Michael Larson had just celebrated his second anniversary of employment at The Fay School in Houston when we spoke with him. “I love it here,” he proclaimed.
“It isn’t just my first impression of the school that I recall. From the moment I stepped foot on campus, my opinion of Houston changed. Fay is an outdoor campus in the heart of the city. The entire campus is built around the original Fay family home. The buildings on campus all mirror the original home, designed by John Staub in the 1930s. With long porches and beautiful brickwork, the campus welcomes students in a different kind of way.
“Students can go to any room on campus and be completely outside the entire time. Every classroom opens to the outdoors, which is complemented by the three acres of nature trails on campus. The Havens Outdoor Education Center opens onto the trailhead, ushering students through winding trails down to the Buffalo Bayou. The outdoor education curriculum integrates what students learn in other subject areas with studies of the natural systems at work on the trails.
“One of the most important aspect of Fay is that we are a preschool and elementary school by design. We enroll children from age three through fifth grade. This campus focuses exclusively on the education of the primary- and elementary-aged child.”
Larson began his career coordinating a capital campaign in Dallas while having the opportunity to teach physics to middle school students. “Middle School students completely change the tone and tenor of a school. Because we don’t have a middle school at Fay, you will see our fifth graders playing in the sandbox with preschoolers, third grade boys holding hands, fourth grade girls on the swings. They get to be what they need to be: young children. They don’t grow up quite as fast here as they would in a school with older grades.”
Larson’s enthusiasm grew as he enumerated Fay’s strengths. “We have introduced an emotional intelligence program. The idea being you can teach academics, but if there is not an emotional component, success in a social setting is near to impossible. Research shows that IQ determines only 20% of your potential while your EQ, or emotional intelligence, accounts for the other 80%.”
“We want to be sure that students at Fay are leaving with the ability to interact appropriately from a social perspective—allowing them to use the tools they gain throughout their educational experience effectively.”
Larson wears many hats. He serves as Director of Advancement, but also oversees the school’s IT program.
“It is interesting,” Larson mused. “One of the challenges we face is our reputation for being ‘one of the best kept secrets in Houston.’ We are working to counter that, learning to articulate what the school is about. We’ve successfully increased our visibility in the last year, leading to increased applications and enrollment.
“There has been a lot of conversation over our core values: preparation, community, and communication. We truly live those values.
“At The Fay School, education is an expression of community. We are firm believers that we enroll families, not just students. We enjoy a unique level of parent involvement. There is a parents’ club, of course. We also have a number of opportunities for parents to participate in the curriculum in meaningful ways. Parents take part in outdoor education classes and open work periods. After receiving training from the teachers, parents work directly with students to implement the curriculum. It’s a powerful partnership between the school and the family.
“This is an outgrowth of the increased focus on emotional intelligence, the level to which we are getting the parents involved. We make a point to bring in the consultant who provides professional development for our faculty and staff to work with our parent volunteer leadership.
“We are a community, and we want every person to be on the same page. We want every person here to be in alignment with those core values. We want everyone to understand why we’re doing things this way. Through clear communication to all constituency groups, we are able to really crystallize this approach.”
Larson then moved to a description of “The Fay Code,” which permeates the school at every level. The Fay Code relies on a clear set of rights, responsibilities, and outcomes that every member of the community has and can expect.
He continued, “We instill in our families and faculty that there is a set of rights every student has. The right to learn is an example of an express right, and children learn to speak out when someone infringes on their right to learn. Our students understand their own rights at Fay and in turn understand the corresponding responsibilities they have in order to ensure not only their rights, but the rights of others.”
When asked to tell the story about The Fay School’s choice of inRESONANCE databases, Larson described a complicated journey toward ownership of the decision.
“We needed to do something about our data. A little over a year ago, we looked at all the big players. The Board and leadership knew we had the need; the school was running six different systems to manage our data. We set out to get different interest groups on campus to really look at the different components of each solution, evaluate how each would go about meeting our needs, whittle it down, review our options, and make the decision.
“Now, I had started working with FileMaker in high school, when the IT person at my middle school had me work with her on the database she had built from the ground up. I played around in her database, built some of my own modules, and really came to love FileMaker.
“When The Fay School worked through its process of selecting a new database, I tried to step back, stay objective, and let the evaluation process we had set up do the work. The top three choices we were going to intensively evaluate didn’t include inRESONANCE.
“After some deliberation, I decided to step forward and push to include inRESONANCE in our final evaluation because of its potential as an open, customizable solution. So, our final list of three turned into a final list of four, and we proceeded with an intense evaluation of these solutions.
“InRESONANCE is great. ‘Open and customizable’ by itself changes everything. No two schools are the same. Everybody handles everything differently. At the end of the day, you cannot succeed if the database is not addressing the relationships the school is forming with families. Internally, to pretend that this kind of proactive information management can fit in a one-size-fits-all box is insane.
“It is not acceptable to have the database provider’s response be, ‘You just have to do it this way.’
“A database company can’t be everything to everyone—but an open, customizable solution allows us the flexibility to do it ourselves or spend the money to have customizations done for us. The little details I can fix myself. The bigger ones I leave to inRESONANCE.
“I have already made many customizations. I suspect I’m not the average client because of my experience with FileMaker; it’s easy for me to drop things in. It gives me comfort to know I will never have to say, ‘It just doesn’t do that.’ No one wants to select a product with a considerable cost attached to it, and then have it become a problem. We have more important things to do than struggle with the wrong database.
“We’re still in the implementation stage, but I am confident we made the right decision. Others are learning. It’s interesting: the system is never going to be perfect, but it is already doing things that others simply will not do.”
“Had we chosen another vendor, they would likely have told us, ‘We’ll put that on the table for the next upgrade.’
“Here’s an example: one concern was anticipating the issues that might arise when rolling out a new database. Some warned, ‘There’s a learning curve for your parents.’ But this kind of transition should be invisible to your parents. With inRESONANCE, I was able to duplicate the family info sheet that we had used in previous years, so our parents saw nothing different from what they were used to. We no longer have to do crystal reports, or external mail merges. We have been implementing FAM, and we did not have to retrain our parents. We have been able to mold the output of information to make it pretty seamless.
“Some of this is complicated. The ‘open’ piece makes training more difficult. It is easier to be told, ‘It just can’t do that, the box does only x, y, and z.’ It’s more complicated being able to do things right, but worth it in the end.
“Another great example is the ease of mail merges. In our previous project I had to walk through so many more steps to simply get thank-you letters out, involving multiple programs and manual spreadsheet manipulation.
“Finally, even with the complexities of implementing a database that truly fits us, we’ve had folks like Susan McAllister at inRESONANCE to get us through the transition. I have never had a phone call or an email go unanswered. They speak our language and understand that while the issues we bring up may be details, they are critical to our being able to do our jobs the right way, rather than the easy way.”
Learn more about The Fay School.