SouthLake Christian Academy – Update September 2021

Dear SouthLake Christian Family,

September has arrived, Labor Day weekend is ahead, and fall weather is around the corner. And while the school year has presented some challenges, overall we are off to a rather peaceful start. My updates this month pertain to the coming enrollment cycle, our COVID dashboard, and my observations of stellar teaching.

First, you will recall we use a continuous enrollment process at SouthLake, meaning your current students remain enrolled from one year to the next unless you tell us otherwise. As a current family, you also receive priority consideration for your non-SouthLake children who may wish to apply. Beginning September 27, current families may submit an application for any grade JK-12. Space is not guaranteed, but if a grade is full, getting on a wait list early puts you near the top of the list when a spot becomes available. Applications will open to the general public October 11. You can find an application on our website under the admissions tab. We process completed applications on a rolling basis in the order we receive them, as space allows. The application fee is $100. If you have any questions, feel free to contact admissions@southlakechristian.org.

Second, we are 16 days into our academic year without disruption. After watching many schools in our area open and then close, I am thankful for the relative calm in our community. Thus far we have seen only a few disconnected COVID cases among our students and employees since the start of school on August 11. To view SouthLake’s COVID statistics, you can visit the dashboard on our website. Rest assured that if your student is ever a close contact of a SouthLake person who tests positive for COVID, we will contact you with all the relevant details. If you or a family member tests positive or if you have questions about how to handle a potential exposure, you may contact our amazing school nurse Elizabeth Metzger at emetzger@southlakechristian.org.

Finally, each month this year I will report on stellar instruction I observe in classrooms across campus. I’ve asked our teachers to invite me to see them at their best – their best project, presentation, lesson, or lecture – so I can brag about them to whomever will listen. Last week I had the privilege of observing Mr. David Gonzalez teach his 4th grade students about the political cartoons of the American Revolution. A sophisticated genre, political cartoons require the reader to understand historical context, symbolism, hyperbole, sarcasm, and subtleties of theme and tone. Mr. Gonzalez led his class through an examination of the interpretative skills needed to understand the cartoons, dividing students into timed discussion groups, and then inviting them to share their observations with the class. With the patience and skill of a veteran teacher, Mr. G wove together the historical details of the Revolution with insightful literary analysis. I was impressed by the speed with which these young scholars caught on and began to share their own unique insights, pointing out details I’d missed, adding to my own understanding of each cartoon and its historical context.

These experiences in the classroom remind me why our work matters. When I get caught up in the comparatively mundane details of day-to-day school administration, the faithful work of our teachers to instruct, coach, mentor, and minister to our students inspires me to do all I can to support all they do. Pray for our teachers. They are doing remarkable work under remarkably challenging circumstances.

Onward,

Matthew S. Kerlin

Head of School

Teaching

Going the Distance: Resources for Preventing Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Caregivers

[The following is a presentation I gave at a conference sponsored by the Center for Faith and Health at Samford University, November 2017.]

Introduction

Burnout and compassion fatigue are known occupational hazards for caregivers.  The causes of these conditions are more complex that mere physical exhaustion.  In this presentation, I suggest three ideas that can provide assistance to caregivers for the prevention of burnout and compassion fatigue: a sense of vocation, sufficient margin, and positive social networks.

I spent much of my career in campus ministry, working as a college chaplain on six different university campuses.  My first such job was in 1990. I would wager that my professional experience is similar to many of yours in several key ways.  Chaplains are typically generalists, not specialists, because we often work with a small staff (or no staff) and limited resources.  Chaplains wear many hats.  In 25 years, I have worn many hats: pastor, preacher, teacher, professor, lecturer, counselor, advisor, mentor, supervisor, manager, administrator, coordinator, event planner, travel agent, cook, caterer, editor, chauffeur, sound technician, stage lighting engineer, web designer, graphic artist, photographer, videographer, historian, accountant, DJ, mechanic, pop culture expert, etc. The skills required to continue this work year after year include a willingness to learn quickly, to change readily, and to grow continually.  But maybe more importantly, the job requires determination, endurance, and grit.  We spend long hours, nights, and weekends, dealing with student crises, emotional meltdowns, financial burdens, family dysfunctions, addictions, mental illnesses, academic struggles, and relationship drama.  And honestly, we don’t get paid that well, yet we still love our work and the people at the center of it.  Caregiving in my field requires 10% intelligence and 90% endurance; a little bit of inspiration, a whole lot of perspiration.

I suspect that this sounds familiar to most caregivers, so I also suspect that it comes as no surprise that among the most common occupational hazards of caregiving are burnout and compassion fatigue.  A survey published in 2014 on the prevalence of depression found that over 14% of professionals working in the social services and health care sector suffered from episodes of major depression, the third worst rate of any of the 55 occupations studied. [1]  Frequent interaction with distressed clients and patients, high levels of stress, and low levels of physical activity were found to correlate with depression rates among professionals.  Rates of burnout and compassion fatigue in the healthcare sector could be as high as 60%, further pointing to the costs associated with caregiving.[2]  Additionally, a 2009 study found that nearly 66 million Americans were providing unpaid care for at least one family member.[3]  The emotional, psychological, and spiritual costs of caregiving represent significant personal and professional challenges to many. In my experience, we pay close attention to the details of caregiving, but far less attention to caring for the caregivers.

Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

The concept of burnout was first identified in the mid 1970s by the German-born Jewish-American psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger.  He identified burnout as consisting of (1) feelings of overwhelming exhaustion, including physical and/or emotional depletion, (2) interpersonal detachment or cynicism characterized by intense negative feelings toward aspects of one’s job, and (3) a sense of ineffectiveness or lack of achievement and productivity at work.[4]  Compassion fatigue, also know at Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), is a condition similar to but distinct from burnout.  STS is described as a state of extreme stress, tension, or preoccupation with the suffering of others to a degree that is traumatizing for the caregiver.  The key factor distinguishing STS from burnout is the presence of trauma in those for whom one is providing care, although burnout is frequently a symptom of STS, along with frustration, anger, depression, sleep difficulties, fear, intrusive thoughts, debilitating anxiety, and decreased feelings of compassion and empathy over time.  Caregivers at high risk of STS include those who are regularly involved in emotionally charged or traumatic situations, such as first responders, trauma unit workers, oncology caregivers, hospice nurses, public defense attorneys, and military chaplains.[5]

Some of the research on the prevalence of burnout and STS may shed some light on its causes.  Studies indicate, for example, that in many caregiving professions, young caregivers are at significantly greater risk of burnout than older ones. This seems counter-intuitive, does it not?  Female and unmarried caregivers are also at greater risk than male or married ones, suggesting that a sense of control over one’s life and work plays a role in preventing burnout and STS.[6]  Additionally, caregivers who report being “quite a bit” to “extremely” religious had lower levels of diminished empathy and emotional exhaustion than those who were less religious.[7] 

The key point here is that burnout and STS involve more than mere physical exhaustion. These conditions result from an absence of meaning, the lack of belief that one’s work is important or significant, and a sense of hopelessness in the face of life’s demands.[8]  These conditions are emotional, psychological, and spiritual as much as physiological, and so a holistic approach to their prevention and treatment seems clinically advisable and arguably unavoidable.

I think you agree that solutions to the problems of burnout and STS involve more than mere rest from caregiving, otherwise I would simply recommend that you go somewhere and take a nap!  But that’s not my recommendation, so it seems to me that my task as a presenter is to help provide you with some emotional, psychological, and even theological resources to help you who are caregivers for people in crisis stay in this profession and remain effective over the long-term.

Vocation

The first helpful resource that I would like to discuss is vocation.  An oft-quoted passage from the American Presbyterian writer and theologian Friedrick Beuchner serves as an effective introduction to the concept of vocation:

“Vocation comes from the Latin vocare (to call) and means the work a person is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self-interest. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your customers much either. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[9]

The concept of vocation is rooted in the claim that you are the happiest and most energized when you are doing the work that bring you joy and meets a genuine need.  [e.g. cigarette sales and cardiology]  No doubt, the world needs caregivers, but if Beuchner is correct, you are not going to last very long at it unless you find some level of gladness in it.  Vocation frees you to think about your work as a calling rather than merely a job.  Your vocation and your job need not be the same thing identically.  St. Paul, the missionary who authored a considerable portion of the New Testament, was a tentmaker by trade, a job that allowed him to pursue his missionary vocation.  A job is meaningful only to the degree that it allows you to pursue your calling, and can be stifling if it does not.  A series of jobs strung together over a lifetime we call a career, and careers typically follow the paths of ambition and upward mobility.[10]  But they need not do so. 

Henri Nouwen and Albert Schweitzer provide two examples of people who forsook the enticements of career for the rewards of vocation. Nouwen was a Dutch-born Catholic Priest who left a successful academic career that included two decades of teaching at prestigious universities such as Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  He left the academy at the age of 53 to live and work with physically and mentally handicapped people in a small community in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada. Schweitzer, a German organist, theologian, and medical doctor left behind a brilliant music career in Paris at the age of 30 and became a medical missionary in what is now Gabon, Africa.  During his first 9 months on the continent, he treated thousands of patients and performed hundreds of surgical procedures with the help of his wife, a trained anesthetist, in a hospital that he built on his own out of corrugated iron.

These men left behind prestigious careers to become caregivers.  They traded ambition for vocation.  Their work was not easy and they were not perfect – Nouwen struggled with depression and Schweitzer with exhaustion – but their stories illustrate the powerful pull of a call.  Are you called?  Do you think that you have merely inherited your work by accidental necessity?  Or do you believe that there is a divine providence that organizes our universe by matching others’ necessity with your ability?  Vocation reminds you that you are here for a reason, created for a purpose, and equipped for that purpose.

Margin

I first encountered the concept of margin in a 1995 book by that title, written by the physician Richard A. Swenson. Swenson describes margin as “the space that exists between ourselves and our limits.”[11]  Swenson observes that the stresses of modern life devour margin. Technological progress helps us do things faster, but simultaneously gives us more to do and increases the pace of life. Every space is filled with clutter.  Every moment is filled with noise.  Every dollar is spent, and probably a few more.  We have not a minute to spare.  Our relationships with family and friends weaken, we limp through life physically exhausted, sleep deprived, and emotionally drained.  We lack the time to practice genuine reflection and build true virtue.  So although scientific progress benefits us in many ways, it may also make us less likely to experience lives of meaning and purpose.  As a medical doctor who restructured his own life and practice in order to create margin, Swenson’s prescription for what he calls “overload syndrome” is fairly predictable: work less, earn less, spend less, accumulate less, exercise more, sleep more, rest more, etc. (That actually sounds like vacation to me.)  In other words, we regain margin not by making a few small behavioral changes, but by transforming the way we live entirely.

Good caregiving requires margin, doesn’t it?  We need margin for emergencies, for unexpected or unwelcomed interruptions, for serendipitous opportunities to show kindness, and for timely conversations.  Genuine compassion is difficult to schedule because caregiving is the ministry of interruptions.  Add to that the fact that many of us in this room chose our professions for reasons other than earning potential, so we are particularly subject to the economic pressure to spend more than we earn, and the resulting pressure to work harder and longer in order to earn more.  So in a profession in which margin is sorely needed, the evidence suggests that it is sorely lacking.  We need change, individually, institutionally, and culturally. 

