Julian Malcolm is headmaster of The Summit Academy in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?
What grades does your school serve?
Our flagship program is our high school. We recently added a hybrid program (3 days a week) to serve 6th to 8th graders.
What is your vision for your school? How do you think of your mission? What do you hope to accomplish?
Our mission is to support parents in their vocation as parents. We operate the school, but we’re not the ones with the vocation to raise their children. That’s the parents’ job and we are here to support them.
Our formal mission statement is: The Summit exists to provide a rigorous liberal arts education and to partner with parents to form their sons and daughters in Christian virtue so that they become mature, responsible young adults equipped to engage the world.
Our vision is to be a hub for forming Catholic evangelists who have a real sense of vocation. We aim to form free, joyful young men and women whose recognition of Christ as the Logos—the divine reason that calls creation into being, giving the world order, form, and meaning, and orienting it from and towards love—informs their understanding of what they're called to do in the world.
How do your school’s culture and curriculum differ from government schools in your area? From other Catholic schools in your area?
Teachers at a lot of schools have a love for the profession or a love for the subject matter they teach. What sets our school apart is that our teachers also have a strong sense of the Church’s view of what it means to be human, as revealed in Christ. It is this “Christological Anthropology” that provides a firm belief that each of our students has a real dignity and value, that is enhanced by what they are learning in the various academic disciplines. It is a high view of both the person being taught and also the world in which they are called to go and live. This belief in the dignity of each child in the classroom is what shapes the way students encounter our Catholic, classical curriculum.
How often do your students attend Mass?
First Fridays. We pray the Liturgy of the Hours as a school community at the beginning of each day so all of our students learn to incorporate the Divine Office as a part of everyday life. So that's really important to us. I think a lot of people think that's sort of an older thing because it involves Latin, (or at least the hymns are sung in Latin) but it is actually something the second Vatican Council was encouraging lay people towards… it is part of the renewal teaching emphasizing that we are all called to live the adventure of becoming saints, not just a select few or holy minority. It was Sacrosanctum Consolium that specifically encouraged lay people to learn to pray the Divine Office.
How else is the Catholic faith integrated into the school program?
The Catholic faith is integrated into every area of the school program. I only hire teachers that I would trust to teach theology because theology comes up in every classroom. That doesn’t mean our teachers create superficial overlaps in the curriculum so that they can jam in a little extra religion or be moralistic. Rather, teachers see the world through the lens of faith and they have a real appreciation for the unity of faith and reason.
Our school’s service program gives students the opportunity to live their faith in an explicit way. Students are doing something out in the community at least once a semester. It is usually something active, that requires them to either dig in and get dirty or to engage with people outside of themselves, or both. We want them to learn that faith has to get messy sometimes.
The faith is also integrated in the outdoor program. We do a retreat every semester to expose students to the natural world. In a noise-saturated culture, the experience of being outdoors gives students a vital opportunity to learn, to listen, and to grow in a more profound sense of awareness. Learning outside of the classroom prepares students to become life-long learners in whatever environment they find themselves. The outdoor program integrates some time for contemplation with some physical “adventure” activities.
Are subjects—such as mathematics, science, literature, and history—integrated in any way?
We have a firm belief that each discipline is distinct, so each subject has its own class. For example, we don't consolidate history and literature under a single Humanities course. I admire some aspects of schools that take that approach, but it’s not our approach.
We believe that literature is literature, not theology. It's not reading for the sake of sneaking in theology. Literature is about telling the truth. History is about trying to make an account of human events. Theology is about taking a disciplined, thoughtful account of revelation.
We have a pretty Thomistic view on the different disciplines and how they relate and how they're separate but connected. That idea might be summarized as a “realization of unity through distinctions.” That unity of distinctions also coincides with a classical liberal arts pedagogical development that moves from grammar, to logic, to rhetoric, and so on with the various disciplines and then theology residing as the “Queen of the Sciences.” Everything in its right place, so to speak. However, the fun thing about this is that by maintaining the distinctions, you actually get a really vibrant integrated learning experience. You find this exciting dynamic where kids walk out of class and they are discussing how what they just learned relates to a concept they’ve explored in another class. This really cultivates engaged learners.
So the various disciplines are integrated in that they are shared or sharing their encounter with reality, but we're not going to try to emphasize that as a mode of course titles. It seems to naturally occur as we focus on the excellence of each discipline.
Are you able to share a required reading list by grade?
