Over 200 schools in SCL’s database are less than 10 years old. This means they are still in the turbulent, formative years. It is common to struggle during this time because there are so many priorities happening at once. Slowing down to think about process may feel important, but not urgent. Well, after many conversations over the last decade, both as a head of school and consultant, here are 10 often overlooked areas that probably need to change:
1. Confusing process and price school models.
Small schools tend to be idealistic and a little naive. They try to find their place in the community but often misjudge their school’s model by saying, “We will be the most authentic, transformative classical Christian education available AND be the most affordable school in town.” Those two notions, most likely, are on a crash course with reality. Price schools position themselves in their market as one of the more affordable options, but that means they give up certain programs, amenities, and cultural distinctives. Process schools focus on formation, but they are the most expensive, primarily because they require a higher adult-student ratio. It is very important that boards and school leadership work through this conversation and come to terms with the realities and limitations of whatever model you embrace.
2. Assuming your culture can scale exactly how it is now.
Small schools are able to do things unique to their size. A pervading “family” feel resides, and everyone loves families. Well, that is, until all the cousins come in and crash the party. Instead of six people for dinner, you have 30. Suddenly, the same resources don’t cut it, and it feels like you have lost something precious. Your spring gala has to be held in the gym instead of the great room…and people are not happy.
You can retain your mission and still change your facilities, policies, culture, events, and practices. In fact, in many cases, you have to, or your school will stagnate. The key is to capture the core of your mission, the principles you were built on, and then be able to adapt to the circumstances that growth demands. People, it turns out, are fickle. They are nostalgic about the past (even though they complained about things back then) and skeptical about the future (even though they are begging for the school to “grow up.”). Building on your past while adapting to the demands of the future is what leaders do. It’s what is necessary to build the culture you want, not the one that you discover once you start paying attention.
3. Employing undisciplined admissions practices.
Set your re-enrollment deadline early (January/early February) or transition to continuous enrollment as soon as you can. However, do not allow families to re-enroll whenever they want. The only way to ensure your families meet the deadline you set is to create substantial penalties for missing it. If families do miss the deadline, do not let them out of their contracts (except for clearly stated exceptions, such as moving). It is not unChristian to enforce your policies. Just be sure to communicate them clearly. If you struggle with this, consider at least two things. One, while you may feel empathy for your families who change their mind, you should have an equal amount of empathy for your teachers who are dependent on the promised tuition dollars. Two, you cannot be a good steward of the school’s resources if you have 50 families in flux in May. None of your families would run their businesses that way, and you should not either.
4. Employing undisciplined budget practices.
Too many small schools set their budget after enrollment is complete. This is backwards. Create a cost-based budget in the fall, vote on a provisional budget in November, announce tuition in December. Then, hold a state of the school meeting in January (before re-enrollment) and demonstrate to your families what value and improvements are being added for their increased tuition. Once your enrollment is complete and all the numbers shake out, create a final budget for the start of your next fiscal year.
5. Assuming you cannot raise money or tuition.
Yes, you can. You just can’t imagine being in a different spot than you are now. Consistently deliver your mission at a high level in the classroom, communicate with precision, shepherd your students with Christ-like love, form deep partnerships with your families, and create the most dynamic school culture in town. Then, go tell the story in a compelling way and watch what happens!
6. Under resourcing your leadership team.
Your leadership team is too small. Period. That is ok…for now. However, it cannot stay that way. It will cost you to add leaders who are not attached to a classroom of tuition-paying students. That is true. But, it will cost you more to run off the people who got you this far and to start over. I can tell you the pool of candidates you will be drawing from is an inch deep. If the candidates in that pool know you ran off the last guy, it is a much harder sell. Get the ISM leadership circle out and start envisioning your next 3-5 hires. Then, map those positions out in your strategic financial plan.
7. Thinking “we are unique.”
Ok, I hate to be the one to say this, but you aren’t. Embrace it, humble yourself, and start learning from others who have already made all of the mistakes you are making.
8. Misunderstanding student support.
As your school grows, you will inevitably adopt a wider range of learners. That wider range of learners will be represented among families, among siblings. When you cannot serve individual students, you cannot serve families. Decide what you believe about supporting struggling students. Do your homework and find out what other classical Christian schools are doing who have already wrestled through the issues. Figure out where your boundaries are and then be prepared to serve a broader range of students than you do now. If you want to be a small school for elite students, that is fine. But, don’t pretend like every student who comes in the door will be equally capable of meeting the expectations you have set for the 25 students in your current upper school.
9. Assuming your Head will know how to grow with the school.
Being a head of school at 150 students is not the same job as being a head of 300 students. Once your school exceeds 200 students, things change. You will have to add more leaders. That will be hard because these positions will not come with a classroom full of tuition paying students. As you add more key leaders, your head will have to spend more time with them and less time with other people. That will be noticed and felt, not only by the school community, but the head as well. In some ways, it will feel disorienting and definitely overwhelming. When the school breaks the 200 threshold the head will also need to start focusing more externally to help with facilities planning, fundraising, and governance. All of these changes will require a different skill set than what has been needed to lead so far. Your head will need encouragement, training, support, and mentoring.
10. Watching your school grow while your governance model doesn’t.
It is very common for boards to downshift into neutral once the school becomes more established. While that is understandable on one hand (given the amount of sweat you put in to get it this far), it is simply not realistic. Boards must transition from an operational board to a governing board in order to meet the challenges present in the next phase of growth. Schools who pass the 200 threshold hit a cluster of challenges all at once. They must find/build new facilities, create a master plan, raise money, rethink the financial model, and a host of other things that require vision, strategy, and wisdom. The board’s job is to make the school sustainable and mission-faithful for generations. Developing systems and infrastructure at the board and executive leadership level will be key to fulfilling the board’s purpose.