Leadership Lessons: Finding Clarity After a School Closure

Fall 2019

By William J. Lippe

leadershiplessons.jpgThe day before the board of trustees announced its decision to permanently close the Cluny School (RI) in 2017 was one of those great-to-be-alive spring days. The sky was almost cloudless. Daffodils that students had planted the previous fall poked through garden beds. Children excitedly headed out for recess accompanied by animated and engaged teachers. Parents, volunteering or visiting, stopped to chat about plans for the following academic year’s major fundraising event. The school, which was anticipating its 60th anniversary, appeared institutionally vibrant and headed for another 60 years.
 
The school community was in shock and mourning when it heard the news. I shared the community’s deep sorrow. Discovering in my first year that the school was under severe financial stress, I spent the following two years trying desperately to save it. Eight years before my tenure began, the school had incurred significant debt to finance new building construction. When I started as head of school in 2014, about 80% of the debt remained outstanding. The debt service had been increasing annually. This liability, together with certain disproportionately expensive employee benefits, threatened sustainability. I became consumed with securing as many budgetary efficiencies as possible while simultaneously working within these limits to improve programming. Nevertheless, the margin for error was too slim; an ongoing decrease in enrollment left the board with what it believed to be the only choice: closure.
 
I’ve tried many times to understand the causes of the closure. Overwhelming financial liabilities were the proximate cause. But an examination of root causes left me with one surprising conclusion: Ultimately, the school failed because of a lack of mission clarity. A clear mission is the North Star that informs strategic planning, branding, admission, and advancement. With a clear mission, a school can navigate the challenging path toward institutional vitality. Without it, a school is in peril even at full enrollment. While the Cluny School’s mission statement hung on the wall in every classroom, it defined what it meant to be a Catholic school, not the particular mission of this Catholic school. 

Mission Critical

In Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization, Gordon Smith distinguishes having a mission statement from having mission clarity. “Mission clarity,” he states, “is about a distinctive sense of the vocation of the institution: a deep and nuanced understanding of what this organization is called to do, at this time and place, within this economic, social, political demographic.”
 
Mission clarity starts with identifying needs within the population to be served and then determining that the institution has both the will and the capacity to meet those needs. Sustaining mission clarity means regularly confirming, first, that the institutional mission continues to align with the community’s needs; second, that the institution retains the capacity to deliver the mission; and third, that all stakeholders—board, administration, faculty, and families—understand the mission.
 
The Cluny School was formed in the late 1950s to meet a specific need: The number of children seeking a Catholic education exceeded the available spaces in local parish schools. Military families approached a community of sisters, encouraging them to found a school to meet the excess demand. Starting with a kindergarten class, the school progressively added grades one through eight. 
 
In the mid-1970s, however, enrollment in local Catholic parochial schools began to decline significantly. While Cluny’s enrollment was not directly affected, in hindsight this enrollment decline reveals something significant: Cluny’s founding mission and the needs of the community were no longer aligned. Cluny was formed to address the particular problem of excess demand for Catholic education, specifically coming from military families, and roughly two decades later that excess demand had evaporated. 
 
The school continued to thrive because it provided a quality, Christian education in a nurturing environment at an affordable price. This winning formula, together with picturesque grounds and proximity to military housing, appealed to transient military families and locals, a growing number of whom were not Catholic. In effect, the changing needs within the community defined a new mission that the school could assume. Further, the new mission was broadly consistent with its founding mission. The school had regained mission alignment, but I can now see that it lacked mission clarity because stakeholders arguably were not aware of and could not articulate the new mission. 

New Directions

During the following decades, gradual changes within the school began to impact its mission. By the late 1990s, laypeople largely composed the school’s board, administration, and faculty. Increased lay staffing resulted in higher administrative and instructional costs, putting pressure on affordability—a key feature of the mission. More significantly, these changes, together with the growing non-Catholic student population, produced a multiplicity of voices that increased ambiguity around identity. To some, Cluny was a small, neighborhood Catholic school offering an alternative to public education. To others, it was an independent school that, with certain upgrades, could position itself to compete successfully with higher-profile private schools.
 
