By the time you read this all the cadets will be off campus, and quiet will be back for the first time since early August. An hour before the cadets finished class we hosted a question and answer session for parents interested in meeting with the Academy leadership. Questions were submitted in advance, so that we could consider our answers and begin addressing any potential issues raised.
While there was much activity last week, this blog will focus on answering those questions. My expectation is that while we only received a handful of questions, many more may be interested in the answers.
I'll start by saying thank-you to all those who submitted questions at our Parents Association Chair's request. In grade school I was taught to answer a question by including the question in the answer. I'm not planning to do that here...
Communication with Upper School TAC Officers and Faculty
First, I relearned that we can never communicate too much. While we've greatly improved this area, it was clear from the questions that we have much work remaining. Our Middle School (MS) sets the standard for communication. There are a few reasons why, one of them is that there is one staff/faculty members for every 3 cadets in the MS, and this is age-appropriate.
That ratio is cut in half as cadets move to the Upper School (US). In the US, if you have a general question, we ask that you begin with the Tactical Officer (TAC). Each company has a TAC, and companies are organized by grade. For instance the 9th grade is Echo Company, and the TAC is MAJ John Justice. A list of TACs, with phone numbers and email addresses, by company, is available here. You may call or email the appropriate TAC. You can also find our Commandant's Department employees listed in our online Staff Directory.
If you don't get a response within 24 hours (less if it is an urgent matter) I recommend you contact either the Deputy Commandant or Commandant of Cadets. While I'm confident you'll get an answer, if you are still unsuccessful, call my Assistant (Mrs. Carol Childress, 434-842-4323), or contact me directly. My email is President@fuma.org.
We've greatly improved our communication regarding academic progress. Every parent should receive an email from the cadet's teacher within the first week of class. You may then use a program called PowerSchool to keep track of assignments and exams through each of 5 terms. If you have a specific issue or concern, please contact your cadet's teacher. If you do not get a response within 24 hours, contact either the Registrar or the Dean of Academics. A list of all faculty members with contact info is available in our Download Forms center. Our faculty members are also listed in our online Staff Directory, and many have already been featured in Staff Spotlight articles on our website through which you can get to know a bit more about our staff members.
I've written about this before in my blogs, but I can assure you that your questions, concerns, or contact will not result in unfair treatment of your cadet. As I gave a quick "travel and enjoy Thanksgiving safely" message to the cadets earlier today I reminded them that they are "our life's work" our reason for living. In my tenure as President here I've only seen good come from outside inquiries, comments, and suggestions...never retribution or the projection of frustration. I'm confident this trend will continue...
If you've not been contacted by email or phone by anyone at Fork Union Military Academy since your son arrived, it means we don't have your email address or phone number...or our emails are resting somewhere in your "junk mail" or "spam" folder. You may provide that address, or multiple addresses, to our Admissions Office, or to the TAC.
A few asked questions about roommates and the assignment of roommates. We are not scientific about roommate assignments, but perhaps someday we will add that level of sophistication. Sometimes roommate selection works well, and sometimes it does not. In college, and during my military career, my best experiences with roommates were when I didn't have one. At the same time, many of my roommate experiences helped me learn to compromise, taught me that while we all have much in common, there are also clear differences among people. Each of these experiences taught me something about myself, and helped me learn to adapt.
Our first response is for young men to try and work out any differences and concerns on their own. If that doesn't work they should work within their cadet chain-of-command and with their Tactical Officer. As a last resort we will move cadets...but many alumni who have "best friends" from FUMA, would not if the school had made it too easy to move.
Phones in Barracks Room
Each room shares a phone, and each phone has voicemail. Cadets may call out during certain hours as listed on page 62 of the Upper School Cadet Regulations Book...and they may receive calls during those times.
This morning we had our weekly "Policy Time" and discussed many of the questions. One that we need to discuss more is the question of how to communicate "demerits" and the consequences and details of demerits received. There are certain "thresholds" for demerits where parents will receive a call from either the Tactical Officer or the Deputy/Commandant of Cadets. It is unlikely that a cadet will receive demerits and not know why. If a cadet is heading toward "probation," a meeting with a Cadet Performance Review (yes, the acronym is CPR), or a "tribunal," you will be contacted.
The other day as I walked through the library, I asked a cadet (who had seen more than a few demerits in his tenure here) whether it was easy or hard to "stay out of trouble" here. He's having a terrific year this year, his third at FUMA. He was quick to say that it was easy to stay out of trouble...and that demerits are earned...not easily collected. When demerit totals are examined, we always look to see who awarded the demerits, what the trends are, and what support the cadet needs to get back on track. If you have concerns, call the TAC. After that if you believe anything appears less than fair, refer to paragraph 6 of this blog.
