Beyond Survival: Reimagining Why Independent Schools Exist

By now you’ve probably determined how your school will open this fall. Since March, school leaders have been in survival mode, and this period of finding water, building shelter, and discovering food resources—Maslow’s basics—really hasn’t stopped and probably won’t until our chaos evolves into our new or next normal. We are tiring of listening to experts and reading Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports and trying to make sense of it all. As much as we’d like to make predictions about what’s ahead, now is not the time to try. As Bob Johansen, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, argues, the future will punish certainty, but it will reward clarity. If you feel certain about anything right now, we would be concerned.
Thinking about this pandemic in terms of survival tactics might help bring clarity. Remember the movie Cast Away? We know Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is in need of change. He’s a workaholic, a company man through and through. We pity Chuck, probably because we see so much of ourselves in him. Nothing short of a plane crash and four years on a remote island will change his mindset about life. At the end of the movie, we are left with the sense that the island was a blessing.
After securing his basic needs, like schools this spring, Noland climbs to the highest point of the island to gain clarity about his situation. What he realizes is that his chances of survival are thin. And why should he survive? To go back to the rat race? To maintain a life so blinded by acceleration that nothing—love, peace, compassion—sticks? There has to be something to inspire us not only to survive, but to emerge stronger and more resilient after this pandemic. Noland keeps his fiancée’s picture with him always; he becomes obsessed with it. He has to get back to her. He owes her an apology for leaving, for having his priorities skewed. It’s his raison d’être. As Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” a prescient concept for all of our institutions.

Steps to Surviving the Crisis

In Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, author Laurence Gonzalez culls through decades of research on who survives when things go wrong. What Gonzalez extracts from the survivor experience can translate to steps schools can take.
  • Surrender to the pain. This pandemic poses an existential threat to the continued existence of independent schools. The conditions, externally and internally, will likely force closures. You can do everything perfectly and still be closed in 2021­–2022. But surrendering can free us to maneuver in a chaotic situation.
  • Take correct, decisive action. Take risks that matter and are grounded in good reasons. Risks will be required of your institution to survive, but more important, risks will be required to thrive.
  • Do whatever is necessary. Learning institutions will be looking for how every person in the community contributes. Give the community permission to question traditions, mission statements, values, curriculum, budgets, and salary levels, that once felt untouchable. You may be a different school after this is all said and done, and that’s OK.
In April, we wrote about staying grounded in values and research-informed instructional practices when teaching in uncertain conditions. The spring was not the time to question our values, mission statements, and instructional practices. We did our best. But now we need clarity. Do our values align with what is necessary now? Does our mission statement lead us to correct, decisive action? What instructional practices have to change for us to prepare students for the future? By not seeking clarity, schools run the risk of doubling down on their current strategic plan or defaulting to what is institutionally comfortable, what has stood the test of time. Pandemics, like survival situations, reveal; they uncover who we are, how our institutions work. We are exposed right now, and that presents a great opportunity.

Showing Your Value

Independent schools will again be competing against the public option and other peer schools in the area. Smaller class sizes and more individualized attention has been a go-to for years and does distinguish independent schools from public schools. But now, we’re seeing public school models for next year that revolve around smaller class sizes. How will you justify the cost of your school if public schools accomplish this? Focus on why you have small class sizes. What do they allow you to do? What’s the big picture?
Schools that have allowed the College Board to define the rigor and innovation of their curriculum will be hard-pressed to compete against what public schools offer in this area. The Advanced Placement (AP) courses, for example, at many public schools are extensive and often smaller than other courses. Competing against an extensive AP catalog or well-structured International Baccalaureate (IB) program will be difficult. And now, with a number of colleges moving to test-optional next year and beyond, will the AP programs not be the next domino to be knocked into the pool of the past? What’s the harm in offering your teachers a chance to brainstorm about a new curriculum or new programs that are more innovative, more rigorous, more aligned with your mission, and unique to your school? Have them present their ideas in January 2021, so there’s time for implementation the next year. To be clear, we’re not advocating change for the sake of it; we’re suggesting that now is the time to question the relationship your school has with external programs.
Independent schools were often founded to support or expand a specific religion. With the continual decline in religious engagement in America, it’s difficult to see how this commitment will pull a school through these difficult times. Many families are still looking for a school with sound ethics, grounded perhaps in a specific religious denomination. How are you distinguishing your school, religious or secular, as a moral institution, as a school that doesn’t just take the recommendations of the CDC, for example, but goes beyond those guidelines to protect their community?

Moving Past Survival

What is going to make your tuition cost worth it? Independent schools need to purge—programs, mindsets, and traditions that have left us with little room to evolve and adapt. Independent schools exist to create the requisite conditions for innovation and creativity that align with the mission and values of the school. Not pockets of innovation but the entire school as a thriving, buzzing, pulse of energy radiating what 21st century learning looks like every day in every program. Parents will pay for impact, even if it’s online.
Begin this fall by empowering teams of faculty, staff, and administrators to ask these questions:
  • Why should our school survive this pandemic? What’s its purpose?
  • What programs do we offer that are unique?
  • Why do we have programs like AP/IB, advisory, assemblies, chapel, athletics?
  • How can we serve students we have now and in the future better?
  • What parts, policies, or procedures of our school are (un)aligned with our vision for the future of education?
  • What are we willing to change, and what is a nonnegotiable?
Our faculty and staff are tired, but innovation and movement energize. By the spring of 2021, you need answers and an action plan for a reimagined future. It is our hope that independent schools will remind themselves why they exist and, consequently, hang up the reliance on exclusivity and their role as a repository for socioeconomic demarcation. Independence is a responsibility, not an accolade, and it is on us to show the world what is possible in education, to move past mere survival. 
Brent Kaneft
Brent Kaneft

Brent Kaneft is director of curriculum and instruction at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Nolan R. LaVoie
Nolan R. LaVoie

Nolan R. LaVoie is dean of students at Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, Virginia.


Dave Buckwald
7/12/2020 12:34:57 PM
Great framing of this moment as an opportunity. Thank you!

Donna Orem
7/8/2020 1:22:00 PM
Terrific blog. I love the generative questions you suggest. Well done!

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