From the Office of Dr. Michael Pennell
Dear Highlands School Families and Friends,

Having completed one of the most unusual school years in memory, I want to share thoughts with our THS families awaiting news on what is to come this August 2020 for The Highlands School.

Opening As Scheduled in August
We are seeing in Texas and in Dallas a momentum toward opening schools in August. We expect classes to begin in person and on time at THS for the first day of school, Monday, August 10th.

Fall Sports Are On!
The Dallas Parochial League (DPL) is moving forward with plans for fall sports. For The Highlands School, that means middle school volleyball.
We had hoped to start middle school six-man football this coming fall; however, with the possibility of limited participation and budget restrictions, we have chosen to delay the launch to fall 2021.
The Texas Association of Private & Parochial Schools (TAPPS) league is also moving forward with sports which means our high school volleyball and football teams begin their season on time.  

Facilities Upgrades Moving Ahead
Thanks to the generosity of many benefactors, several facility improvement projects continue across campus.

Shelter in place has made it possible for our THS maintenance staff to work without interruption. Visitors will see extensive groundwork including a new rosary walking path and landscaping around the new John Paul II Fieldhouse. 

A generous donation from the Tadros family will purchase new state-of-the-art athletic flooring in the fieldhouse along with sports equipment.

Security improvements include the school’s main gate, installation of access control at entry points, and recently added surveillance cameras all thanks to our 2020 Gala Cash Call.  

New air conditioning units will be added for both the Kindergarten to 2nd grade hallway and our third floor/middle school hallway with innovative fresh air ventilators.

What We Learned from E-Learning
I want to thank our school’s community for stepping up so quickly when our school transitioned to home learning. Our covid-19 response in March forced us into e-learning mode in just days.

We quickly saw areas for improving, and these have motivated innovations you can expect to see in our classrooms this fall.

Mr. Jeff Schiefelbein, THS parent and Board of Trustees member, will facilitate a team of parent volunteers and professionals to form a technology committee. He saw a need to help us frame a more comprehensive plan for school improvement.

We are not an online school, and we believe that in-person learning works best. Here are initiatives we’re working on should authorities announce another shelter in place:
  • Our technology team will partner with teachers and students to embed technology training in classrooms. Students will learn to navigate e-learning apps and platforms so that tasks become second nature by Thanksgiving.

  • If our educational landscape gets surprised by a shelter in place in the coming year, we want our students to be independent with user friendly guidelines and user interfaces so parents do very little managing of e-learning for their kids.

  • Moodle as an app failed us. This app was unable to support learning with an ease and at a level we wanted to accomplish. We cancelled our subscription.

  • Google Classrooms quickly became our platform of choice. This will be our new platform joined to Google Forms, Google Meets, and Google Docs for better utilizing a digital environment for students at every grade level.

  • Our lower school teachers will utilize early childhood digital add-ons that will make e-learning tasks and the organization of those tasks simple for each child without parent assistance.

  • We are reviewing Adobe writing software to go paperless. Image files and printing were difficult for many students.

  • We’re expanding our laptop program and outfitting our 6th grade students.

  • We’re initiating a laptop replacement program; the old “blue laptops” that caused so many student problems are hitting the dumpster.

  • Thanks to Gala donations, we purchased a new server with an updated browser filter. Our students will be protected from dangerous sites, and sites like YouTube that offer excellent learning material can be made safely available to our students for what is called “blended learning.” We can access safely Khan Academy, NASA, documentaries, History Channel, Bishop Barron’s videos on the Church, you name it: so many resources available that we have not tapped until now (especially on YouTube) for reasons of browsing security and safety. Keep in mind, the filter works on 6th to 12th laptops even when the kids take the laptop home or any wireless network.

  • Using laptops appropriately in the classroom will mean more digital assignments and tests instead of using reams of copy paper with associated costs and costly copy machine maintenance.

  • Finally, every grade – no exceptions – will see weekly assignments posted on FACTS/Renweb by 5pm Monday for the week. Any parent or student may easily review work due for the week and can expect no additions, only deadline extensions.