Return Times for Day Passes and Leave Weekends
There was concern expressed with the differing return times for day passes and leave weekends. I've asked the Commandant of Cadets to examine this policy and recommend possibly changing the return times to make them more consistent, and ensure that what is represented in our handbooks is the same as what you are told when you pick up your sons. In general, we do not have staff/faculty here if your son returns from leave a day early. We will make arrangements for that early return if you give us enough notice.
One question asked us to consider creating a mentor program for new cadets. I would encourage everyone to read through Section 17 of our Upper School Cadet Regulations Book. This is where the military structure and system is at its very best. Every company (90 cadets) has an adult leader (Tactical Officer) and several cadet (student) leaders. These leaders are hand-selected. The Cadet Company Commander leads 3 Platoon Leaders (each platoon is 1/3 of a company), and each platoon is divided into 3 squads...each with a Squad Leader. Theoretically each squad will be no more than 9 cadets. These cadet leaders help us carry out the "Plan of the Day."
We have a mentoring program, but its success is clearly dependent on our ability to train our student leaders...and is a key strategic goal identified in our recent Strategic Plan.
Some of my recent blogs spoke of our one-to-one laptop initiative, and our ability to monitor computer usage through a program called LANSchool. I encourage you to visit this site to learn more. Our interest is in developing digital citizens. We want cadets to understand the proper use of available technology, digital etiquette, including rights and responsibilities, as well as their own digital health, wellness, and self-protection. Some private boarding schools do not filter content, but we've chosen to filter content using a filter called smoothwall.
The Lord's Prayer asks God to "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." There is much on the internet that tempts us...filtering helps us deliver cadets from evil...but sometimes also stops educational content that would assist develop critical thinking skills. Our filtering system allows us to let that information through once a teacher or cadet brings the "unnecessary filtering" to the attention our Information Technology Staff.
Our goal is to educate, develop, and inspire young men of character who are discerning enough to stay away from inappropriate websites...but improper computer use demerits have been frequent as we work through this development.
I'll close with two of the easiest questions to answer...
Hot Water in Estes Athletic Center
We have not had hot water in our Estes Athletic Center since the beginning of school. Our "hot water heater," one 1000 gallon holding tank, had a catastrophic failure, and replacing it was going to require us to tear down an exterior building wall to install a new tank of the same size. While it took a bit more time initially, we engineered a solution that will give us 3 smaller tanks (giving us the same total capacity) and save energy [money] (by turning 2 off during the summer and during breaks) and avoid the same problem in 12-15 years...sorry for the delay, but we'll have hot water back in the gym before the end of Thanksgiving.
There were a few comments expressed about our Cadet Store and the availability of merchandise. We've just completed investigating an online store which will be managed by our Alumni Board...and expect it to be up in the next month or two. In the meantime, please contact Susan Goolsby if there are items you would like to purchase that you couldn't find when you visited the store, as she has the ability to special order items you may want.
There were a few questions about textbooks, independent study, and PowerSchool that are difficult for me to answer adequately without more information. For those who had specific questions about these areas, please contact COL Todd Giszack, our Academic Dean.
I'm about 800 words past my usual "blog limit," but enjoyed the conversation among our staff about these questions, their answers, and our current level of communication [to parents]. It is clear that while we've made this a priority, there are still gaps in our processes. These questions will also help inform the "self-study" we've undertake for our Virginia Association of Independent Schools (VAIS) decennial reaccreditation efforts.
My final thought is perhaps the most challenging to communicate properly...but the most important...and it has to do with the second sentence in our Mission Statement which is: "Cadets build character and learn leadership, independence, confidence, responsibility, and discipline in a setting that encourages mental, physical, and spiritual growth." One of the keys to learning is often the struggle of having to figure things out.
When I look back with a critical eye on my own parenting, I was too quick to fix everything for my children. I didn't want them to struggle or wrestle with problems themselves. After all, I could step in and make their lives more comfortable. There is a "system" at FUMA, that while it is far from perfect, it provides a safe environment where cadets can struggle, and even fail on occasion, and be stronger for the lessons and the learning.
I once heard a cadet say that being at FUMA provides cadets "a glimpse at adult life." There are few gifts more important than preparing young people for adulthood in a way that increases the odds of living a successful, meaningful, and independent life...certainly worth the struggle.