California Boarding School Culture/Honor Code/Motto

Thanks @CaliMex for the link. I’ve been gaining more insights about California boarding schools and Thacher along with a few other ones (Cate, Webb, Stevenson) have solid academics and some do place a strong emphasis on building a cohesive and shared values community. I was impressed that the honor code is a central focus of Thacher. What surprised me is that I recently learned that Doug Hodge, one of Thacher’s trustee, was tangled up with the recent Operation Varsity Blues college bribing scandal… Here is a link:

He’s no longer affiliated with Thacher.

Also, there’s also this article:

This one mentions that he has been accused of paying bribes for two of his kids to get into college. Not sure if Thacher students were involved in the scandal, but it must have been tough on the school all around to have a trustee involved. How did Thacher deal with this issue in terms of providing information to parents and students? I’m sure all schools have difficult situations to address from time to time. How those challenges are handled can be revealing.

We got a letter from the head of school very early on telling us that the board of directors had asked Hodge to resign, which he did. I haven’t seen a single allegation of Thacher being involved in any way.

BTW: The college counseling function is very strong at Thacher. Colleges are very familiar with the school and know that the horse and outdoor programs challenge kids and build their character in ways that are quite unique to the school. (Yes, horses and outdoor activities are available at other schools… but they aren’t mandatory, even when you don’t feel like engaging in them, which is where the character-building part comes in!)

Curious – did Hodge and/or his kids go to Thacher? Either he was a Trustee without his kids going there (weird), or he felt the need to get outside help for his kids college applications (also weird).

Makes sense that Thacher has nothing to do with Singer because their college counseling is so strong and entirely in house. But something doesn’t make sense about Hodge being a Trustee but his kids going to an outside consultant. Feels like there is a lot more to the story.

I would not spend time worrying about a Trustee. They are usually selected for their ability to donate big $ or for the special skills they bring to the Board. An issue like this, especially one that only became public after years of secrecy, isn’t a reflection on the school. Now, if they brought Singer onto the Board the today, you’d be right to worry!

Most of the top boarding and day schools have strong college counseling offices, with 25-50 kids per counselor instead of the 300-600 counselor caseload that is common in public schools… and yet, many wealthy people decide they need extra help or a leg up from independent consultants. Those who are looking to buy their way into prestigious colleges are probably a very small percentage. But knowing the Thacher culture of integrity and transparency (and knowing the college counseling staff), I’m pretty certain no one would dare ask them for help in bribing one’s way into a highly-ranked school! There will always be wealthy people who see themselves as “above” the rules and who prefer throwing money at life’s challenges than enduring situations (like college admissions) that they can’t control.

Thank you @CaliMex for your response. Sounds to me like Thacher handled it swiftly and informed the school community openly, which bodes well. Transparency and communication is important. I agree with @CateCAParent that there is likely more to the Hodge story. For school boards, members usually have a connection to the school in some capacity other than just being a wealthy benefactor.

On another note, while some trustees might have deep pockets, schools in general should be expected to bring on board members that do more than bring in money. In general, schools tend to tout that their trustees are also there to advance the school’s mission and provide guidance. Trustees are also representatives of the schools. In Thacher’s case, it’s unfortunate that their trustee was involved in the nation’s largest college bribery scandal, but it looks like they asked for his resignation immediately.

With that said, all schools no doubt have a hard task. There are many members to take into consideration at any school and school admins can’t completely predict what any member of the community (trustee, student, faculty, staff, etc.) may do that could reflect poorly. Hopefully though, Thacher, and other schools do spend a good amount of time vetting trustees carefully and choose people with shared values who are truly committed to building a strong educational institution. To circle back to the original topic of discussion, many schools spend a considerable amount of time highlighting their motto, honor code, or school culture. Because of this, schools should do more than just court the big fishes with big money. Let’s be honest, many schools with the need for large endowments are apt to do this; that’s the reality for many schools. But what the incident with Thacher’s trustee demonstrates is that the character and integrity of board members are also important.

