Jake Hines is a senior from Cleveland who is enjoying senior project, drinking chocolate milk, and racing bicycles for Proctor's team.
Everywhere you look, you see the collapse of the car industry, the pop of the banking bubble, the market meltdown, and the rise of the unemployment rate. Proctor Academy, despite its small town character, is not impervious to the far-reaching economic crisis. At a recent faculty meeting, Head of School Mike Henriques noted Proctor’s dependent position, “We’re not separate from everything else, what’s happening out there is impacting us.”
Project Period, a valued time for students to pursue new interests and work and live among a different group of peers, has been placed squarely on the chopping block. The Proctor community is left asking if the axe has landed and it’s too late, or if there is still time and means left to save the beloved program. Project Period has a $79,000 annual budget, with an allocation of $200 per student for off-campus projects and $100 per student for on-campus projects. With everyone scrimping and saving in these rough economic times, it’s easy to see the red flags going up around the cost of the program.
Like all off campus programs, Project Period is tuition funded. Annie Mackenzie, the coordinator for Project Period explained, “If we were allowed to solicit parents, or ask parents for their help, it would be a lot cheaper.” Because Project Period is perceived as an auxiliary program, it is a large target when balancing the budget. But why after another successful year is Project Period being questioned? As Annie reiterated, “Fuel is going up, insurance is going up, prices are going up, and cutting Project Period is an easy way to save money.”
Why Project Period? Why not some other program that doesn’t serve the entire community and earn their total affection? According to Mike, who has lead popular projects to South Carolina for years, “Project Period is one of the areas we had to look at.” With Proctor’s many experiential programs, the administration decided, “This is going to be tough to hold onto.” Mike explained the new factors forcing the change. ”Enrollment has crept up over the years from 347 students to 355 students. What’s happened at Proctor is we can’t get any bigger and we don’t have the ability to pull that lever anymore. Tuition is the other factor at play. With 3-5% increases a year in most independent schools… Proctor’s endowment took a huge hit when the financial crisis occurred a few years ago… There is a sense in independent schools that we’re bumping against the ceiling.”
Clearly unhappy to lose a successful program, Mike faced the hard facts. Without the ability to draw the necessary funding from enrollment, tuition, or the endowment, Mike and the Business Manager had to ask, “What are the essential programs that we need?” and, “Would the core of Proctor change if we lost Project Period?” The answer was “No.” “So what else could we do?”
Mike’s angst is shared by the school. Project Period has earned the love and respect from the entire Proctor community. Approximately fifty passionate students gathered outside a recent faculty meeting to show their support for Project Period. Annie Mackenzie explained her support, “What I love about it, is that it is the opportunity for faculty to share a passion with students.” The groups, she went on to say, are a, “Completely random group of kids… and I got to know a lot of people I would have never met otherwise.”
At one recent faculty meeting Annie reported, “Everybody spoke for about an hour about how much they like it… We had one faculty member ask, if we didn’t get raises could we [save] Project Period? Mike said he wasn’t willing to put that on the table” because this year's faculty raises were not keeping pace with inflation. He elaborated, “[Proctor] Carries a lot of faculty, we like that, it’s the strength of the school but it makes us a very expensive model. “This community of adults is having to make sacrifices to keep the programing of this school intact… Their cost of living is going up too… Faculty are already making sacrifices, I can’t support [them making more].” Mike has great respect for the faculty at Proctor, and believes that one of the most vital ingredients in a healthy functioning school is maintaining our exceptional student to teacher ratio.
Mike’s project takes a busload of students down to Groton Plantation in South Carolina to learn about land use and local history while working at jobs such as maintaining graveyards and cabins. Annie helps create a culinary institute at the nearby Camp Bluewater, where students cook and serve food to other project groups. This year they donated about $1200.00 to the local food bank.
The week experience is the essence of Proctor and embodies the school’s belief in experiential education, which as Annie notes, is “Why a lot of people go here.” Mike shares Annie’s love of Project Period. “I really have enjoyed my time on Project Period and I have been incredibly impressed by many of the projects run at Proctor… Overall it’s been fantastic for the school and students.” His face lighting up, he added, “I am very interested in looking into how to maintain it.”
Mike discussed the hard economic realities with faculty at the end of the winter term, but the decision to discontinue Project Period appears to have caught both the students and faculty off guard. According to Annie, “I don’t think the faculty were aware that it was going to go away.” However sudden the decision may seem, Mike noted it is, “Not a decision that has been made lightly, [it is] not whimsical, and not arbitrary, and certainly not easy.”
It is unclear what will replace Project Period. What was once a week of adventure and self-discovery with a diverse group may now become an extra week of classes or vacation. There is also the possibility that Project Period may not be sentenced to the history books quite yet. Mike observed, “Project Period has evolved,” and he is very interested in “Finding some way to evolve this again… It’s not something that has always been here. It has come, and gone, and maybe this is just another evolution of Project Period.” In regard to discussion surrounding the idea of campus based projects next year, he said, “That’s an idea that resonates with me.” In a letter to parents, Mike also noted the creation of “A rolling faculty blog,” The forum for open discussion surrounding the future of project period, ”is starting to look like a report from a progressive think tank.” At a faculty meeting, Mike challenged the faculty by saying, “If we want it, make it and design it.”
Annie’s final thoughts about Project Period reveal her optimism. “I think it’s a loss, but maybe something new and innovative and cheaper will come out of it… I just wish it could stay.” Don’t we all.