The Year in Review, 2008-09

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Q&A with Lark Palma, head of school

How would you rate the year overall?

This was a great year. Catlin Gabel students and their families have been well served by dynamic, engaged teachers. Students at every level inspire us to give them our all. Our programs are strong and growing stronger. Even in this economy we are thriving.

 What achievements stand out?

Where do I begin? I am so proud of our students and teachers. If you read the monthly “Congrats!” column you will remember that our athletes, scientists, mathematicians, engineers, poets, writers, chess players, linguists, and musicians took home numerous trophies and prizes including division and statewide championships, international best of fair honors, scholarships, and the honor of having their work published. In addition to awards and titles, our students and teachers have been dedicated community service volunteers, from gleaning for the Food Bank to running a homework club for low-income children. Catlin Gabel shines thanks to the decent and impressive way our kids conduct themselves in the greater Portland community. Those favorable impressions are so important to our reputation.

How does the college landscape look for seniors?

Our seniors are heading off to an array of colleges including big universities and small liberal arts colleges, both near and far. On average our seniors applied to about eight colleges each and had multiple offers of admission. They weighed their options carefully before deciding where to enroll (a few are still waiting to hear about wait list situations). We’re proud of the class of 2009 – and proud that even in this most competitive year for college admissions, our students were often admitted to very selective colleges at rates higher than the national admit rates those colleges post.

 What are some academic high points of the year?

The daily teaching and learning is something to behold. The combined Lower, Middle, and Upper School experiential week is a great example of the school improving on something that’s already great. We christened a new Upper School science lab that enhances our program and gives students and teachers room to explore. Each division has a lot to brag about, so I’ll just give you one example of classroom projects or programs that are new this year.

Kindergarten students spent three months exploring everything about water including the physics of how liquid flows, water cycles, and conservation. Their study was inspired by the sustainable water feature they helped design.

Second graders visited Champoeg State Heritage Area three times during the school year to observe the seasons and deepen each child’s understanding of the historical significance of this state landmark. This intensive study of pioneer life and Willamette Valley ecology readied students for their year-end three-day, two-night class trip in late May.

Sixth grade literature circles focused on gender themes. Students selected one book from a list of age-appropriate works and formed small reading and discussion groups based on their choice. After becoming fully immersed in the topic, students made videos, posted them online, and invited 6th graders from other schools to comment. The integration of literature, gender studies, and technology led to exciting conversations about boys and girls and gender identity.

For the first time, the Upper School required all seniors to do a senior project. Previously, many students did senior projects but they were optional. Members of the class of 2009 spent the month of May interning, volunteering, and conducting research at law firms. They wrote daily blogs reporting their progress that have been such fun to read. Check them out on insideCatlin. Parents and alumni have been very helpful in connecting our seniors with great projects, and we hope to expand on those connections as the program evolves.

What were some of the tougher moments for you this year?

I was really worried that the economic crisis would cause hardship for families. I continue to worry about that. I know the school will survive this downturn, but I am truly concerned that our tuition will price people out of the school. I’m so pleased we have been able to offer financial aid to so many students. Another low point was the swine flu scare. Our students’ health and safety are always at the forefront of our decisions, so the potential for a pandemic created a lot of anxiety. We’re out of the woods for now, but we will be on extra alert for months to come. Another anxiety producer for me, personally, was the week we closed school due to weather. I err on the side of caution — it’s never worth risking life and limb to attend school, but when the snow was melting in my Northeast Portland neighborhood it was hard to imagine that things were as bad as they were on campus. I wish I could have enjoyed that unexpected break more and not have worried about how much we were inconveniencing working parents and how we would make up for the missed instructional days.

Is school enrollment stable for next year?

Our enrollment for next year is in great shape. Re-enrollment is strong schoolwide. Some families who thought they may have to leave because of monetary constraints are able to stay because we offered financial aid. We were able to provide enough financial aid to keep our community together. New enrollment is excellent. Fabulous new families are joining us in all divisions. We had wonderful candidates to choose from and strong wait pools. Word of mouth is so important in attracting new students, so I’d like to thank our community members for their role in promoting the school.

You talked and wrote earlier in the year about streamlining programs and belt-tightening with an eye toward long-term financial sustainability. How is the school saving money?

Every division and department head cut their budgets. Teachers were very helpful in thinking of creative ways to cut back. Small savings across the board really add up. Some of the big cost-saving measures include reducing our energy consumption enough to offset utility rate increases, postponing technology upgrades, extending the lives of the buses because they are so well maintained, purchasing less expensive paper for our letterhead and envelopes, cutting printing and design costs for the Caller magazine, posting jobs online instead of paying for print ads, and buying fewer new athletic team uniforms than scheduled. We have reduced our overall employee numbers by 4%, which amounts to a $400,000 savings. We have restructured slightly to use the talent we have in different ways. We are well positioned to meet financial challenges.

How are things going with respect to environmental sustainability?

We are using less electricity, natural gas, and water, and sending less waste to the landfills. Our annual combined savings as of mid May were $13,780, and our avoided costs were $15,881. Also, our traffic count is down 6.5% compared with last year.

How has fundraising gone in this economy?

I am grateful for the generosity of Catlin Gabel community members in a financially precarious year. Some donors have given more generously this year because they know others in the community had to cut back on giving. The Annual Fund is close to reaching goal, with just 10 percent to go before the end of the fiscal year, June 30. Just a few more people need to step up and we’ll make it! Now more than ever it is essential that we hit our goal. The Rummage Sale made goal, and the special appeal for financial aid at the Gambol met goal. The Gambol proceeds were less than we had hoped for this year, but given the economy it makes sense that auction spending and corporate sponsorships would be down. We are making headway with the campaign for endowment and the arts facility. We have scaled back our timing expectations but we are still talking to prospective donors and keeping the needs of the school on people’s minds. Our priorities have not changed. We remain focused on the vision of providing long-term fiscal strength for the school, investing in our teachers and programs, and making sure Catlin Gabel is accessible to our students.

How’s your new hip?

I love it! I’m almost ready to hula-hoop. The worst part of the surgery was being stuck at home recovering. Getting back to work is a tonic.

What are you excited about coming up?

Our initiatives in global education, sustainability, and urban leadership are developing nicely, and we will continue to refine these programs this summer, next year, and beyond. I am certain that we will continue to build momentum for the endowment campaign and the Middle and Upper School arts building. The IT and communications offices are working together to launch a new website this summer, which is exciting and will improve how we communicate with each other. I look forward to every year. When the children grow a foot during the summer, discover new passions, read a pile of books, travel, explore, play, and come back ready for another year of learning – that excites me.