What Swenson is suggesting, and what I am suggesting, is not unlike what Christian theologians have commended for centuries.  In the Christian classic Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes that “superficiality is the curse of our age.”  By contrast, “the classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths so that we have the capacity to “be the answer to a hollow world.”[12]  Foster’s prescription for the shallow life consists of three sets of practices: the inward disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting, and study), the outward disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission, service), and the corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, celebration).  But who has the time, or the discipline, for all of these disciplines?  Just glancing at this list of disciplines makes me tired.  And here is the irony: how many of us seek to reclaim some margin by avoiding the practice of margin-giving disciplines?  We have become very much like the proverbial woodchopper who has little time to sharpen his axe.  We know we could work more efficiently with a short break, but we feel as if we will fall hopelessly behind if we take one.  And so we continue to chop, with decreasing effectiveness, until exhaustion overtakes us, and the blade becomes almost irreparably dull.  All the while the disciplines of religious faith call to us, or more accurately, God calls to us.  “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”  If we cannot claim the time to respond to that call, to care for our own souls, then we will not likely care well for others for very long.

Positive Social Networks

Let us turn our attention now to the network of people that you need to survive as a caregiver long-term.  In a 2012 book entitled When Our Leaders Do Bad Things, social worker and clinical psychologist Mangal Dipty argues that people fall into three categories in terms of their impact on us. There are positive, negative, and neutral people.  Positive people are those who, on the whole, contribute more to us relationally than they cost us.  Every relationship costs you something, but positive people make a net contribution to your coping resources and your margin.  Negative people, on the other hand, cost more than they contribute.  Neutral people cost about what they contribute, for zero net gain or loss relationally.  Admittedly, you cannot quantify relationships with exact precision, and relationships change such that people who were once positive can become negative and vice versa.  That said, I still find this idea persuasive, that you need a critical mass of positive and neutral people in your life so that you can help negative people.  We cannot and arguably should not spend all of our time with positive people.  Most healthy adults consider helping others an essential part of life, so we should spend some time with negative people.  The key strategy is to balance the negative people with positive to maintain balance.

The problem for us caregivers is that we are particularly at risk of spending much of our time with relationally negative people.  Notice that I am not necessarily talking about the attitude of the people who need care.  Some may have quite positive attitudes, but relationally they likely require more of us than they can give to us.  And if we surround ourselves with mostly negative people most of the time, then we will eventually be of little help to anyone.  Excessive relational negativity can lead to what University of Washington psychologist John Gottman refers to as “negative sentiment override,” a condition in which a relationship becomes conflicted to the degree that even positive messages are interpreted negatively.[13]  When you reach this state, your environment has become toxic and your physiological response to that environment changes biochemically.  Your blood pressure and heart rate increase, your brain’s ability to process information is reduced, hormones trigger your body’s most basic fight or flight instinct, and compassionate care becomes almost impossible.  Emotionally, physically, and spiritually you cannot sustain critical levels of relational negativity.  They have the power to taint your vocation and ruin your career. 

The bottom line is that we need relationships that nourish us.  All caregivers need caregivers.  We are incapable of surviving long-term in these demanding fields without resources that we simply cannot get on our own.  We are fallible and dependent creatures.  Until we admit this, we are in trouble.  When we admit this, then we are free to seek in humility what can save and sustain.  The Christian tradition calls this grace.  And I know that other religious traditions provide comparable resources. The forgiveness and compassion that was hard earned by Christ is offered to us freely, so that we in turn can offer it to others.  Grace is the relational resource that feeds our vocation, giving us the margin to run with endurance the race set before us.

Conclusion

Three years ago I took up trail running.  I have been a runner and cyclist for many years, but with age I have slowed.  So, when the Red Mountain trail system opened just seven minutes from my home here in Birmingham, I found a new hobby.  Trail running requires of me physically what my vocation requires of me spiritually.  Many trail races are longer than marathons (usually 50k or longer) and as a result, trail running is less about raw speed and more about steady progress.  Trail runners must carefully balance nutritional intake with the strategic expenditure of energy for long hours over difficult terrain.  Even the best trail runners walk or fast hike up steep inclines in the mountains.  At mile 30, every runner wants to quit and every runner needs a good reason to keep going, a calling to continue.  Slow and steady wins the race, or at least finishes it.  Strangely enough, trail running energizes me.  A weekend without a few hours on the trail seems empty, almost wasted.  The physical depletion that accompanies a dozen miles in the July heat also includes for me a reconnection with God’s creation, a time for reflection, and a rejuvenation of the soul.  Everyone needs his or her version of a good trail run.

For the surgeon and author Richard Seltzer, it is the library.  And now I’d like to quote a brief excerpt from an essay that appears in Seltzer’s book entitled Letters to a Young Doctor that will conclude and I think captures the heart of my talk today.  The essay that I abridge here is called “Toenails.”

It is the custom of many doctors to withdraw from the practice of medicine every Wednesday afternoon.  Some doctors spend Wednesday afternoon on the golf course.  Others go fishing.  I go to the library where I join that subculture of elderly men and women who gather in the Main Reading Room to read or sleep beneath the world’s newspapers, and thump through magazines and periodicals, educating themselves or just keeping up.

How brave, how reliable they are!  So unbroken is their attendance that, were one of them to be missing, it would arouse the direst suspicions of others.  And of me.  For I have, furtively at first, then with increasing recklessness, begun to love them.  Either out of loyalty to certain beloved articles of clothing, or from scantiness of wardrobe, they wear the same things every day.  For the first year, this is how I identified them.  Old Stovepipe, Mrs. Fringes, Neckerchief, Galoshes – that sort of thing.