Here is a partial list of texts and authors (while instructors may opt to emphasize certain selections and introduce additional texts students will generally be exposed to the following):
1st Year - The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Old Testament, Plato.
2nd Year - Plutarch's Lives, Augustine, Boethius, Beowulf, Dante The Divine Comedy, Chaucer The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, The New Testament.
3rd Year - Machiavelli The Prince, Petrarch, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Calvin Institutes, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, and Locke, Cervantes Don Quixote, Spenser, Milton Paradise Lost, Voltaire, Rousseau, Goethe Faust.
4th Year - The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, The Federalist Papers, Edmund Burke, J.S. Mill, John Locke, Alexis De Tocqueville, Frederick Douglas, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky,
What is your school’s enrollment?
We will be intentional about capping enrollment so we don’t overextend ourselves and fail our mission. Maximum enrollment will probably be 75 or 80. This year, we had 55 students.
As of now, we are looking at 90 for 2021–22.
Has enrollment been steady in recent years?
Enrollment has generally increased every year, although we had a smaller freshman class this year because of COVID.
A milestone for us was three years ago when students from our first graduating class got into really competitive colleges. The acceptance list keeps getting more and more competitive. We are graduating our third class this year. Word has gotten around. We have “arrived” as a desirable option for families that are serious about education.
Our retention rate for 2021-22 is 100%.
What is your school’s tuition? Do you offer a sibling discount? If you offer financial aid, how many families receive it and what is the average grant?
We increased tuition this year from $7,152 to $8,950 for high school. Our hybrid middle school program is $4,500.
We do offer a sibling discount. It’s $2,000 for high school students and $1,000 for middle school students. For example, a family with 4 students—2 in high school, 2 in middle school—would pay $8,950 + $6,950 + $3,500 + $3500.
Net tuition for the school is about 83%. Approximately 50% of families receive some sort of tuition discount, whether through financial aid or sibling discounts. Approximately 20% to 25% receive need-based aid.
How involved are parents in the life of your school?
Parents are pretty involved. About half of families attend events and volunteer. About 85% of them would do more if asked.
Are you generally satisfied with your school’s teachers? How so?
Our teachers are really excellent. They are all aligned with our mission. They are flexible and coachable. They genuinely love learning and they know how to teach others to learn. They teach by inspiring their students.
I tend to hire faculty with advanced degrees. As a program, we have a lot of integrity and I think that comes from having a staff that is really good at the job of developing students’ intellect.
Are parents generally satisfied with the education their children receive at your school? How do you know?
Our retention rate is very strong. When I ask parents what they like about the school, most say they are sending their kids here for the Catholic faith. They also tell us that they appreciate the collaborative learning environment and the community spirit. That is a pleasant surprise because I don’t feel like we preach these two things. The warm environment is probably a product of the parents and the way they are raising their kids. Although classical learning certainly does lend itself to a collaborative learning environment.
What are you doing to intentionally build and strengthen your school community? How do you communicate with students, families, and teachers? How do members of your community connect with each other?
We use a weekly email to communicate with families. We host forums and book groups, but sometimes it is a minority of parents who want to gather for intellectual development offering. We’ve found that sports is a better way to bring families together in a relaxed setting. Getting people together for parties as much as possible is also really helpful. We had a pancake breakfast for new families that was hosted by our current freshman that was jam packed. Food and fun tends to be the way to go.
What resources do you recommend parents use at home to deepen families’ understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic faith? For example, Word on Fire, Institute of Catholic Culture, Augustine Institute, etc.
About once a month, I include a link to an article in the weekly email—often it’s from the New Advent feed. I’ve also shared resources from the John Paul II Institute’s Humanum Review Journal, Word on Fire. The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has been good about getting press and I always link to that. I had an article in an online magazine for Catholic Psychology.
What do parents value most in your school? How do you know that?
Parents value faith formation more than academics. But when pressed, they say they appreciate that their children are engaged in collaborative learning.
We are putting together two focus groups in order to gain insights from parents about their experience with the school. Focus groups are better than surveys for sure. I would like to do one a year.
What marketing efforts (events, social media, print advertising, digital advertising, etc.) have you found most effective in sharing your school’s story with the local community?
Marketing is hard. We do the best we can utilizing social media, but our presence online is always underwhelming. There is an expectation that social media will do everything for you, but even when it is done well—and is overseen by someone with a skill in condensing a message so it translates online—nothing compares to having real conversations with people face-to-face.