I agree too @CaliMex that there are always people who see themselves as above the rules and will try to solve problems by throwing money at it. Sadly though, despite having enough money to get a top-notch education and a multitude of resources, some people will still try to gain access through a back door. It’s all so bizarre.

Not sure if a more thorough vetting process would have even helped. They seemed like a nice family that used its wealth for good.

Fraudulent activity is usually well hidden.

One more criteria for potential parents to look at is the trustees at any given institution. Does the school have a broad based age range, is everyone male? Are there young and old trustees? Do they have a real connection to the school? Are they in only a handful of fields ( finance) or do they represent a broad spectrum of careers( like teaching and the arts).
Many parents at many schools. including Thacher and others-- use high level consultants. Even though BS kids have more access to excellent guidance counselors, many want one-on-one consulting. And many parents do things on the side ( using the consultant to gather ideas and then going back to the guidance counselor with these ideas). It’s no surprise that so many got caught up in that scandal.
As I’ve said before, there is no school where everyone is doing the right thing. And parents need to look closely at the BS their children will attend. It’s sad when parents believe a school and the school breaks their trust. It happens, at many schools. The thing is, does the school fix it with honesty and courage or do they sweep it under the rug?

@Happytimes2001 I don’t think Thacher did anything wrong in this case. Do you?

Also, FWIW, the Thacher board of trustees is half men, half women and includes a well-known author, alum, and sociology PhD who is an expert on happiness and joy!

@CaliMex No idea if they did anything wrong or not. Haven’t followed it. My general thinking is that every school has people who are good, bad, ambitious, ethical, unethical and all the rest. One school hasn’t cornered the market on what is good and just. And no school has a whole group of negativity either. You get all kinds at all places.
I like the idea that every board is made up of a broad segment of society. That isn’t the case at every school. At others, it’s great. Some schools have obviously cultivated alumni/ae to be on the board. Some have great stories of the individual progress of their members. Others not so much. I do like to look at the board or meet someone. Tells me something about what the school is about.
The motto is one thing, what transpires is another. One hopes as a parent and student that they mirror each other. Doesn’t always happen but that’s the goal.

@CaliMex - you know an impressive amount of detailed information about Thacher for a mom of a rising sophomore. I have a rising sophomore at Cate, live a similar distance from Cate as you do from Thacher, am likewise a working parent, and like you am a relentless researcher. I read everything I can find about Cate, and seek out staff when I have a question (small or large). You are on a whole other level than me knowledge-wise about your daughter’s school. Much props.

I haven’t had an opportunity to get to know trustees, although admittedly there are local gatherings I have missed. I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know the college counseling staff beyond surface level - because they don’t do much with Freshmen, let alone their parents. You know Thacher yield info, which is highly protected in most schools. What are you doing that I am not, that you have such access to people/information?

How often does Thacher communicate with parents, and how? I guess I am jealous. Cate is very communicative and transparent, but if all Thacher parents are as knowledgeable as you are, I am curious how Thacher achieves that.

Thacher sure is lucky to have you on CC advocating for it.

Not sure how to respond to your message, @CateCAParent . Thank you?
Most of what I know about Thacher I learned from @ThacherParent, my kid, or alumni (I happen to know several).

Here’s an example of trasparency in action: The judicial council that hears disciplinary cases is mostly made up of students and after every deliberation they go dorm to dorm to explain the case and the rationale behind their decision and to answer any questions their fellow students might have. I have no idea how that sort of thing works at other schools, but I was blown away by the leadership role students play and the sheer transparency of the process.

Interesting – the Cate disciplinary council (sounds like the equivalent of Thacher’s judicial council) presents significant determinations at assembly. So the same, but different. I am not sure how I feel about it, but I get the point. Discipline and behavior standards are a community thing, and dealing with it matter of factly takes it out of the rumor mill that can exist in a small school. Important to note - the parents don’t get info on the run of the mill discipline issues.