Neckerchief is my favorite. He is a man well into his eighties with the kind of pink face that even in July looks as though it has just been brought in out of the cold. A single drop of watery discharge, like a crystal bead, hands at the tip of his nose. His gait is stiff-legged, with tin, quick, shuffling steps accompanied by rather wild arm swinging in what seems an effort to gain momentum or maintain balance.  One day, as I held the door to the Men’s Room for him, he pointed to his knees and announced, by way of explanation for his slowness: “The Hinges is rusty.”  From that day, Neckerchief and I were friends.  I learned that he lives alone in a rooming house eight blocks away, that he lives on his Social Security check, that his wife died a long time ago, and the he has no children.

One day I watched as Neckerchief , having raided the magazine rack, journeyed back to his seat. As he passed, I saw that his usually placid expression was replaced by the look of someone in pain. Each step was a fresh onslaught of it. His lower lip was caught between his teeth. His forehead had been cut and stitched into lines of endurance. He was hissing. I waited for him to take his seat, which he did with a gasp of relief, then went up to him. “The Hinges,” I whispered. “Nope. The toes.” “What’s wrong with your toes?” “The toenails is too long. I can’t get at ‘em. I’m walkin’ on ‘em.”.

I left the library and went to my office. “I need the toenail cutters. I’ll bring them back tomorrow,” I said to my nurse. Neckerchief was right where I had left him. “Come down to the Men’s Room,” I said. “I want to cut your toenails.” I showed him my toenail clippers, the heavy-duty kind that you grip with the palm, and with jaws that could bite through bone. One of the handles is a rasp. I gave him a ten-minute head start, then followed him downstairs to the Men’s Room. “Sit here.” I pointed to one of the booths. He sat on the toilet. I knelt and began to take off his shoes. “Don’t untie ‘em,” he said. “I just slide ‘em on and off.” The two pairs of socks were another story, having to be peeled off. The underpair snagged on the toenails. Neckerchief winced. “How do you get these things on?” I asked. “A mess, ain’t they? I hope I don’t stink too bad for you.”

The nail of each big toe was the horn of a goat. Thick as a thumb and curved, it projected down over the tip of the toe to the underside. With each step, the nail would scrape painfully against the ground and be pressed into his flesh. There was dried blood on each big toe.  It took and hour to do each big toe. The nails were too thick even for my nail cutters. They had to be chewed away little by little, then flattened out with the rasp. Now and then a fragment of nail would fly up, striking me in the face. The other eight toes were easy. Now and then, the door opened. Someone came and went to the row of urinals. Twice, someone occupied the booth next to ours. They’ll just have to wonder, I thought.

I wet some toilet papers with warm water and soap, washed each toe, dried him off, and put his shoes and socks back on. He stood up and took a few steps, like someone who is testing the fit of a new pair of shoes. “How is it?” “It don’t hurt,” he said, and gave me a smile that I shall keep in my safety-deposit box at the bank until the day I die. “That’s a Cadillac of a toe job,” said Neckerchief. “How much do I owe ya?” “On the house,” I said.

The next week I did Stovepipe. He was an easy case. Then, Mrs. Fringes, who was a special problem. I had to do her in the Ladies’ Room, which tied up the place for half an hour. A lot of people opened the door, took one look, and left in a hurry. I never go to the library on Wednesday afternoon without my nail clippers in my briefcase. You just never know.


[1] Lawson Wulsin, Toni Alterman, et al, “Prevalance Rates for Depression by Industry,” Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology (2014): 49:1805-1821.

[2] Bernie Monegain, “Burnout Rampant in Healthcare,” Healthcare IT News (April 30, 2013) online at http://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/burnout-rampant-healthcare.  Accessed July 31, 2015.

[3] Lauren G. Collins and Kristine Swartz, “Caregiver Care,” American Family Physician (June 1, 2011): 83 (11): 1309-1317.

[4] H. J. Freudenberger, “Staff Burnout,” Journal of Social Issues (1974) 30:159-165.

[5] L. R. Simpson and D. S. Starkey (2006), “Secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and counselor spirituality: Implications for counselors working with trauma.” Retrieved July 2015, from http://www.counseling.org/resources/library/Selected%20Topics/Crisis/Simpson.htm.

[6] L.L. Emanuel, F.D. Ferris, C.F. von Gunten, and J. Von Roenn eds. Education in Palliative and End-of-life Care for Oncology (Module 15: Cancer Doctors and Burnout). Chicago, IL: The EPEC Project, 2005.  Retrieved July 2015, from http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/754366.

[7] K.M. Kash, J.C. Holland, W. Breitbart, et al. “Stress and Burnout in Oncology,” Oncology (2000) 14:1621-1633.

[8] A. M. Pines, “Burnout: An Existential Perspective” in W. Schaufeli, C. Maslach, and T. Marek, eds. Professional Burnout: Recent Developments in Theory and Research. Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis, 1993.

[9] Friedrick Beuchner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row, 1973, page 95.

[10] Brian J. Mahan, Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002, pages 9-14.

[11] Richard A. Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Navpress, 1995. A newer edition of this book was published in 2004.

[12] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978.

[13] John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999, page 21.

Campus Ministry Leadership Theology

SouthLake COVID Safety Measures for 2021-2022

Dear SouthLake Christian Academy Families,

As we prepare to begin school, you will find in your email inbox a document listing our safety measures for the coming year. The final page includes a document for you to sign and return to the school. I will summarize our plans here and respectfully ask you to read this email in total and reserve judgment until the end.

