Heading a private school is a challenging endeavor which involves the proper application of numerous management and leadership skills. It is a position that demands consistency of purpose and continuity of leadership for the long haul. Thus, getting off to a good start is essential in building the foundation for future successful years. The purpose of this paper is to share my thoughts, based on experience, with new or relatively new school heads.
Your admission standards represent your brand. It is important to keep the standards clear and consistent over time, even during tough economic times.
Sell the school as if your 75 percentile student was your average student. If you do this, you will gradually increase the quality of student entering your school. If you sell the school as if the best students (top 10%) are your population, you will find many will leave and feel you misled them; this is not good for your reputation. There are enough students at the 75 percentile that they will be a critical mass and good students will be attracted to them.
At one point when I started my career, I brought in all the department chairs to have a discussion. They complained that admissions just lied to folks, promised everything and did whatever it took to get a student in the door. I told them that if I sold the school as the average student, the quality of student would gradually decline over years. This is due to psychology, in that, parents and students want to be challenged to maximize their potential. They want to improve and be the best they can be.
To make my point, here is a little story about a college visit I went on with my daughter. The admission folks were bragging about how the average SAT score had risen 50 points within the last year. However, their new average SAT score was 200 points lower than my daughter's score. We might as well of walked right out at that point, for the tour and subsequent discussions were falling on deaf ears. She was not interested in a school with students' abilities so much lower than hers. I believe this is true even for the average student.
Strategic or long-range planning can be the most powerful tool available to private schools that are focused on continuous and long-term quality improvements. Unfortunately, too often Strategic Planning gets a bad reputation because of ill-conceived or superficial plans that are generated just to meet accreditation requirements. It is true that many plans are not strategic and visionary at all. Instead, the plans are a compilation of operations policies and procedures. A legitimate strategic plan is one that guides and strengthens the institution over the long haul. It is visionary and stretches the school to reach difficult goals. The good ones have strong grass roots support from the faculty and staff, administration, board of trustees and other constituents. Also, schools with effective plans fully understand that the processes of information sharing, goal development and vision setting is equally important to the actual plan itself.
Financial management has taken center stage in the world of private education. Heads of schools, CFOs, and Boards are focusing more and more time and effort to insure their schools have the financial resources to satisfy today's needs as well as tomorrow's goals. Regardless of their current condition, schools are keenly aware that they must continue to improve to be competitive in the high quality private school marketplace. Further, long-term sustainability is critical as schools prepare to meet the high expectations of students and parents.