Many new heads beginning their tenure will face some degree of financial stress at their schools. I fear that in the face of what may be an existential crisis for some schools, the same “usual suspects” will be trotted out by boards as solutions—better marketing, a greater presence in the community, higher visibility, more engaging websites, new and transformative programs, and a stronger social media presence. I recently heard one board president urge the administration and fellow trustees to “get the word out.” He cited a few recent examples of excellence as lost opportunities to create some positive buzz. Despite the school’s historical thirteen plus percent attrition, he was convinced that there was just not enough “happy talk” about the successes of the school. Oh, if it were just that easy!
When I hear trustees talk about increasing enrollment, I see a fog of assumptions. Trustee parents have sent their children to the school; therefore, the school must be strong—a perfect example of the confirmation bias. Think about this assumption for a second. It’s as if the school leadership is saying,
“We want more customers, but we are not going to provide them anymore value. Because in our minds that value is a given. We’re not going to make our services better in the areas that prospective parents care about; we’re just going to do a better job of touting what we think makes us special. We know our strengths; after all, we do periodic parent surveys.”
The fog thickens as the assumptions go unquestioned. Into this fog walks a new head, perhaps a first-time head with little knowledge of enrollment management and all its complexity. She only knows that she was hired to “fix the problem.” And the trustees know the solution—more public relations, more getting the word out, more tweets. Adding to the fog is the necessity for the head to defer to the board in the early stages of her headship; the balance of power for a first-year head clearly lies with the board.
But there’s a better way for new heads to tackle enrollment challenges. Learn and think.
New heads, if your school is facing an enrollment challenge, I want you to first quietly and systematically determine how good your school really is. Move beyond the internal mythologies, the lingering stories of great teaching in years past that too often obscure reality. Only let a few people know of your stealth plan because you are still in the process of developing trust with your new colleagues—a cornerstone of your ultimate success. Unless you’re a niche or specialized school, your focus should be on three questions:
1. What is the experience of students?
2. What results do families expect and is your school achieving those results?
3. To what degree do the answers to these questions align with your mission?
More specifically, get your academic administrators to complete the following homework assignment:
1. To what degree do faculty in your division truly challenge students by setting high standards and engaging them in the learning process? Give each a grade and then calculate the percentages which fall into each category?
2. To what degree do faculty communicate through words and actions that they want their students to be successful? Again, assign grades and determine the percentages.
3. To what degree do teachers communicate through words and actions their concern for each of their students, their intellectual, emotional and moral growth? Assign grades and calculate percentages.
4. To what degree do faculty collaborate with each other, with the administration and staff, and with parents? Assign grades and calculate.
This homework assignment need not be arduous. Each evaluator can assign grades for each question for each teacher in his/her division based on his/her knowledge of these teachers. You don’t need to see the grades for individual teachers (at least, not yet); you are only concerned about the aggregate.
Once you have collected the data (preferably over the summer), you can begin the “trust, but verify” stage. Sit in on some classes; get some informal feedback from students; listen carefully to parents. One of your jobs as a new head is to determine the degree to which your views of quality teaching align with those of your senior administrators. This is best done at the beginning of your tenure under the cover of “getting to know the school.”
Assuming your “trust, but verify” exercise indicates some degree of alignment between you and your senior academic administrators, you can now begin to dig into the data. How many “A” players do you have based on the four criteria? How are they being utilized to shape faculty culture and behaviors? How are they being incentivized? Has the percentage of “A” players declined or increased over the last several years? And what about the underperformers? Why are they still at the school? What level of accountability has there been? And finally, ask questions about the real Achilles heel of independent schools, those teachers who fall into the “B-“ to “C-“ range. What systems are in place to help them improve or move them out? From this data and the resulting conversations, you can start drawing some conclusions about the state of your faculty—the most important lever you have to influence student experience and school results.
But your initial research is not finished. You have to systematically discover how your school is perceived in the marketplace. This can be a difficult task because it is hard for a new head to find objective perspectives; hidden agendas abound. You have to be resourceful. One new head in a larger city set up interviews with independent school consultants who provide counsel to families about school placement. He pressed them. “What is the perception of our school in relation to its competitors? What kinds of students do you recommend for our school? Where do families see our school in relation to the public schools?” Another head of an elementary school interviewed secondary school admission directors. This research should help you better understand the kinds of students you are serving now and the likelihood of changing that target audience to strengthen the school’s results. To be sure, there is more work to be done in terms of strategy, but strategy uninformed by the realities of the marketplace is a “fool’s errand” for most schools today.
Once you have achieved a deeper understanding of the quality of your school and the nature of your marketplace, you then need to think. Yes, not do, but think. It can help if you have a thought partner. You have to bring your relevant learning to the three questions above. But now the questions are expanded:
1. What is the experience of students now? Can it be improved?
2. What relevant results is the school achieving now? Can they be improved?
3. Given my new insights, can I create a vision that will align with the mission of the school and if achieved, will put the school on the path to financial sustainability?
Behind this approach is an assumption—new heads have to assiduously search for the truth. Once you have developed a vision, informed by an honest assessment of the school and the reality of the marketplace, formulating strategy is straightforward.
So new heads, enter your schools with eyes wide open. Resist the temptation to see enrollment challenges as a problem to be solved with compartmentalized solutions that come straight from a tired playbook. Do your homework. Use your imagination. Ground your moves in the reality of the marketplace and the mission of the school. Kathy McCartney, the President of Smith College, when asked why she accepted the President’s position at a women’s college that was floundering to some extent, responded, “I believe in women’s education; I know there are challenges; with my team I will figure it out.” There is a big difference between defaulting to the standard playbook and actually “figuring it out.” Choose the latter.