What Has Changed

Here are safety measures from last year we have relaxed. We will no longer do temperature checks as students enter buildings. Students may now observe 3 feet rather than 6 feet of space between their peers. We will no longer do chapel in individual classrooms but will return to group worship by division in large well-ventilated spaces. We will restart our STEM Lab for students in grades JK through 4. Students may now work in groups and share classroom supplies when needed. We will resume all Middle School and Upper School sports and our athletic association plans to allow spectators. Contact tracing guidelines now exempt vaccinated individuals from quarantine if they remain asymptomatic. Individuals who were masked when exposed to COVID may also avoid quarantine if their exposure was otherwise low risk. Parents will once again be able to volunteer on campus. We based all these changes on updated health guidance and our own operational experience, and each change will improve our ability to teach.

What Stays the Same, For Now

Here are safety measures we will keep in place for the time being. We will continue to provide online instruction for students when quarantine or documented health conditions necessitate. As last year, we may on occasion move to online instruction for a short time following major school holidays as a buffer for people returning to town. We will continue to wash hands and sanitize surfaces frequently. We will continue to use HVAC filters rated MERV-13 or higher. We will fully utilize our outdoor spaces for lunch, play, and instruction as often as logistics and weather permit. We will continue to open doors and windows wherever possible. And now I turn to the subject of masks.

We will start this fall as we finished last spring, with all students, staff, and campus visitors wearing masks when indoors and on buses. We will begin to relax this requirement as soon as conditions allow us to do so safely. There are a few exceptions to our mask policy. Vaccinated teachers may deliver lessons unmasked when at a distance, and then mask as they move closer to students. When engaged in strenuous aerobic activity indoors, students may remove their masks. Those with a documented medical condition making masks unsafe to wear may request an exemption from our policy with a written recommendation from their primary care physician. We will provide students with mask breaks as often as needed. Students may use their own CDC approved two-ply re-usable masks if they hook around the ears, fully cover the nose and chin, and visible markings on the mask conform with school dress-code standards. We will also provide one washable cotton/poly SouthLake mask for each student who has need. And now, I believe you deserve the following explanation.

Delta Variant

Based on the best data available to researchers right now, here’s what we know. The Delta COVID variant swept through India and Great Britain earlier this year and now represents more than 80% of new COVID cases in the United States. As compared to previous strains of COVID, Delta appears to be about 50% more contagious, particularly for unvaccinated children and adults under age 50. Delta makes unvaccinated people sicker, and symptoms develop more quickly, leading to rapidly deteriorating hospital capacity and likely a higher mortality rate. While vaccines greatly reduce the risk of serious illness from Delta, data suggests vaccinated people can still become infected with viral loads sufficient to make them contagious even when asymptomatic. While admittedly limited in scope, the data on Delta so far gives us reason for more caution than we had just a month ago.

Public Health Guidance

In late July, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services updated its guidance to public and private schools asking for universal masking indoors. The Centers for Disease Control recently recommended the same, as did the Mecklenburg County Department of Health. I regularly consult with SouthLake parents who are medical doctors who work on the front lines of this pandemic, and they recommend the same. The people who study the research most and understand the science best are now all speaking with one voice. Last year we listened to these voices and opened school, stayed open all year, and finished the year successfully. Why would we suddenly ignore these same voices now?

A Difficult Decision

I have toiled over this decision because I am painfully aware this announcement will be a relief to some but a disappointment to others. And honestly, I am disappointed too. My own daughter would love nothing more than to begin her senior year at SouthLake without a mask. But my job is not to make the popular or politically expedient decision. My job is to make the right decision. With more than half our student population ineligible for vaccines, and many in the SouthLake community immunocompromised, I am simply not willing to take unnecessary risks with their health while the Delta variant surges. What would we be saying to these members of our community if we disregard their safety for the sake of our comfort? And if I disregard all federal, state, regional, and local health guidance and things go sideways, would I not be guilty of gross negligence? Are government health agencies perfect? Of course not. I have on occasion taken issue with some of their guidance and the timing and manner of their communication. But I have no reason to believe social media pundits or cable news outlets provide me with better data. Maybe down the road our protocols will turn out to have been overly cautious. I can live with that. When it comes to the health and safety of our people, I will gladly err on the side of caution. That said, schools in our region opening mask optional have already faced significant outbreaks and had to change their requirements. We know from both research and experience that masks reduce risk and maximize our chances of keeping our doors open every day this school year.

School-Wide Zoom Meeting

I know some will disagree with what I’ve communicated here. Fair enough. Every SouthLake parent has a voice, even if not a vote. But before you respond, I make this request. We will host a panel discussion with three of our school doctors on Zoom this Sunday afternoon, August 8, at 2:30 p.m. You will find the Zoom information in the email I sent, and we will record the session for those unable to attend. You may submit questions either in advance or in real time to slcaquestions@gmail.com and we will answer as many as time allows. If you view Sunday’s conversation and still have concerns, I will carefully consider all respectful dissent.

Conclusion

Right now, I know masking feels like an imposition. Some believe mask requirements cause division, but doing otherwise runs the same risk. The truth is this – nothing can divide us without our permission. Some believe masks are a matter of personal liberty. I view the matter differently. As a trained theologian, I see far more in Scripture and Christian tradition about communal responsibility. For a Christian school, the obligation to love our neighbor supersedes other concerns. Indeed, Jesus calls love for one’s neighbor one of the greatest commandments. Caring for those around us does not restrict our freedom; doing so is the only path to true freedom.

Matthew S. Kerlin, Ph.D.

Head of School

SouthLake Christian Academy

Uncategorized

SouthLake Christian Academy – Update August 2021

Dear SouthLake Christian Family,

I hope you have enjoyed a restful and relaxing summer. August begins the mad dash to the starting line. For those new to SouthLake, I send a monthly update on or near the first of each month called First Thoughts. Let me officially welcome each of you to a new school year. As you finish (or begin?) your back-to-school preparations, perhaps you will find this information helpful.

