The Thriving Independent School

I came across John Spencer’s post and it led me to think once again about the fortunate space that many independent schools occupy in the educational landscape.  Independent schools have the freedom (if not the resources) to invest in educational technology and then provide the support and educational staff necessary to integrate it, they tend to think of the whole child (especially when you get into residential schools and those with strong advising programs), they provide thriving, deeply intense school communities which naturally create powerful learning experiences, and each has their own identity.  And yet…some thrive and some do not.  Despite the resources available, independent schools are no less immune to the shifting sands and myriad pressures of the educational landscape.  Unfortunately, there are many independent schools that are fighting to survive in a very difficult economy.  Instead of thinking about what the broad community of 1400 independent schools need to do to survive as related to the complicated economic landscape, I was drawn to thinking about what independent schools should be doing to “thrive.”  Here’s my list:

1.)  Know thyself.  Understand what you do well as an institution and where the soft underbelly lies.  Move forward by playing to your strengths and addressing the deficits.  This may mean difficult decisions and conversations regarding well loved programs.  In short, each school can not be everything to everyone.  Jim Collins called it “The Hedgehog Concept.”  No matter what you call it, it’s important for a school to know what it is doing to educate students, know what it should be doing, and know the limits of what it can do.

2.)  Allow for innovation…get to “yes.”  Innovation is ever the buzz word these days.  Each school needs to determine where innovation is possible, and most importantly, where innovation is needed.  To allow for the forces (often in the form of idealistic and talented individuals) to help shape innovation and change in the institution, a school needs to allow for the possibility of “yes”, and then find a way to get to yes.  I feel comfortable offering this insight, as I know it’s a particular challenge I face each day.  “No” is easy, but saying yes to the interesting idea is often difficult, possibly even scary.  Saying yes begins the difficult work of implementation, experimentation, and it introduces the possibility of failure.  Certainty is only possible with saying, “No, nothing different will happen.”  This response brings another certainty, which is that you certainly won’t innovate.

3.)  Serve a greater good.  In the midst of having small classes filled with bright students, independent schools need to demonstrate a commitment to improving the community that exists beyond their campuses.  NAIS revisited this idea a few years back, and I hope that it continues to spread.  By thinking broadly about the institution’s role in the national conversation on education, teaching students the importance of service and leadership, or serving as a resource to the local community, independent schools can reach a wider audience and serve more students than indicated by enrollment numbers.

These struck me as the high level issues related to independent school “thriving”.  What occurs to you?


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