In 2000, I became head of school at the Montessori School of Albany (New York), a pre-K- middle school program that later became Woodland Hill Montessori School. I arrived at a time of rapid change, as we needed a plan to redefine our school. We wanted to move the school from a rented space to a permanent location, and we needed a new building, name, logo, and brand. During that year and then several times in subsequent years, as we grew from 165 to 290 students, expanded twice more, and added two new programs, the strategic planning process has been an essential driving force shaping our future.
One of the wonderful aspects of working in a successful independent school, and especially a Montessori school, is that all constituents in the community feel that they are part of the school and have “ownership” in the school’s operation and governance. Granted, they do have a vested interest in our school’s success. The strategic planning process bolsters this inclusive spirit, even as it aims to realize the preeminent goal of running a school: a strong and stable enrollment combined with sound fiscal management.
To begin, it’s crucial to keep two questions uppermost in mind: Why do parents want to send their child to your school, and why do they want to keep him/her there? These key questions have many complex answers. Program, staffing, and facilities are all part of these answers and deciding these factors are the head of school and the board of trustees. Successful schools seek out the input and feedback of faculty, staff, parents, board, and students to accomplish several goals. The first reason is simple and perhaps obvious — with community input, you can better determine how to improve your school. When a school has diversity of thought and brings together so many perspectives, unexpected new ideas and prospects can emerge.
The fear that many heads and boards have is that asking for feedback and input means asking them to be the decision makers. Clearly stating the purpose and process prior to launching into strategic planning is one way to avoid this. The facilitator's role is also to manage this and clarify roles. Another fear is that a vocal minority will steer the group contrary to where the board and head wish the group to go, wreaking havoc in the planning process. Both of these scenarios can happen with sometimes dire consequences, but there is a way for schools to develop a plan that includes the feedback and input of all constituencies and also keeps the planning process on track. A successful strategic planning process moves the school forward on a path to success.
What steps can your school take to successfully develop a strategic plan?
1. Hire or appoint a facilitator
A facilitator will establish a positive tone and keep everyone focused on the planning process. When our school was smaller and we had a very limited budget, we identified a member of our school community who was skilled in strategic planning facilitation. A former General Electric executive, our facilitator had training in planning and implementing successful processes. Using someone from within the organization is usually not recommended because a facilitator needs to be impartial and someone without input. In our case, we felt comfortable that the former GE executive would be able to lead the group and be impartial. Over the past 15 years, we have also hired a consultant from a local nonprofit agency.
2. Review the strategic plan
Appoint a task force made up of all constituencies —- faculty, staff, trustees, parents, and sometimes students or alumni to review the mission and vision of the school. Your school can skip this step if you have completed a review within the past five years.
3. Plan community workshops
The facilitator will then lead a series of workshops, which are either open to everyone in the community or to a Strategic Planning Committee made up of faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, parents, and sometimes students. We have found that two or three workshops work well, and if open, are offered at a couple different times to allow more people to attend.
Workshop agendas include:
- State of the school: What has happened to enrollment, programs, finances, staffing, and facilities over the past 5-10 years?
- What are “is” and “is-nots” of the school? This brainstorming exercise helps the group develop a shared understanding of the school and positively sets the stage for further discussion and focus. For example: The school is a warm and caring community. The school is not large enough physically.
- What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats at the school and in the wider community that affect the school?
Alternatively, another good way to begin is to have a "town hall" meeting where community members can voice their thoughts and opinions. The facilitator will run this meeting, and then take the information collected to share and use at subsequent workshops, with a limited number of appointed members from different constituencies.
One benefit of these workshops and process is building community. When I arrived and we were preparing to move, we faced some defining issues. The Montessori School of Albany was not in Albany, and we needed to choose a new name. We engaged the whole school community, including the students, by holding a contest to determine a name. We then whittled down the choices and voted to determine the final name.
In addition, moving to a larger school made constituents concerned that our school would lose its close-knit community feel. In these sessions, we developed ways to ensure that we remained a connected and warm community. For example, we added to our program new family mentors and a welcome coffee at the beginning of the year. Involving our whole community brought us closer as we prepared to move to a larger campus.
Who should be invited to the workshops?
Some board members or heads may worry that inviting multiple constituencies together to a meeting may be dangerous because parents or board members may find out information from faculty or staff that may be damaging and vice versa. I have found that this fear is usually unfounded. It is important to make sure that a critical mass of helpful, forward-thinking community members are present to keep the meeting flowing positively. I always personally invite those I know will be helpful.
In addition, I support inviting all constituencies because I have found it’s helpful for teachers and staff to hear what parents have to say and vice versa. For example, the topic of class size has come up at each of our strategic planning sessions. Parents usually believe that smaller class sizes are optimal; however, teachers have explained that in multi-aged Montessori classrooms, larger class sizes are optimal, giving children a large enough peer group for work partners and playmates.
A transparent process helps the whole community understand that the school welcomes many ideas and opinions. When a school executes strategic planning properly, constituents will also be able to understand that not everyone will get everything they want but that the goals will be derived through a process that will be in the best interests of the school. Lastly, this is a perfect way to bond the school community and demonstrate the benefits of transparency.
Work of the workshops and planning meetings
Through the planning process, the workshops will allow the members to identify real and perceived strengths and weaknesses of your school with the idea of creating attainable goals. Then, it is up to a smaller group, in our case, the board of trustees, or a board-appointed task force on strategic planning, to work on what the priorities are, usually based on financial constraints, but also on feasibility, timing, and importance. The goals can be short-term and long-term. For example, three years ago we identified a weakness of low enrollment of three-year-olds. Through the strategic planning process, we set a goal to investigate the feasibility of a toddler program that would feed into our early childhood program. Three years later, we opened a toddler program, and now we have a full complement of three-year-olds. The facilitator is crucial here, helping to translate the goals into a viable implementation plan with a timeline, action steps, necessary resources, and parties responsible for seeing through the measurable goals.
The strategic plan should be a working document that heads and boards revisit according to a multi-year timeline. Three to five years is a common time frame, and it is important to make adjustments along the way as necessary. For instance, say you have plans to grow your student body, but a local employer moves away, leaving a large number of your parents unemployed. At that point, your school needs to reevaluate and adjust its enrollment plans to accommodate this change.
The strategic plan provides the outline for most goals and objectives for the agenda of the head of school and board of trustees. I make it my goal to ensure that we accomplish all the items on the strategic plan that are in my purview, which includes everything except board-specific items.
Every strategic plan comes with a price tag. As such, a financial plan tied to enrollment should accompany the strategic plan. The strategic plan can form the basis for the case statement if your school needs to conduct a subsequent capital campaign.
Many resources can help schools with strategic planning. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) publishes The Strategic Process: 10 Steps for Planning Your Independent School’s Future and the annual Trendbook, and maintains resources on its website. BoardSource, Independent School Management, and Compass Point are also helpful.
In my time as head of Woodland Hill Montessori School, I have found strategic planning to be an exciting process that mobilizes, energizes, and focuses our school community on the issues that matter most for our future.
Susan Kambrich has been head of school at Woodland Hill Montessori School (New York) for the past 15 years. She serves on the board of the New York State Association of Independent Schools and the American Montessori Society.