Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Like the Simpsons, most independent schools have outwardly friendly but demanding neighbors. Depending on your neighborhood, those relationships can be relatively simple or extraordinarily complex. In either case, it's a certainty that the neighborhood dynamics will change over time and that the relationships are ultimately the responsibility of the Head. Heads should steward neighbors in exactly the same way they do major donors. A Head's proactive investment in neighbors--no matter how far away the next dusty project--is critical to the school's day-to-day and strategic success.
Like stewarding donors, mapping the school's critical neighbor relations is part science part art, with the latter almost always outweighing the former. Heads are wise to know the official channels, processes and figures in their municipalities, wiser still to grasp the folkways that define how things really get done. For example, aldermanic power defines government in cities like Chicago and St. Louis, but how one gains access to one's alderman can vary radically from ward to ward. Likewise, neighborhood associations in some municipalities can wield extraordinary, unofficial power. Heads should have on-going relationships with the neighborhood association presidents, aldermen, county executives, and mayors who will ultimately approve plans.
In mixed-use neighborhoods, Heads should build special relationships with other institutional neighbors who, humble church or prestigious university, risk being resented by residential and commercial neighbors. With our tax-free status, traffic surges, Friday night lights, constituents with whimsical parking habits, and fence-defying kickballs, independent schools and other institutional neighbors often find ourselves vilified by neighbors, most of whom would, in the next breath, say that they moved to the neighborhood for its rich institutional resources. Institutional neighbors almost always have critical resources to share with each other and should build reciprocal, cashless deals whenever possible and seek to advocate for each other in official, municipal processes.
Most time-consuming and requiring the most creativity are the efforts the school should make to be a resource and good next-door neighbor to regular folk. A huge portion of this work is about communication and proactivity. If your school is in a complicated neighborhood, a neighborhood newsletter is brilliant, informing neighbors not only of imminent parking crunches, but also of the parent education event that is open to the public. Independent schools always run the risk of being cast as gated enclaves, and anything we can do to dissolve these stereotyped boundaries is good. School leaders should also make time get to know individual neighbors. . . because they are contiguous, because they are influential among other neighbors, because they have an immediate, daily reaction to the school and its practices. This is almost entirely art, and any earnest, thoughtful attempt to build those relationships is valuable: send a meaningful holiday gift, roll in extra early once a week to chat up the diffident neighbor on his dog walk, host on campus and attend the neighborhood block party.
Inevitably, every school will have to draw on the credibility and good will that it has generated with neighbors. Unfortunately, many Heads have not made these efforts a priority and, when the school has a project afoot, find themselves selling pain to a fresh audience more likely to have a negative view of the school in the first place. With some strategic focus, Heads and delegates can build the public purpose of their schools, position their schools to profit from the vibrancy of their neighborhood, and find support for school initiatives that create short-term inconvenience to neighbors.