Updated: Jun 24, 2021
In any of the roles I've had in schools, I've dreaded the "you can't do it all" conversation with kids and parents more than any other. Over the years, I got better at seeing the warning signs and intervening proactively, but too often the conversation followed an eleven car pile up, all wheels off the wagon, a yard sale, as the skiers say. The typical version was the student who had overloaded his plate from the extravagant smorgasbord of programs that our schools and communities offer. The conversation always boiled down to "something's got to go, and it can't be your schoolwork" and was made more difficult because there are kids in our schools, often the good friends of the aforementioned student, who seemingly can do it all and do it well.
It's fair to say that even before the pandemic, independent schools were facing the same tough conversation--just how much can we do if excellence is the thorough-going standard? As family expectations have risen with our tuitions, and as admission rates at selective colleges have declined, the handful of just-okay, sorta-shabby elements that survived in the dusty corners of our schools in the past now stand in the bright light of our new ethos: transparency. In a strange way, the pandemic has put independent school programs in even brighter relief. Translating school programs to remote formats made us freshly aware of their sheer abundance, and far more often than not, weak programs became exponentially weaker in their remote version. Late this summer as they announced reopening plans, out of necessity, school leaders had rare opportunities to say, "We're not going to do that (swimming, debate, AP courses, the seventh grade camping trip, etc.) this year," and, as heads look ahead to the 2021 - 2022 school year, particularly through the lens of the budget, they're contemplating the wisdom of saying, "We're not going to do (fill blank) anymore."
In this light, senior administration teams should explore the following questions right away, all of which have staffing and budget implications and reflect the level of change for which schools need well choreographed communication strategies.
How many programs can the financial and human resources at our school sustain?
Which of our programs are truly excellent; which are part of our brand? Do we have the opportunity to grow these signature programs?
Which of our programs are unique in our market?
Are there other ways, other people to do the work better?
Can we reorganize the way work is distributed to strengthen our programs?
The answers to these questions should also be filtered through the following questions which represent universal value propositions at all independent schools:
Do our programs reflect our school's commitment to and understanding of child development?
Do the programs promote the centrality of relationships at our schools? Regardless of the activity, are children seen and known?
Do the programs reflect our school's commitment to equity and justice?
This exercise is as relevant for the school that will right-size over the next year or two as it is for the school that seemingly has the resources to do it all. I am a strong proponent of the ISACS School Community Survey, used by independent schools throughout the country, and particularly the correlation matrices from that survey that measure the degree to which individual programs at your school drive parents' perception of the school's overall value proposition. This is a truly sobering analysis for schools who previously used anecdotal, apocryphal feedback to evaluate their programs and discover that some of the time-honored programs at their schools, even if deemed excellent by parents, are not key value drivers. Sunsetting programs is never easy at independent schools, but I'm convinced that parents, kids and educators will emerge from the pandemic with a more grounded perspective on the things that are truly important, and that schools that use this opportunity for self-examination will become stronger. The schools that don't risk a spectacular yard sale.