A Word About Our Challenges
Enrollment has slowed since the end of April. Families are letting us know they are evaluating school tuition alongside the cost of living during these times.
Though our current re-enrollment rate is 75%, we also see an increase in requests for financial assistance. Some families are withholding enrollment decisions waiting to see what June and July might bring.

As a result of these conditions, I expect THS student enrollment to be lower for 2020-2021. Our experiences are not unique; private schools and businesses everywhere face similar financial challenges. In these times, THS takes seriously our commitment to stewardship and to the trust placed in us. 
We trust the Lord will guide our path.

Our core leadership team’s plan is to continue offering superior Catholic education and personal student formation regardless of the financial restraints impacting our current landscape.

Enrollment Management and Grade Level Waitlists
The expected reduction in student enrollment and in enrollment revenue means enrollment management decisions with responsible stewardship.

To limit our dependence on fundraising for operations, our class sizes cannot stretch our budget’s limits. In the past, we have offered multiple sections of class sizes below twelve without increasing tuition. In an especially difficult economy, we cannot do that.

Where we have reached capacity at some grades, we have frozen enrollments and announced a waitlist. If an enrollment threshold is reached in waitlisted classes, we will cancel our waitlist and open another section.

For our high school students, we want to increase opportunities. We are pleased to announce a partnership with North Lake College to offer dual credit courses for juniors and seniors who elect independent study for college and high school credit. Courses chosen through North Lake College add no tuition cost to your THS tuition (North Lake College book fees and policies apply).

Health & Safe Environment Considerations
The Dallas Diocese superintendent, Dr. Matt Vereecke, has collaborated with school leaders to evaluate and establish policies to govern student and faculty safe practices in the fall. The diocese announced its mandate on May 22nd to all parochial school families. It is important to remember that as a private school The Highlands enjoys an independence to make decisions about what we think works best for THS.  

I have invited a committee of THS parents that includes health care professionals to evaluate best health safety practices for our school. Keep in mind that our first day of school is ten weeks away, so we have time to make recommendations fitting for our school’s community. 
Points under consideration:

  • All students and faculty members will be screened daily for signs of illness. We already have no-touch forehead temperature scanners and followed a temperature-check procedure during Pick-Up/Drop-Off Days last week.

  • Visitors or volunteers will likewise be screened; access to students and classrooms will be limited (not necessarily eliminated).

  • Students or staff reporting Covid-19 symptoms or family travel to publicly identified “hot spots” will self-quarantine for two weeks – a policy I already announced for THS in March.

  • Face coverings remain under consideration.

  • Interactions and movement of students within the campus will be managed by a policy of “contact control.”

What is “contact control?” It includes considerations for limiting playground use, writing policy for moving in hallways, prohibiting large gatherings in the assembly room or cafeteria, or postponing our hot lunch program. These same policies are being recommended for all schools; again, we are not alone.
Our school commits to a safe environment that keeps kids virus-free in ways that are reasonable and law abiding but that also meet a confidence level for our moms and dads.

THS Parents Club | Volunteer Hours Reduced
Mrs. Leah Cannon (a long-time parent in our school community with a graduating senior in the class of 2020) will serve as President of the THS Parents Club. The Parents Club is the way our parents connect to one another and opportunities to serve throughout the school year. Parents volunteer for Blazer Fest, Appreciation Days, inviting guest speakers to talk on parenting, decorating for Christmas, and many other details when it comes to supporting our teachers and our school community.  

Volunteer hours asked of our families is being reduced from 40 hours to 20 hours per family. The $500 opt-out fee remains. Revenue from this fee goes to the Parents Club. This fee, with fundraisers throughout the year, permit the Parents Club to sponsor events that impact kids’ lives. We hope more families find time to join us in our work with a more achievable goal.

THS: A Community Blessed by The Lord
Our school’s spiritual mission continues in the hearts of our staff and children having been deepened by the challenges of this covid-19 pandemic. 
Our formation team of instructors and chaplains have been meeting this week for three full days planning opportunities for all THS children to grow in faith and friendship in Christ and with one another.  

Thank you to our moms and dads for your example, your prayers, your perseverance through trial, and for your abundant generosity! God be praised, now and forever!

Sincerely, in Christ,
Dr. M. Pennell, Headmaster