Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tough times, but a learning experience

For much of the last few months my "unassigned time"--time not spent working or driving kids around--has been devoted to writing a series of small articles and recording podcasts on financial sustainability issues for independent school leaders. Having covered the ground so far from development to innovation, I have spoken with a number of very thoughtful and knowledgeable people.

What I have heard has been generally quite heartening. Although the economy has struck fear into the hearts of many independent school people, no one yet has extreme horror stories to relate. Yes, there have been some layoffs, salary freezes, and other pretty sharp responses to enrollment concerns (responses that are of course horror stories to teachers left jobless in a tough market), but the wholesale disaster that some people had been predicting last fall seems not to have come to pass.

Is the absence of obvious catastrophe grounds for complacency? I think not. The economy is still wobbly, and whether it will be healed a year from now remains very much an open question. Nonetheless, it seems to me as though many schools have been asking themselves the right questions and taking thoughtful, positive steps to adjust themselves to an uncertain market.

What I have heard over and over is that the model in which our schools just expected an infinite cycle of growth in giving and enrollment is dead--at least until cultural amnesia takes over in a generation or so.

Schools are starting to think about "right-sizing" student bodies and faculties (okay, that's an inexcusable euphemism if it involves reducing faculty numbers other than through attrition) and looking for new ways to bring in revenue. Development offices are working smarter as well as harder, and schools are understanding the marketing isn't just about selling prestige but convincing new audiences that what we do is worthwhile for growing kids in unique and compelling ways.

A few schools seem to have recognized that now is a great time to think about new ways to organize curriculum and program. If the previous way wasn't working optimally, why not try something new? And so they are--grabbing onto Big Ideas in environmental and global education and looking at how to capture even more of the good heat being thrown off by technological innovation.

All in all, it looks as though we're going to make it, most of us, and along the way we may even get significantly better at what we do. We're all a bit chastened, and at least for a while we're not likely to take quite so many things for granted; we're going to become 21st-century versions of our Depression-era grandparents, although we're not likely to give up our iPods, even if we may upgrade a little less frequently.

Happy Spring!