First, we plan to announce our COVID safety protocols later this week, most of which will seem rather mundane by now. Of course, we have paid close attention to research on the Delta variant and new guidance from health agencies related to masks. Our teachers return to campus on Wednesday when we will discuss the matter at length. We also plan to host a school-wide panel discussion on Zoom this Sunday with three SouthLake parents who are medical doctors on the front lines. They will discuss Delta, masks, vaccines, and answer your questions. With so much new information every day, I would rather us take time to get this right rather than make quick announcements we later retract. Please be patient and reserve sharing your opinions until after Sunday afternoon meeting. I will send more information near the end of the week. If you’d like more insight into our decision-making process, I’ve written on the subject here.

Second, we have new faculty members to introduce. In our Lower School, please welcome Sarah Drake (JK teacher), Angela Roberson (JK assistant), Katie Henline (JK assistant), Julie Salony (K teacher), Michelle Lahetta (K assistant), Deborah Sammons (grade 1 teacher), Brittany Darland (grade 1 assistant), and Jacqueline Nicholls (grade 3-4 assistant and PE teacher). To our Middle School, welcome Cami Parsons (grade 7 math) and Andrew Bennett (grade 8 math and technology). To our Upper School, welcome Lucy Lepeley (Spanish III and IV), Tyler Melton (US history, government and economics), Noel Powell (chemistry), and Joshua Bas (math). Adding fourteen new teachers reflects the recent enrollment growth we have seen at SouthLake, particularly in our Lower School. For the first time in years, eight of our fourteen grades now have wait lists and others are near capacity. Because we keep class sizes small, almost every teaching space on campus will fill. Campus space now represents one of our greatest future challenges. And on that subject …

Third, we will soon send to print the final draft of our school’s strategic plan. You will see it in your mailbox early this fall. We began the planning process in late 2018 and finished in early 2020 after sustained consultation with hosts of our constituents. When you read it, you will note how many things we have already accomplished in the few months since we completed the plan. I remain grateful for how well our families continue to support SouthLake during a global health crisis, economic strain, and political upheaval. Together, we continue to rise above contentious cultural currents, keeping our focus on educating and ministering to the children God gives us. For this, and because of you, I have hope and excitement for the new year ahead.

Blessings,

Matthew S. Kerlin, Ph.D.

Head of School

SouthLake Christian Academy

Education

How SouthLake Christian Academy Makes COVID-Related Decisions

When setting safety protocols, school leaders evaluate the following:

  • Recommendations by local, regional, state, and federal health officials
  • Guidance from a task force of medical professionals associated with our school
  • The number of COVID-19 cases in the primary zip codes that feed our school
  • The percentage of COVID-19 cases in our area affecting children ages 0-17
  • The best available scientific evidence regarding the transmission and virulency COVID and its most prevalent strains
  • The best available scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of COVID prevention measures and their associated costs and risks
  • Our capacity to identify COVID cases in our school community and follow contact tracing and quarantine protocols to contain viral transmission
  • Transparency and cooperation from teachers, parents, and students sufficient to operate safely

First, we attend carefully to health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), and the Mecklenburg County Health Department (MCHD). Additionally, the Governor of North Carolina and the North Carolina Department of Non-public Instruction issue guidance, recommendations, and/or mandates to which we must attend. All of these agencies update their guidance regularly, but sometimes in ways that conflict with other agencies.

Second, we try whenever possible to make decisions based on conditions in the primary zip codes that feed our school. Conditions in Mecklenburg County or NC as a whole can, at any given moment, be significantly better or worse than conditions in our primary zip codes.

Third, to help us review this ever-changing volume of data and make the best decisions for SouthLake, a team of medical professionals associated with our school review all proposed COVID protocols. In the end, our Executive Administrative Team makes final decisions, seeking to balance the medically ideal with the educationally feasible. We will continually assess current conditions adjust our safety protocols as needed.

We always aim to find a path between the extremes of panic and denial. We will assess risks in a reasonable way without being paralyzed by fear or pretending the pandemic is over. We will adopt the safety measures necessary to keep our students learning in person, on our campus, as safely as possible. We know not everyone will agree with every decision we make. We appreciate the cooperation of all our families nonetheless, and we recognize that as a part of a diverse community, we must operate with mutual trust and transparency to be successful. Our children deserve nothing less.

COVID Leadership

SouthLake Christian Academy – Update July 2021

I trust the summer is affording you a different pace of life and some time to recover from a stressful year. At the risk of interrupting your leisure, I would like to give you several school updates as we head into the second half of summer break.

Financial Operations

This week the School Board approved our budget for the coming academic year. We project revenue of approximately $7.8 million and expenses of around $7.5 million for a 4% operating margin, an important marker for a healthy organization. This assumes an enrollment of 610, and we are only 11 students away from that mark as of today. Our payroll expenses will increase from just under $4.1 million to almost $4.5 million (61.2% of our total budgeted expenses), with most of the increase supporting school-wide pay raises. We are also budgeting carefully for deferred maintenance. Based on a recent report from engineers and contractors, we have approximately $1.5 million in maintenance needs that must be addressed over the next 10-15 years, particularly HVAC, roofing, flooring, and paving. Simply put, as our facilities age, we must set aside money to keep them in good shape, admittedly not the most glamorous way to spend money. Simultaneously funding pay increases, facilities improvements, and strategic cash reserves feels like a juggling act, but we must keep all the balls in the air. We will always do our best to make decisions to best serve our students and put the Academy on the surest financial footing possible.

