Ross Charting a Turbulent Course

Changes in school leadership, curriculum stoke parents’ frustration
The Ross School
Recent changes in curriculum and administration at the Ross School, that have both parents and students confused led to a meeting on Jan. 27 with Courtney Ross, the school’s founder and primary benefactor. Morgan McGivern

    The Ross School is known for its innovative academic model, its gorgeous campuses, and its holistic approach to education, along with its hefty tuition. The “Ross community,” as it is known, consisting of faculty, staff, parents, and students, is charged with the task of being the school’s shareholders and its ambassadors.
    But as of late, there have been rumblings that this ideal may be fraying at the edges.
    First came a decision at the beginning of the school year to designate Mandarin a mandatory language, followed later in the year by the resignations of several key leaders, including the head of school, Michele Claeys. But it was a meeting on Jan. 27 with Courtney Ross, who founded the school 20 years ago and has funded it since then, that had parents and other members of the Ross community more confused than ever about the direction of the school.
    “The meeting was interesting,” said Dominic LaPierre, a Ross parent of three. “I expect everyone — the administration, parents, teachers, and students, as well as the board members — left disappointed.”
    “Every time I ask a question, it’s greeted with avoidance,” Joe Schrank, another school parent, said. “It’s been off-putting.”
    Some parents interviewed said that the problems at the private school, with campuses in East Hampton and Bridgehampton, began when Mrs. Ross’s New York City charter school, the Ross Global Academy, was shuttered by the New York City Department of Education last year for its poor performance, and attention was turned once again to the original model.
    Several new initiatives have been put into the works at Ross, including a new Ross Academy focus on science, math, and technology, and a decision to move the sixth grade back to the Lower School campus in Bridgehampton to make room for the growing upper grades.
    In August, a directive was issued to make Mandarin a required language, with a degree of fluency to be achieved by graduation, and the relegation of Spanish to elective status. The Ross School has of late become a boarding school as well, with many students from Asia, but Mrs. Ross maintained in an interview with The Star in September that this was not the reason for the new language requirement.
    “China’s economy is booming,” she said. “It’s predicted that their economy will surpass ours in 10 years. And it’s many people’s opinion — not just mine, but the State Department, the leaders of this country — that students with a degree of fluency in Mandarin will possess a skill set that is highly valued. They will be able to build bridges with other nations as a result.”
    A student-generated petition arrived at The Star several weeks ago, with the names of those who signed it torn off, although it was estimated by parents interviewed that over 50 percent of the high school’s students lent their signatures to the document. The students expressed excitement over some of the new initiatives announced recently by the Ross administration, including the new science and math academy, but they also recognized “some flaws” in the school’s proposal to have its students master three languages.
    “If the goal of the initiative is to have students be trilingual upon graduation, [. . .] a more beneficial way of execution would be to offer a broader spectrum of language courses instead of eliminating options,” the petition read.
    While curriculum was one of the subjects discussed at the meeting with Mrs. Ross on Jan. 27, more parents were reportedly concerned over the general operation of the school. In addition to Ms. Claeys giving notice, Andi and Bill O’Hearn, the director of college counseling and the middle school director, respectively, also tendered their resignations.
    “When your leadership implodes and you say, ‘But look, we’re a world-class tennis academy,’ it’s all icing and no cake,” Mr. Schrank said.
    Parents have also expressed their frustration at the inability to get answers. “It’s developed into a culture of secrecy,” Mr. Schrank said.
    A letter from parents was hand-delivered to Mrs. Ross in mid-January, congratulating her on the 20th anniversary of the school before launching into a list of concerns about recent “unsettling events.”
    “A number of esteemed faculty members have either left campus, given notice, or are currently seeking other employment opportunities,” the letter states. “The result is a widespread level of confusion and lack of confidence within the Ross community.”
    Other points in the letter included suggestions to re-evaluate the school’s governing structure “with the focus on greater transparency,” design a three-year strategic plan, and hold more meetings between the board of trustees and the Ross School community.
    Parents interviewed for this article said they felt that their concerns and questions fell on deaf ears at the Jan. 27 meeting. Dozens of parents sent e-mails to Mrs. Ross prior to the get-together, and many expected those questions and comments would be addressed in a conventional Q-and-A format.
    However, that is not what occurred. Instead, Mrs. Ross offered a half-hour talk prior to discussion. During that talk, said Patti Silver, a Ross parent and president of the school’s board of overseers, “Courtney answered every question and spoke very clearly. There’s a difference,” she said, “between questions not being answered, and not liking the answer.”
    “I’m also on the board of the Ross Institute,” Ms. Silver said. “And we read every letter, every question, every document that came in.”
    Ms. Silver acknowledged that Ms. Claeys’s announcement just prior to the December break, followed by the O’Hearns’ announcement on Jan. 1 that they were also leaving, created “a perfect storm of unrest, confusion, and the feeling that something wrong was underlying all of this.” There isn’t, she said.
    “It’s coincidental,” agreed Philip Turits, a parent with a junior and senior at Ross. Mr. Turits offered what he called a “balanced perspective,” based on his years as a Ross parent and his experience as former vice-chairman of the Hampton Day School’s board of trustees. While he acknowledged the concerns parents expressed over changes in upper level management, “there are always bumps in the road,” he said.
    “What we’re most concerned with is getting a good education for our children,” Mr. Turits said. “Lisa and I are very satisfied with the education our children have received at Ross,” he said, crediting a few “outstanding teachers that were absolutely inspirational to our kids.”
    Bill O’Hearn said that he and his wife, Andi, were offered “the chance of a lifetime” to work together in Beijing. “It’s the only reason I would leave Ross,” said the former Asian studies major and past head of school. As to the convergence of resignations in a short period of time, Mr. O’Hearn said, “I wouldn’t connect the dots to make it something more sinister than it looks.”
    “Hiring the next head of school is key to settling the waters,” he said, and Ms. Silver agreed. “Trust needs to be established. Now is not the time to vilify the leadership.”
    Mr. O’Hearn added that the administrators who attended the meeting on Jan. 27 “listened to the questions and are writing responses to be sent out by the end of the week.” Ms. Silver, Mr. Turits, and Mr. O’Hearn all said that Mrs. Ross is working on establishing better communications between parents, administration, and the board of trustees.
    A release issued by the school stated: “The Board supports the development of the international student population at Ross School as part of the learning experience for all students, and supports the administration in developing instructional programs that address the needs of individual groups of students as well as the needs of global learners.”
    “Courtney is constantly pushing the envelope as to the best way to educate our kids,” Ms. Silver said, adding, “Change is always turbulent.”


