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New Challenges, New Learning

By Jeffrey Shields posted 05-05-2020 11:45 AM


CEO Notebook |

While school budgets are likely to face intense scrutiny this year, professional development opportunities may help our schools differentiate and even grow in a challenging environment. 

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

I recently had the unusual but welcome opportunity to present on a webinar with academic leaders from independent schools. The topic was leading schools through the COVID-19 crisis from a business and financial perspective, and it was hosted by One Schoolhouse, which offers AP and non-AP online courses for high school students, as well as professional development opportunities for educators.

In full disclosure, I have had the pleasure of serving as a trustee for One Schoolhouse for the last seven years, alongside some of the brightest and most innovative academic leaders in the country. Board discussions have helped me reflect deeply on the provision of meaningful learning experiences, increased student agency and teacher-led innovation in both the traditional and virtual classroom.

You may have heard that the best way to understand where we are now and where we may be going is to understand where we were before the pandemic. That is why I appreciated the webinar’s first question from moderator Brad Rathgeber, head of school and CEO of One Schoolhouse: “What was the state of business and operations in independent schools heading into the COVID-19 crisis?”

As business officers and business operations staff know well, the independent school business model had challenges before the pandemic. Ten years after the Great Recession, most schools remained highly tuition dependent and looked to fundraising, endowment draws and auxiliary programs to help close the tuition shortfall in an environment that made these prospects increasingly challenging. Enrollment has been relatively steady nationally, with very little growth. The most troubling pre-pandemic trend was that many families with the means to afford independent schools were not inclined to send their sons and daughters there in the same numbers as we have previously enrolled. All these factors drove schools to experiment with new tuition and financial aid models, including tuition resets, indexed tuition, and other ways of opening the funnel and expanding our market.

Families and prospective families are noticing how well our schools have done in very difficult circumstances, almost entirely through on-the-job training.

Perhaps the most valuable learning from this crisis is that all of us can be part of our school’s problem solving, adaption and reinvention. While the health and safety of the community is our top priority, evaluating, retooling and implementing an agile and effective distance learning solution will also be crucial. Families and prospective families are noticing how well our schools have done in very difficult circumstances, almost entirely through on-the-job training. Consider the level of performance we can achieve with more thoughtful planning and time for reflection. It could be a key differentiator to bolster enrollments, as even well-funded public schools have struggled to pivot effectively.  

Schools will most certainly be considering expense management carefully, and that may include reviewing professional development budgets. But while we may reduce the resources to support hotel and travel costs for geographically distant professional development programs, let’s reallocate these resources to the many online learning opportunities that will help our schools meet the moment and effectively build on the distance learning skills that have been recently developed with great efficacy.  Additional professional development may help our faculty achieve even greater results and be precisely what our schools need to succeed in an uncertain future.

I have a focus group of one — my daughter Samantha — and the resiliency she has demonstrated in this new environment has been inspiring. She has met the moment with the support of outstanding teachers at her Washington, DC, independent school. Like many of her peers, she is demonstrating agency and engaged in her studies. Supported by ample resources and training, our students are up to this new challenge. And all those making that growth possible can do the same by supporting our own continuous learning.

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, May 5, 2020. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.


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