How do you recruit new families to your school? What resources do you use to share your school’s story and connect with likeminded families? What insights can you share about what parents are seeking for their children and what your school offers that others don’t.
Word of mouth is the best recruitment tool. There’s no better way to get new families interested in our school than to have them know excited parents.
I see my job in talking to prospective families as that of an advisor. I help them make good decisions based on what our school offers and what they are seeking for their child’s education.
Open houses are important. Shadow days are powerful. Campus visits are key.
Families need encouragement, so we do everything we can to make it easy for them to request more information and ask questions over email. Taking that first step is critical.
It’s incredibly important for a school to get admissions decisions right. Everything flows from that. It’s important to be selective in admitting families who embrace the mission of a school. It can’t all be about whether a family can pay full tuition.
How much have you needed to sell your community of parents on the value of the education and formation your school offers? How many parents seek out what your school offers vs. how many need to be convinced? What messaging resonates with parents?
We have had to do a lot to clarify our mission and help parents figure out what kind of education they want for their children. We want to provide a service to parents by helping them really think through the questions of what they want for their children, and what it takes to obtain it. Raising kids involves wisdom and creativity and that does require a bit of reflection, not to mention, some real fortitude. There is always a temptation for us as parents to be influenced by the culture and think the exclusive purpose of education is to prepare their children as economic actors. Sure, that is important, but it’s not all there is to life. So, why should it be all there is to education? Part of my job is to figure out how to ask the right questions to determine if parents share our objective of forming disciples who are prepared to navigate all aspects of life.
Insofar as they’re called, our graduates will need to navigate the economic landscape, but not as the first end in itself.
How do you determine whether a prospective family will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your application process? What shared values do current families expect you to protect as you add new families to your school community?
The application process involves multiple steps.
First of all, we encourage parents to send students to a Shadow Day so they can experience our school firsthand. Students immediately recognize that our classrooms are different. They see that everything about the classroom experience communicates that students are worthy of respect. Teachers treat students as young people on their way to adulthood. Students discuss their work together during and in between classes; they are interested in the material and in each other’s ideas and contributions to the academic life of the school. How prospective students respond to that experience tells us a lot about whether or not they are ready and a good fit for the school.
Students are asked to submit transcripts and referrals from current teachers, coaches, etc.
We interview students and parents separately. It’s important to have conversations in these interviews to make sure the family understands the mission of the school. We are not a public school with catechesis thrown in. Our program is fundamentally different. We are forming disciples. We can’t do that well if families are not supportive.
What do you look for when hiring teachers?
You can’t give what you don’t have. A teacher has to love learning in order to pass on a love of learning.
I look for teachers who know their discipline and how their discipline relates to the Catholic faith.
How do you recruit new teachers? What resources do you use to share your school’s story and connect with qualified teachers outside of your school community? What insights can you share about what teachers are seeking in a school community and what your school offers that others don’t?
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education is the best place to post to recruit new teachers.
Teachers appreciate that we genuinely want them to teach. This is attractive because a lot of schools want teachers to focus on measurements and verifying outcomes. We don’t want teachers to be John Dewey acolytes. We want them to have a fascination with the world because that is what is infectious and formative for their students.
How do you determine whether a teacher you are considering hiring will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your interview process? What shared values do current teachers and families expect you to protect as you add new teachers to your school community?
We ask teaching candidates to spend a day with us before offering them a position. It’s important they have the opportunity to observe how our teachers and students interact with each other. They are often surprised by how engaged students are in learning and with one another. There is an atmosphere of respect here that is attractive to teachers.
From there, we continue to talk through our expectations and check references.
For our school to function well, we need teachers to be professional, responsible, not selfish, to be on fire for our mission, and to have the highest integrity.
How do you train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education training is excellent. We attend these trainings in person when they are close. I’ve been participating in an online ICLE school leadership forum that has been encouraging for my morale.
Cana Academy’s resources are outstanding. I sent a new hire to one of their sessions last Summer and my teacher said that it was the best professional development he had ever had—including at college.
For mathematics, we have utilized trainings by Exeter Academy and Singapore. Those are really good.
What percentage of your school’s budget is covered by tuition revenue? How important is fundraising to the continued operation of your school? What works best to inspire families and community members to support your school? What doesn’t work? How have you created momentum in your fundraising efforts and what plans do you have to strengthen your fundraising program in the years ahead?
