers is the main pedagogical and administrative body of the school. Members are teachers of long standing who intend to carry the present and future well-being of the school as a primary responsibility. Meetings are every Thursday and decisions are made on the basis of consensus. The group makes decisions on hiring, staff development, the curriculum, student affairs, and overall school policy. Day to day operations are delegated to specific committees composed of faculty, staff, Board, and/or parent volunteers."


"THE COLLEGE (Note - the words "of Teachers" has been omitted in the heading)

The College of Teachers is the main pedagogical and administrative body of the school. Members are colleagues of long standing who intend to carry the present and future well-being of the school as a primary responsibility. Meetings are every Thursday and decisions are made on the basis of consensus. The group makes decisions on hiring, staff development, the curriculum, student affairs, and overall school policy. Day to day operations are delegated to specific committees composed of faculty, staff, Board, and/or parent volunteers."

Amazingly, the wording is almost the same the only differences being that THE COLLEGE OF TEACHERS is now referred to as THE COLLEGE, and the word "teacher" has been replaced with "colleague". While the Animal Farm analogy instantly comes to my mind, let's all take a moment to consider if these changes are really significant and important to us and to our children. After all, what are the responsibilities of the "College" and how do they affect us and our children? We need look no further than the above statement: " The group makes decisions on hiring, staff development, the curriculum, student affairs, and overall school policy."

So, let's take these one at a time. Why is it important, after all, that only teachers be involved in hiring decisions? If we trust and support the premise that the teachers know what is best for our children, then they MUST have ultimate control over hiring decisions, whether it be teachers, staff or administrative personnel. I fully believe they should be ADVISED by others regarding the filling of non-teaching positions but that the voting privilege on the hiring decisions, especially the hiring of teachers, must ultimately be based on what the College of Teachers (not the Colleagues of Teachers) deems is best for our children.

I'm not sure what making decisions on "staff development" entails. If this refers to the development and training of teaching staff, then do we want non-teacher involvement here? How about other staff - after school care staff, for example. The people involved in this are with some of our children many hours a day. Do we want them to deal with our children in accordance with a method that has been discussed with them by our teachers? Of course. Should it be the burden of the College of Teachers to monitor this activity? Of course not - that's why we have the "day to day operations delegated to specific committees".

Let's move on to the bigger responsibility of the "College" - curriculum. Do we want non-teachers involved in decisions regarding curriculum? I have to be quite bold here and say that I DO NOT WANT, NOR WILL I ACCEPT ANY non-Waldorf-trained "colleague" making even the slightest decision or having the slightest influence over curriculum. The thought that this could happen (or may be happening right now) leaves a horrible taste in my mouth - and I am absolutely against the politically corrected or modernized revisions of traditional Waldorf curriculum that I suspect non-teachers might want to inject into the curriculum. Frankly, I don't trust non-teachers to make these decisions. Waldorf teachers undergo intensive training that is very specific and there is no way to overemphasize the importance of the curriculum in a Waldorf school. If decisions on curriculum need to be made - Waldorf Teachers of LONG STANDING should make them. Colleagues of Teachers don't have this training and should never be placed in a position where they could vote against the better understanding of the trained Waldorf teachers.

Decisions about student affairs should, once again, be made by a College of TEACHERS not COLLEAGUES of Teachers. Teachers are most vested in and are specifically trained to have the best understanding of student affairs. Again, no "colleague" needs to or should have a voting influence in making these decisions.

"Overall school policy" - What a tremendous responsibility - making decisions about the overall school policy. There is, and always will be, a conflict here. The battle lines are clearly drawn. There are the teachers - whose primary interest is the well-being and education of the students. Then, there are the non-teachers (OK, we could call them "colleagues") whose primary interest is the well-being of the school. These can be very different points of view. Is one more noble than the other? No. They are both very valid political views - and both necessary - so that the school may run properly and the students may get the environment and education they deserve. The old community directory had the balance between these two political views correct. The College of Teachers, of course, represents the interests of the individual students. Others, perhaps the Board of Directors, have the well being of the school and the overall student population as their primary focus. This is exactly how it should be. And yet, setting the overall school policy was clearly granted to the College of Teachers. Unfortunately, when we allow the infiltration of the College of Teachers by "Colleagues", we upset that balance. When the balance is upset, the individual students tend to suffer.

Here's an example of how this works: In the past, it has been at the discretion of the teacher to decide how many students the teacher feels comfortable having in their class. Teachers support this understanding in that a teacher who is taking more children than they feel comfortable with is likely to be ineffective and the individual child's education is bound to suffer, or worse yet, the teacher may be overwhelmed, able to handle the pressure and either do an inadequate job or even leave the school. However, people who put the interest of the school first tend not to support this view and have been known to try to convince teachers to take more students than they feel comfortable taking. Their reasoning is that the classroom costs the same to operate whether full or half full and therefore needs to be full. From an economic viewpoint, they are absolutely correct. After all, higher enrollment means more funds for more activities and a stronger school which, overall, benefits all students.

Both are valid viewpoints - one benefits the individual student, one benefits the school. Weakening either viewpoint disturbs the balance. We must be clear here, that by simply changing a couple of words, we have weakened the College of Teachers and have disturbed this balance (which, by the way, began several years ago). The past few years of problems attest to the validity of my assessment of this issue.

It is clear to me that the wording has changed to accommodate the current makeup of the College of Teachers. This is a fresh black eye for Highland Hall. I implore everyone to please consider this issue carefully and to insist that the make-up of the College of Teachers be restored to "teachers of long standing who intend to carry the present and future well-being of the school as a primary responsibility." These are the only persons who should have voting privileges on the College of Teachers. They are the ones we have placed our trust in and have trusted with the well being of our children. There are places for people who haven't attained the level of teacher of long standing but they clearly don't belong in the College of Teachers regardless of what the new Community Directory has been revised to declare. They may and should do the valuable work of "Day to day operations are delegated to specific committees composed of faculty, staff, Board, and/or parent volunteers."

As a final note, I'd like to point out that I, too, could be considered a "colleague of long standing" at Highland Hall. Under the current qualifications, even I would qualify to become a member of the Colleagues of Teachers - especially as (unlike teacher) there are no qualifications to be a colleague. If the thought of this makes you uncomfortable (as I would hope it might), consider that perhaps the qualifications have become too relaxed and that the once high standards for this, the most important governing body of the school, must be restored. Additionally, there is no mention of what percentage of "colleagues" can be represented in "the College". Could there be a College of Teachers with more "colleagues" than teachers? Perhapse without ANY teachers? According to the above definition, there could. I find this particularly disturbing. Could we see next year's wording change make it the College of Colleagues? Please, don't take my word for any of this. Talk with teachers around the school and get their viewpoint - especially the teachers that are on the College of Teachers. Don't let the changing of a word turn into the changing of the guard. Let's all support the highest ideals of Waldorf education by speaking openly and freely whenever we feel they are being tarnished.

Blessings and peace,

Pete Karaiskos