One of my favorite privileges as head of school is handing out diplomas at graduation. However, this year it will be even more special because I will be handing a diploma to my own daughter. Of all that I can give her, I believe very few things could compete with this diploma.
A Westminster diploma signifies prestige and honor for those who receive it.
It is a promise they are part of something greater than themselves.
It is a recognition that deep inside them is something of great worth.
The Prestige of a Westminster Diploma
As a graduate of Westminster, my daughter and her classmates will enjoy a certain degree of prestige. After all, they will have attended a school where graduates average a 29 on the ACT; they will have studied logic and rhetoric; they will have written and defended a thesis; they will have read Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno, Plutarch’s Lives, and the Federalist and Anti-federalist Papers ; they will have studied Latin since third grade; and they will have learned history and literature through the Harkness method, which will have forced them to go beyond memorizing facts to develop their own opinions about the issues they have confronted.
In short, they will have developed what David Brooks, author of The Road to Character, calls “resume virtues.” Saying this with confidence about our graduating class marks a milestone in our history as a school. What once was a hope is now a reality. Students who excel at Westminster can expect to be awarded with scholarships and an opportunity to compete for admission at the best universities in the country. The school once called “Tiny Westminster” has grown up academically and athletically to demonstrate the remarkable worth of a Westminster diploma.I also believe Westminster is also doing some quality work in the arts and there is every reason to believe that our diploma will soon speak to the artistic abilities and aesthetic sensibilities of our graduates.
As I write this, I am reminded of the often unheralded work that goes on every day in the lower grades that provides the foundation on which our graduates stand. The other day I heard one young woman in the current senior class say, “Milton is a great writer, and I have enjoyed reading Paradise Lost, but he is wrong about the Fall. It wasn’t just the woman’s fault.” While her point was to defend an interpretation of Milton, what I heard was a testimony to the quality of education she had received when learning to read thirteen years ago in kindergarten. When Lower School parents ask if I think the work is worth it, I ask them to come take a look at a Harkness discussion. Yes, Miss Pless, Mrs. Cotten, Mr. Cox, and Mr. Ritch do an extraordinary job, but their work stands or falls on the work of the Lower School teachers. The prestige of a Westminster diploma testifies to the day-by-day commitment to classical Christian education in all the thirteen grades of our school.
The Honor of a Westminster Diploma
David Brooks points out that “resume virtues” are less important than what he refers to as “eulogy virtues.” He writes, ”The eulogy virtues are deeper. They are the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being–whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”
In the end, this is what a classical and Christian education offers students. We teach them to think from a Christian perspective; we surround them with a Christian community; and we use a classical approach that engages all aspects of their soul. Our goal is not simply to qualify them for the college they are called to attend, but to prepare them to serve wherever they go. That is why we always have our seniors do the Upper School tours, and why when I want to help parents see the value of a Westminster diploma I just arrange a meeting for them with one of our seniors. These seniors speak intelligently, work hard, and readily admit their own faults. Not perfectly and not all the time. But enough of the time that I believe the honor of the Westminster diploma has begun to speak as loudly as its prestige.
If the Westminster diploma stood for prestige and honor, we would have accomplished something very valuable, but there is more to it still. The Westminster diploma is a promise to our graduates that they will always be valued members of this community. By graduating from Westminster, they have become an integral part of a larger story that is being written on our corner of Cahaba Valley Road. And I think this is something our graduates understand. I love watching them come back from college to ask Mr. Herring for more advice, to discuss what they are learning with Mr. Ritch, to share old stories with Coach Butler or Coach Fitzgerald, or just to stand in the atrium and laugh about some of the decisions they made in high school.
As I hand our graduates their diplomas, I pray that they are well prepared for the next step in their journey, but more importantly I pray they know if they ever lose their way, they can always come back. Most of our graduates will experience an awakening after they leave here. It may come when they learn to know God as more of a friend than a concept. It may come when they confront the depths of their own sinfulness. It may come when they begin to realize their particular calling in life. Whatever the form, when this awakening happens, I pray that our students are pleasantly surprised. I pray that deep inside they find something more than they thought was there. That more is the real stuff of a Westminster diploma.
These are some of the reasons I love handing out diplomas. They all attest to the great value of that simple document. But, of course, the question of value has two sides. Even if it is a great value, I suppose it is fair to ask if the cost is worth the benefit.
The Essential Tensions of Westminster
Are we paying too much for a Westminster education? I must admit it is hard for me to answer this question because classical education is my calling. It is a calling shared by our faculty, our students, and our community. I talk to teachers who strive relentlessly to fine tune their approaches and further benefit the students. I listen to students express their resolve to give more effort to meet the demands of our curriculum. I hear parents explain why they took a second job. I hear of grandparents who are willing to give a significant portion of their wealth to help Westminster serve students better. We are a community with a passion for classical Christian education, so I must admit the question of cost sometimes seems difficult.
All the same, I get it. Each of us has a limit, and at a some point each of us has to ask if Westminster is asking too much of us. How are we to gauge this?
In a Harkness discussion, students will sometimes stop trying to prove one side or the other and will instead critique the prompt itself. It is always fascinating to see. At some point, students learn to question questions. Perhaps we should do the same here. Instead of asking if we are paying too much, maybe we should ask whether what we pay reflects what we value. What if we listed the essentials upon which to build the best school we can possibly imagine? The items on that list would need to exist side by side, in tension, without compromising one another. The work of our board would be developing a budget that could balance these essential tensions. What would that budget look like? Now we have the right question.