Back to the culture question – how/how often do various schools communicate with parents? Cate does a ridiculous amount of communiCATEing. A weekly email to parents, plus additional ones for specific issues, additional ones from the Headmaster every few weeks. Magazines. Gobs of photos on the website. Kid-specific communications from the health center, advisor, and others, on an as-needed basis.

We get detailed reports in the middle and end of each trimester – including info from dorm heads and coaches. We get/send texts with the advisor all the time. I swear I know far more about kiddo’s life now than I did when kiddo was at home.

I’m quite a researcher myself as well and and trying to learn as much as I can about boarding schools, California ones in particular. My initial reaction to Thacher was that it had a strong sense of community. At times, I’ll admit that I found the messaging about the honor code and the values to come across to me like a carefully crafted message and seemed like a marketing campaign. A cohesive community with strong values is what many parents expect or hope for as they consider sending their kids off to boarding school. Most schools do have strict honor codes but Thacher is among the best at emphasizing it–that’s just my impression based on the materials/brochures I’ve seen of theirs compared to other schools. Kudos to Thacher for identifying that community values matter a lot to many parents. If anything, I appreciate that the school makes this an important highlight of their school. I agree with the comment from @Happytimes2001, “The motto is one thing, what transpires is another.” Based on what you’ve shared, @CaliMex, you seem to be very satisfied with your child’s experience with the school and it’s helpful to get your perspective. Glad to hear your experience has been a positive one.

For me, I still think there’s a bit of mystery surrounding Thacher Trustee Doug Hodge’s involvement in the college scandal. He was also a Thacher parent and it’s not fully clear whether a Thacher student was involved. As far as I know, Thacher hasn’t made a public statement that says unequivocally that no Thacher student was involved in the scandal. I would think that would be the first thing they would state clearly if that was the case–just reading between the lines here. Sometimes it’s what not said that’s more than what is said. But I could be wrong about this so please correct me if I am. Also Hodge’s case has yet to be fully played out in the judicial system, so there will likely be more details forthcoming in the future. Also, the media coverage has been so heavily focused of the two celebrities involved, Felicity Huffman and Lori LoughIin, so much so that the incident with Hodge has had much less media coverage in comparison and less is known about that case. I think it’s fair for parents interested in Thacher to want to scrutinize this incident a bit more, or to be interested in knowing more details, especially for those considering sending a child to school there. If a Thacher student is involved, I think that’s a detail that prospective families/students might like to have.

All boarding schools are concerned about image and messaging, for obvious reasons. Thacher seems like a well-oiled, savvy marketing machine. Whether a consumer (ahem parent) sees the marketing as a plus or a minus is a personal values thing.

With all the talk of trustees, I looked at Cate’s trustee page v Thacher’s. Cate has bios for its trustees, Thacher doesn’t. Cate is all alums and parents. Can’t tell with Thacher’s page. Maybe that is normal for boarding schools, but that doesn’t seem to toe the Thacher transparency line.

Thacher probably had nothing to do with Hodge/Singer. But trying to wipe clean the internet of any connection is not transparency, either. I like how Choate handled its controversy: A public letter on the website, along with an action plan and updates. That’s class. Every school has controversy. It is how the school handles it that sets them apart. If/when Cate has a controversy, I hope it handles it more like Choate.

Even though I find their marketing off putting (eg multiple highly produced videos, and a home page that screams out its yield, for starters), I don’t want to come across as Thacher bashing. It is a great place for the right kids.

Culture is everything to Thacher. The honor code is practiced daily, not some BS marketing fodder. See it for yourself. Talk to the kids. Meet the teachers. Show up at a game. Watch a presentation. Read what the kids write about the School. Do whatever scripted or unscripted thing you can think of to put your mind at ease. Thacher’s Honor Code was the reason that we chose to send our son. These many years later, with the results of his life coming in, we remain thrilled with our decision. I mean, what good is a great education if it’s uncoupled from Honor, Fairness, Kindness and Truth? One other thing about Thacher, it sees itself as a work in progress. It always has and I absolutely love this orientation. Not every moment in the School’s history will be shining, not every kid, or Trustee for that matter, will be a good choice or produce a good outcome. Life happens, even at the best boarding school on the planet ;). And yes, the School is wickedly transparent about its results and its process.

