Sunday, March 1, 2009

If you can keep your head...

The day of reckoning grows closer, and independent school people are growing ever more anxious. Even where admissions signs point to full enrollments and where annual giving hasn't diminished, the question of what things will look like in April, June, and September gnaws away at administrators and classroom teachers alike. Will there be enough students to fill the school and ensure full employment for the current faculty? Will the "donations" portion of the revenue stream enable the school to stay well above water? What will the yield be? Will there be a sudden, unexpected erosion of current enrollment as parents lose jobs and savings?

It's scary. Most of us don't like being afraid, but we like even less being around other frightened people. Fright breeds fright, and we know all too well the repercussions of mass hysteria and mob mentalities.

Independent school people are for the most part wise and educated in these things, but even the best of intentions and the most mellow sagacity cannot always stave off panic. My concern in all this, a concern that far outweighs whatever immediate anxieties I might have for schools in my own region (and I should state categorically that I am quite confident about my own school's situation), is that ill-considered decisions taken by governing boards and driven by parents might drive the "industry" as a whole several steps backward.

I have previously written of my firm belief that continued, intentional innovation will be the key to survival for schools, but lately I have heard more rumors than I like about schools where panicky communities have suddenly turned on forward-thinking leadership, blaming internal policies and practices for decreasing enrollments and financial predicaments.

Somehow, even when the stock market is plummeting and housing values are tanking, there are people who look not at the situation in their communities and the world but at the school and its leadership as the cause of problems. If the school has lately undertaken new work--in curriculum, in diversity, in technology, in sustainability--these initiatives, untried and unproven in the minds of some, MUST be to blame. Sometimes cranky, change-averse faculty members are even happy to egg parent, graduate, and trustee skeptics on, in the hope of reversing the school's course.

This MAY BE, I admit, a problem of branding and marketing, where perhaps the administration has failed to do all of its homework in communicating to the school community and to the community at large just what it is doing and why. Innovation succeeds most when it's understood in its purposes and methods, and good leadership explains these things well.

But even the best of leadership may have a hard time withstanding a wave of panic that sweeps through a community and causes people to lose heart at a crucial moment. When voices are raised to bring an end to this initiative or that--"We've got to get back to our traditional ways and values!"--holding to the moral high ground may count for little. Fissures may well appear within the school and its constituents that have been dormant for years. At worst, the situation becomes volcanic, and firestorms take their toll.

What are school leaders and their faculties to do?

For one thing, leaders must clearly state--compellingly, often, and in non-educationese--the ways in which whatever new work is under fire support and further the traditional values and mission of the school. For another, faculty should be firmly reminded that the effect of skeptical words to parents and others is multiplied, always negatively; even if they may have the opportunity to dance on the graves of unpopular administrators, they may be doing it in the unemployment line if prospective families take turbulence in the school as a reason not to enroll their children.

Newer schools, especially those that may have been founded as expressions of a particular personality or social belief, will be at greater risk, although the opportunity in this situation is for such schools to come out on the other end of the recession firmly established as institutions rather than points of view; now is the time to demonstrate that their founding ideals and principles have real substance, and that they can stand up in a storm.

Older schools are at an advantage, as I have suggested before, in that they can and really must leverage their reputations and heritage as living proof, if you will, that their institutional decisions are sound and their innovations merely more thoughtful chapters in the long story of their success.

It won't be easy, and some heads will roll. But everyone should be anticipating the first signs of panic and mob mentality and working preemptively to build the case for the forward-looking (I might even say progressive) work that so many independent schools have been doing. It is this work, in every area of school programming, that will continue to differentiate independent schools and that will ensure their viability even if the current recession will do some considerable harm to some of them.

It won't be easy, but if we remain smart and confident (not arrogant, mind you, but thoughtfully and justifiably sure of where we are headed and why), we will, the vast majority of us, survive and even thrive.

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