Below you will see a chart of what I think these essential tensions are. Our budget is really an attempt to keep these tensions in balance. If even one of them is set at variance with the others, we risk hindering the ability of our school to accomplish its mission.
We ended the 2014-15 school year with $185,665 in the bank. In 2007 we owed Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church $450,000. Our cash position has improved by over $600,000 in seven years.
Our commitment to financial stewardship is paying off.
To really appreciate what God is doing at Westminster we need to understand a decision the board made seven years ago. I think it was courageous. Many people would have wanted them just to find places to cut costs, but $450,000 was at least a 20% shortfall. Moreover, the deficit was caused by attrition. Too many parents were not staying through the Upper School because they were failing to see the value of a Westminster diploma. If value was the problem, cutting costs would have endangered the mission. And what could they cut? Since teacher salaries and benefits were 70% of the budget, it was the only working variable. However, cutting the number of teachers would certainly have further decreased the value of the school, increased attrition, and increased the deficit. Instead, they chose to believe that if they continued to invest in good teachers, the school would grow, parents would be willing to pay more, and Westminster would find stability. Their courage was soon rewarded.
Westminster did not need drastic growth; it needed moderate growth. It needed growth that could be obtained by adding forty-eight kindergarteners each year, filling empty seats in the other grades, and improving retention. All of this the Lord provided and more.
Every two weeks Barbara Griffith, our Directer of Finance, brings me a very large check to sign—payroll. Every time I sign that check I pause. First, because it is a significant number, but also because of what it represents: seventy employees who faithfully serve our children. Hopefully, they never worry about this check bouncing. By God’s grace I no longer do.
Over the last five years, while other schools have shrunk, Westminster has grown by 34%. The perceived value of a Westminster education has increased.
We believe there are two financially significant components of our approach: our small class size and our teachers.
As you might imagine, in 2008 the board was under significant pressure to freeze teacher hires and allow class sizes to increase beyond sixteen students per class. Nevertheless, they chose to stand by their principles. It must have been tempting to take the easy fix, but every time I walk by an engaged class of students, each of them intimately known by their teachers and administrators, I am thankful for their resolve.
They also chose to continue to increase salaries. This may seem strange in light of the deficit and the national economic situation at the time, but it would have been just as strange not to reward the people who were doing the work. In the end, it is probably best to think of the increases not as raises, but as corrections. In the last five years, teachers’ salaries have increased by 15%. Keep in mind that a 15% increase means a teacher making $30,000 in 2010 is making approximately $35,000 in 2015. A 3% increase on a $30,000 salary is only a $900 increase or $75 per month, before taxes. It is, however, something, and we are finding that it matters as our salary scale has become increasingly competitive.
We know that increasing tuition by 47% in nine years is a lot, but hopefully you can see by this overall financial picture that this was essential to making Westminster what it has become.
I hope you will see three factors in the attached chart: First, every year we push ourselves to find the smallest increase possible. Second, the board is ready to be very generous with financial aid. Third, while our hands were tied seven years ago and tuition had to significantly increase, that phase is over. You can now expect tuition to more closely match general inflation.
Next year, tuition will increase by 3%.
- Kindergarten through fifth grade: $7,567
- Sixth grade through eighth grade: $8,659
- Ninth grade through twelfth grade: $10,030
Administration and Facilities
I personally feel that our administrative team and our facilities are extraordinary. At the same time, Westminster has a comparably smaller administrative team than other schools our size. Also, notice last year we absorbed the cost of the building with the smallest tuition increase that I am aware of and without negatively impacting stability.
When you consider that we maintained over $180,000 in cash reserves last year while paying bills for a new Upper School building, you can begin to see why we think God is blessing Westminster.
Strong Co-curricular Programs
In our community, there is a real and reasonable fear that we are going to allow sports to create mission drift. I know we have to earn trust, and this is going to be hard when wiser leaders than us have lost their heads for a state championship. Last year we brought home five state maps. We also had five students earn accolades from the National Merit Scholarship Program. We put on one Lower School play, two Upper School plays, and did extremely well at the Trumbauer Festival. To protect the classrooms, we currently have only one teacher also serving as a head coach. Because sports and plays are largely covered by fees, only a small percentage of tuition dollars are used on them.
Before you know it, Mr. Knowles will be calling your child’s name, and I will have the personal privilege of handing them a diploma. Thank you for seeing the value of that document. Thank you for adding value to it.
The Lord has brought us to a good place. We stand on solid footing in many ways. However, we do have ongoing initiatives to consider, so please remember your pledges for the building. Also, if you are in a place to give end-of-the-year gifts, please consider Westminster. Our science labs and parking lot are nearly complete. We need about $150,000 to finish. If you can help, we would certainly appreciate it.
Below you will find a link to reenroll or to make a donation. If the process becomes confusing along the way, please do not hesitate to email Barbara Griffith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you have any questions about Westminster, please do not hesitate to contact me at email@example.com.
Head of School
Click here to re-enroll. If applying for Financial Aid, please go directly to your personal FACTS account and apply under the Grant and Aid tab. This is our second year to use the RenWeb and FACTS system. As a reminder, FACTS will bill you an annual fee of $46 for monthly autodraft and $20 for all other payment plans. While there have been some glitches in the system, it has allowed us to avoid hiring new administrative support and has reduced our accounts receivable significantly.
Key dates to note:
- Financial aid deadline, January 7
- Reenrollment deadline, January 15
- Recommitment fees autodrafted by FACTS, January 25