My husband felt the same way about Thacher and their messaging. He left wondering if that was all they had to “offer”. I liked Thacher a lot and was more on board than him. We left with our kid really liking it but then came Cate the next day and it was all over. Cate made her giddy. We’ve tried several times to have her put into words what about Cate made her instantly know it was the one but she can’t.
I at first leaned towards Thacher for a few reasons but after revisiting Cate I realized that the kid was right and it was the right school for her.

It will be fun to go on the journey with you this school year. It is filled with ups and downs but overall a educational ride. Four weeks from now we are hopping on a plane to drop off our kid…so many emotions!!!

@CateCAParent Really good points. Every BS school has pretty slick marketing to my 20 Th Century eyes. When we were looking albeit not at Thacher, we found many thick and wonderful brochures, plush couches and well articulated videos and web pages. But I am wary of someone marketing to me so we looked at all schools carefully. Some fell off the list.
Each and every school has had it’s demons. Some were benign and some were glaring. The best thing is to find someone whose kids attend a school that is pragmatic and willing to honestly tell you/not sell you on what their experience has been like. We know many in BS and have heard many stories that never will make it to the web page.
As a parent, I think you have to weigh what is said and what is done. And you have to know your child. What makes your kid tick. Once you find a couple of schools that you like, then you can get a good fit.
Every school has a culture —and to the parents and students who go there it’s great. But not every culture fits every family.

A final comment. This thread has the whiff of shading Thacher, which is peculiar coming from an existing or prospective Cate parent. The bond between the schools is generationally strong, starting with Curtis Cate who, when he came West, joined Thacher as a history teacher for the year prior to starting Cate in Santa Barbara. Since then, while a great school rivalry has existed, each institution has always been there for the other. That’s something of which many people, including me, are proud. That being said, applicant children and parents definitely self-select after their visits. For example, we lived on the East Coast and my kids attended a great private day school called the Episcopal Academy in Merion, PA (now in Newtown Square). To us, Cate felt like a west coast version of Episcopal. My son (and we) were looking for something qualitatively different, which we found at Thacher. Someone else might have the opposite reaction. I have brought this up before because it’s a great third party data point, and I wish that they would publish their results, but the Independent School Gender Project takes a ton of measurements of school health at the following institutions. Thacher is a top performer. If you ask the admission’s head or the school head at any of the participant schools, they would probably talk you through the bi-annual survey results. They are revealing and valuable, but can’t be published publicly. Bottom line, Cate is a fantastic school and a great option for the right kid. Thacher is the same. Here are the ISGP participants: Baylor School

Cate School

Colorado Academy

Deerfield Academy

Grace Church School

Groton School

Hawaii Preparatory Academy

Hawken School

Hopkins School

The Hotchkiss School

Kase Leadership Method

Kent School

Lawrence Academy

Milton Academy

Oregon Episcopal School

Phillips Academy - Andover

Pomfret School

St. Paul’s School

St. Stephen’s Episcopal School

The Taft School

The Thacher School

The Webb Schools

@ThacherParent - sorry to offend. I of course value the friendship and good-natured rivalry between Cate and Thacher (I have posted about how much I appreciated it in how they responded to the fire), and believe Thacher does a great job educating the whole child. I don’t think any of the comments say anything different.

At most, I read the comments as an observation about administrative choices about marketing and p.r., and that perhaps there is a mismatch between the school’s recent choices in those regards and their mission. For me, it comes from a place of respect and confusion to give that honest opinion. I also wonder if it is a recent departure from historically how the school handles things. @ThacherParent , is that a shift you or your son have perceived?