New Staff Roles

I have a few new staff roles to announce. Moving away from the “principal” titles more typical of public schools, Mark Apgar, Jennifer Thomas, and Becky Makla will now be Lower School Head, Middle School Head, and Upper School Head respectively. The Lower School has been the fastest growing division of SouthLake for the past two years, now with 12 classes, 24 teachers, and nearly 200 students and their families. Mark Apgar (soon-to-be Dr. Apgar) will thus need to focus his leadership on grades JK-4. Jennifer Thomas will relinquish her role as Assistant Principal and assume full leadership of grades 5-8. Becky Makla will no longer be interim but will assume permanent responsibility for leading grades 9-12. Kim Howlin has agreed to an expanded role as Middle School Dean of Students, a job she has already been doing without the title. Farrell Boone will take on new responsibilities as JK-8 Curriculum Director, helping us complete curriculum mapping needed for an accreditation review later this academic year. I will have several new teachers to introduce to you in my next email correspondence in August.

New Carpet and Paint

Most of the carpet on our campus is – shall I say this euphemistically – vintage, antique, original to the school. The time has come for us to replace it. This week we have been packing up carpeted offices and moving furniture into hallways. Next week almost all the carpet on campus will be replaced. The First Building Commons will also get carpet as the space is being renovated to create a sanctuary for SouthLake Church and a chapel, meeting space, and performance venue for the Academy. Until the carpet project is complete, some folks may be working from home for the next week or so while trying to avoid flashbacks of COVID lockdown.

COVID Measures for Fall

We continue to monitor guidance and legislation by local and state officials regarding COVID protocols for fall. We hope to begin the school year normally, ending most or all of our unusual safety measures, but I acknowledge this is dependent somewhat on circumstances beyond our control. Anecdotally I can tell you we’ve been operating summer camps mostly without masks and without incident. One safety measure will remain, however. If exposed, unvaccinated people will need to quarantine. Although we are not requiring the vaccine this year, it will eliminate your need to quarantine if exposed to COVID.

Happy Independence Day

As we prepare to celebrate our nation’s independence, I share with you the concluding phrase of the Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” These words remind me that any worthwhile endeavor needs both divine providence and mutual trust. I am thankful to live in a country and serve a school that actively recognizes the former and continually seeks to build the latter.

Matthew S. Kerlin, Ph.D.

Head of School

SouthLake Christian Academy

Education

SouthLake Christian Academy June 2021 Update

Dear SouthLake Christian Family,

I hope your summer is off to a relaxing start. For those new to SouthLake, I send a school wide update on the first of each month called First Thoughts. We welcome you to the school and look forward to knowing you better in the months to come.

Graduation

This past Friday we held the 19th graduation ceremony in our school’s young history. Here are some noteworthy facts about the class of 2021. Of our 58 graduates, one third are so-called “lifers” having attended SouthLake continuously since junior kindergarten or kindergarten. 50% of the class earned scholarships totaling nearly $3 million for academic achievement, leadership, and service to the community. 10% of the class will compete as student athletes at the collegiate level in soccer, baseball, basketball, and gymnastics. Our graduates were accepted to 72 different colleges and universities across the country. They will attend 31 different schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia. 53% will matriculate in state and 43% out of state, attending schools in the Southwest, Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast. During the pandemic, these students finished their senior year in person and thrived during arguably the most challenging year in the history of modern education. We are proud of them and pray for God’s wisdom to guide them as they take the next steps along life’s journey.

Enrollment

As of today, we have 594 students who have finished enrollment for the coming school year, 484 returning and 110 new. With almost three months to go in our enrollment cycle, we have already equaled this past year’s enrollment. Grades K, 1, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 12 are now operating on wait lists. Word of mouth remains the most common way new families learn about SouthLake, so thank you for telling others about our great teachers.

Summer Enrichment Camps

We have a full slate of enrichment camps on campus this summer, with 214 students enrolled in 38 different camps, 9 of which still have space available. Many of our campers will be new to SouthLake this fall, and some are non-SouthLake students. We have both morning and afternoon camps available throughout the summer for students in junior kindergarten through high school. Camp registration closes at midnight on June 7. For more information and to register online, go to https://www.southlakechristian.org/campus-life/summer-camps.

Facilities

This summer we will be doing significant work improving our campus. Many of our teachers will be moving to new rooms as we flex space for new classes. Additionally, we will be painting the exterior of our main academic buildings, reflooring several rooms and offices, and doing significant renovations to our large playground. Your Annual Fund contributions help make these improvements possible. So far this year, nearly 50% of our families have made charitable contributions to the school. If you would like to give before the close of this fiscal year, you may do so online at https://factsmgtadmin.com/give/appeal/zF58bxcdG.

In closing, I want to say thank you for our success this past school year. We knew we would need a strong combination of committed teachers, cooperative parents, and courageous students, and by God’s grace, we got all three in abundance. The doctors and medical professionals whose children attend SouthLake were a tremendous blessing this year. Their calm advice and encouragement helped us make fact-based decisions, avoiding the extremes of panic or denial. As I finish my third year at SouthLake, I am more grateful than ever to be a part of this remarkable community.

Blessings for a restful summer,

Matthew S. Kerlin, Head of School

Education

SouthLake Christian Update – May 2021

Amazingly, only 13.5 days of school remain before summer break. I’m not typically one to count down the days, but this year is an exception. Each day in person this year has felt like a gift, and every week a victory. I will save my congratulations for the official end of the school year, but for now, I cannot thank our teachers enough for their herculean efforts to make this year possible. Did you know that the average tenure of our faculty is greater than 10 years? We have never needed their experience and expertise more than this year. I encourage you to drop your teacher(s) a note of appreciation next week. You have no idea how far those notes go toward sustaining endurance and boosting morale.

I have a few general updates on how we plan to approach the 2021-2022 school year in terms of COVID safety.