Comments

Well, the writing was on the walls. As a former Ross School parent, I noted many of these concerns, specifically the lack of a "go-to" person and the fact that for the 9th grade students, those entering the finals were facing a 77% failing rate. This fell on deaf ears. Additionally, those in some high-profile administrative positions did not have the education necessary to fulfill their job roles adequately. One administrator actually spoke to her amount of years' experience that supported her abilities. The problem with that logic is she was unable to actually present documentation that she had any formal training in her directorship area to provide parents and students with the support and comprehension that is needed. There is somewhat of an "old boys network" that seems to protect those that truly need their educative backgrounds presented to instill parents' confidence at this point, to pay the hefty fees in order to attend school. Further, no one really knows the political climate "in 10 years", let only two or three. The Ross School needs to eat a bit of humble pie and face it's critisms head on.
I must say I feel very bad for all you parents who send your children to private schools and are not happy.
We pulled our children out of Ross after witnessing three years of disgraceful ineptitude on the part of the administration as well as enduring freely expressed animosity toward any parent who dares to question them. Our children tested a full year behind their grade upon leaving the Ross school (where they were given the highest marks year after year) and had to work very hard to catch up to national expectations. We are so thankful that we made the move early enough to get our kids back on track and save their education. We regret the money we spent on Ross but not nearly as much as we regret not reading the writing on the wall sooner. After witnessing our children transform from totally bored and unchallenged people into engaged students expressing a genuine love of learning, I couldn't help but share this cautionary tale with the rest of you staying behind holding on to the dream.