2021-22 will be an exciting year because our costs and expenses will actually be very close to our total enrollment cost (which is a first for us). Of course, that total enrollment cost is prior to the actual net tuition income we will take in after we administer discounts and tuition assistance. Our tuition net is approximately 80-85% of total enrollment. This means that fundraising has to make up the remaining 15-20% in order for us to cover our actual expenses. So, fundraising is still critical. The good news is that we are getting better at fundraising. The reasons for that are twofold: (1) We are actually focusing on fundraising with established objectives and concrete goals and (2) We are now more than just a nice idea; we are a proven entity that can point to outcomes and real people who have been served and have credibility in our community.
I am not sure what works to inspire people to support the school other than us telling our story and actually sharing what the need is.
The development plan this year is as follows:
Identify large donors and foundations
Build a family-based letter writing, friend-raising, and donor building campaign
Execute an inaugural gala to celebrate our 5th year of operation and letting the community know what we are about
Are you the primary fundraiser for your school? How many hours do you spend on fundraising every week? How many hours does other staff spend on fundraising?
I am the primary fundraiser, but I am hiring two new faculty members that have development experience so that has been written into their contracts. I spend about 2-6 hours a week on fundraising and marketing. With the new team and focused approach, I would expect that to average out to about 12 hours a week (between three people) over the course of a year.
What have you learned about relationships with those who oversee your school? What are common challenges for schools operating under your model and what is your school doing well that would be helpful for other schools to know about? What advice are you willing to share about how to navigate important and/or challenging relationships?
We’re an independent school. It’s critical that we have a strong working relationship with our board.
It can be a temptation for boards to focus on growth—measured by enrollment and tuition revenue—over the maintenance and strengthening of a school’s academics and culture.
Board members need to wholeheartedly embrace the mission of a school. They also need to be open to being educated by the head of school about what is happening at the school, and what the board’s priorities should be moving forward. To make this work, the head of a school needs to communicate with the board effectively.
The job of the school head is to not only keep the BOD informed, but to actually help cultivate the BOD to be as healthy and functional as possible. “You’re always training your boss” as my old boss used to say as we strategized on how to get buy-in from his boss. This begins by always selling them on the mission with success stories and relevant anecdotes. 100% BOD giving is a non-negotiable. Why should donors do what the BOD is unwilling to do? It is also essential that you give your BOD strategic initiatives that will actually help the mission of the school. I have a BOD member who is absolutely stellar at holding focus groups with school parents. This has the effect of showing parents that we care about their input and weigh it heavily when making strategic decisions and also giving the BOD the opportunity to get to know our “customers” and hear their success stories first-hand and get a more intimate understanding of their concerns.
A lot of boards are confused about what a school is and what its role should be. A school is not a church or a business. The board cannot be overly focused on revenue or mission will suffer. Neither can it neglect the reality of revenues.
It is important for a BOD to understand what a school is. A school is unique in that it is not a business, it is not exactly a charity, and it is not a church (at least not properly The Church). A school is a community of learners and its prime objective is also its prime operation—it enculturates.
What is your school known for in your area?
From a distance, and perhaps at a superficial level, our reputation is that we are the school for the good, smart kids. For more invested stakeholders and those who know them, our school has the reputation of having a warm environment, full of families that want their kids to have a mature catechesis and solid academic foundation.
What is your school’s greatest challenge?
#1 Community awareness.
#2 Conveying our mission accurately (Catholic liberal arts is mystifying to people).
Numbers 1 and 2 are critical for the simple reason of driving enrollment and expanding development. I wish I knew short-cuts, but I think you simply have to wade through the process and tough years of getting deep roots embedded.
What does your school do better than any other school in your area?
Cultivate a spirit of genuine inquiry and a love of learning (both academically and spiritually).
What is the most important difference between your school and struggling schools?
Healthy, clear communication and transparency.
Share one custom that is unique to your school.
As part of the outdoor program, students spend one night a semester sleeping outside.
Share one resource that strengthens your school.
Prayer. I mean it. Prayer is essential. It is all we have really. We open and close everything with prayer and even our baccalaureate service is an extended version of the Office.
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
JupiterEd. Cheap, easy, effective.
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.
Lunch. I try to make sure I sit down with students or faculty to eat once a week.
Also, starting the day with a smile and warm greeting to several random people regardless of how I feel.
Also, I like to “catch someone doing something well” and make a point of casually passing it along.
Thanking people. Gratitude is key.