  • We will continue our Online Academy for students who need it for health reasons.
  • We plan to keep classroom capacities where they are now. Although the CDC has said three feet of spacing is adequate, we value small classes and hope greater spacing will allow us to relax other safety measures sooner.
  • We would all like to move away from masks as soon as we can do so safely. This will depend on vaccine acceptance by our students, families, and teachers, along with metadata showing vaccinated people are unlikely to contract or spread the virus. Although we do not plan to require the vaccine at this time, it’s likely our fastest way to eliminate masks.
  • We plan to return to as many in-person gatherings as possible, including weekly chapel services, although meeting sizes will depend on area conditions and health agency recommendations.
  • We will soon discontinue temperature checks as the NC Department of Health now considers them optional.
  • We plan to play football this fall. We have a full slate of games already scheduled, and I look forward to Friday nights under the lights once again.
  • We will keep you posted as we are able to make additional changes toward normal operations.

This past week I had the opportunity to spend three days at a Christian school a few hours away, serving on a site visit committee with ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International), one of our accrediting bodies. As a relatively new head of school, I found the experience incredibly educational as we prepare for our accreditation site visit next year. I came away from the experience with a head full of ideas, but mostly with gratitude for SouthLake and all that we’ve successfully navigated during our three years together.

Finally, we have a busy summer ahead as we offer a full range of enrichment camps on campus and several high school classes through our Online Academy. You have probably been bombarded with information on these topics, but if you need a refresher, let me know. We will also make campus improvements, prepare our classrooms for the fall, and finish academic scheduling to get you that information around July 1. And sometime in July, we’d like to take a few days to rest before we start it all again this fall. Until then, I encourage you to finish well, say thanks to your teachers, and say a prayer of gratitude to God for his blessings during a most unusual but successful academic year.

Onward,

Matthew S. Kerlin, Ph.D.

Head of School

SouthLake Christian Academy

COVID Education

One Year Ago …

One year ago, we closed our campus and moved to online instruction for all students. At the time, I will confess I had grave concerns about what the following months would hold for our school. How long would our campus remain closed? Would our people get sick? Would our students thrive online? Would we survive financially? How and when might we reopen our campus? These and a hundred other questions weighed heavy on my mind during long days working from home and occasional sleepless nights.

Fast forward to one year later. We are a better school today in every way. Enrollment is strong and nearing capacity as we have added four new classes in our lower school. Our financial position is sound and participation in charitable giving has grown remarkably. Our teachers have learned to navigate online learning with amazing skill and our technological sophistication as a school has developed at light speed. Our students have learned new coping skills that will pay dividends long after this pandemic ends. We all learned the value of cooperation and trust as we navigated this year together as a community.

One year after our world shut down, I feel gratitude. I am thankful to each of you for your support and cooperation this past year. We faced many issues that threatened to divide us as a community, but we remained unified in our commitment to educate and care for our students. I am thankful to the medical professionals whose wise guidance has helped us navigate the complexities of running a school safely during a pandemic. I am grateful to our teachers for the sacrifices they make every day to continue the noble work of education by whatever means necessary. And finally, I am thankful to God whose providence and protection we owe for whatever good the past year has brought us, and whose love for us in Christ drives us forward in our mission. The past 12 months have brought us precious little to celebrate, but today, we can certainly celebrate that we are still here and still doing the work God has for us, day by day, week by week, until one day all things are made new.

Academics community Education

Thank you SouthLake Christian Academy

We made it. We completed a full semester of in-person classes, five days a week for all students in all grades. In previous years, such an accomplishment would hardly be noteworthy. This year, it feels like a monumental achievement. I will confess to a few sleepless nights this past summer considering our options. We had to weigh the risk of certain harm to many by keeping students online, against the risk of possible harm to a few by returning to in-person classes. That decision was the most difficult of my professional life. In the end, we decided to support both in-person and online classes. I won’t bore you with the details of what it took to prepare, but I will tell you the preparation was worth every cent and every second. A doctor whose children attend SouthLake said to me in July, “If any school can pull this off, SouthLake can.” In retrospect, he was exactly right. We are by no means out of the woods, but as this semester ends, there are a few people I need to thank for our success so far.

First, I want to thank our teachers. They bore the most substantial risks. Would students in their classes give them COVID? Would our safety measures really work? Would students and their families cooperate? They faced this semester with uncomfortable unknowns and re-entered our classrooms when many teachers across the country refused to do so. They were careful, but they were not hesitant. They did not complain about all the many changes we had to implement to make this work. They taught students in person and online simultaneously, which is incredibly difficult. Some got sick or had to quarantine yet still taught remotely from their homes by Zooming into their classrooms on campus. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it here: our teachers are unsung heroes of this global pandemic.

Second, I want to thank our business team. This year they’ve had to make 10,000 complicated decisions in conditions of remarkable uncertainty. From CARES Act legislation to emergency financial aid disbursement to quarantine payroll tax adjustments, nothing this year was normal and nothing was easy. Both our CFO and our Senior Accounting Clerk are highly trained and experienced CPAs who care deeply about our families and never forget about the people behind the numbers. Without them, we’d never have finished 2020 with our current financial stability.

Finally, I want to thank our SouthLake families. You overwhelmingly supported our desire to return to in-person instruction and our plan to do so safely. You trusted us, cooperated with us, rolled with the changes, stayed flexible, kept us informed, and did your best to keep our students and teachers as safe as possible. You followed our protocols when your students had to be quarantined. You attended school meetings and parent-teacher conferences on Zoom. You were patient with tropical storms, power outages, early dismissals, and the accompanying carline delays that followed. And to top it off, you gave generously to the teachers’ Christmas fund.

I have never been prouder to be associated with SouthLake Christian Academy. By God’s grace and providence, we end 2020 as a stronger school than when the year started. May God give you and your family a blessed Christmas and New Year.

Sincerely,

Matthew S. Kerlin, Head of School

SouthLake Christian Academy

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