Lack of clarity on identity and mission was nowhere more apparent than during the lead-up to the new building construction, which began in 1999 with the first feasibility study. A statement from a Cluny parent-interviewee in that study should have been a red flag: “Cluny should get out and spread the message. I’m not sure what that message is, however.” 
 
The amount the school raised through its capital campaign coincided with its old identity and mission. The total amount expended for the project, however, which was financed mostly with debt, reflected a new, hoped-for identity and mission. The school committed financially to a new mission before determining the need for the mission within the population it hoped to serve. It did not consider whether the new direction was consistent with its founding mission. 
 
The school anticipated that the construction alone would attract sufficient levels of enrollment to meet the additional budgetary requirements. Projected enrollment figures were overly optimistic even for a good year. The construction did not significantly raise the school’s profile. Cluny remained a neighborhood school, in its final year drawing close to 80% of its students from a 3- to 4-mile radius. But market conditions were changing. Fewer neighborhood families could afford private education. And facilities improvements to the local, public elementary and middle schools gave cost-conscious parents another option. Previously when the community generated sufficient demand, the school succeeded without clarifying its mission. When demand decreased, mission clarity became essential to survival. 

Guiding Lights

As Smith rightly opines, mission-thinking requires an institution to focus not on potential competitors but on its unique attributes and the specific niche those attributes allow it to fill. In that sense, mission alignment can guide an institution to what W. Chan Kim and RenĂ©e Mauborgne, in Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, call a “blue ocean,” or uncontested market space. 
 
In retrospect, Cluny enjoyed a “blue ocean” earlier in its history. As a Catholic school, Cluny offered a values-based education and low tuition. But unlike many Catholic schools that had little outdoor space, Cluny’s campus, occupying a portion of a former Newport estate, was enviable. This unique combination of features allowed the school to meet the needs of a market segment other area schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, were not as well-positioned to serve. By contrast, when the school took on significant construction debt, it entered into what Kim and Mauborgne would call a “red ocean,” a market in which competition was tight. Other schools were equally or better positioned to capture the shrinking demographic. Its tuition, although lower than that of most neighboring private schools, had risen, driven by increasing liabilities, and became expensive for the population it had long served.
 
Moreover, the school had not been making the regular upgrades necessary to establish its value proposition; funds that could have been used to improve program and staffing serviced debt instead. It was losing the capacity to fulfill its “blue ocean” mission, and in the end, as with every failing institution, saving itself became the mission.
 
The experience of the Cluny School is a cautionary tale underscoring the importance of mission and its regular examination, even when times are good. A clearer understanding—before the construction began—that affordability was a key component of mission would have prevented the school from undertaking significant debt. It would have obliged the school to consider how to sustain affordability when nuns no longer staffed the school. It may have inspired innovations in staffing arrangements, the delivery of curriculum, and advancement efforts. Awareness that its grounds were one of its unique features and an important component of the educational experience may have better informed marketing and architectural decisions.
 
The lost potential of the Cluny School remains a point of sadness for me; the lessons, however, will be lasting.

Go Deeper

Although the school in this article permanently closed when facing hardship, some schools in similar situations choose to merge with other schools. The contemporary landscape of school consolidation is far more complex today than it was in the past. Mergers and acquisitions can offer paths to financial, demographic, and programmatic sustainability for schools that need to reposition themselves or those considering strategic expansion.
 
The NAIS Toolkit: Mergers, Acquisitions, and Other Affiliations features a collection of helpful resources, including deep dive overview articles, case studies and tips from schools who have been through the process, and more.

Critical Questions

Regularly reviewing a school’s mission can lead to learnings before it’s too late. Here are some questions school leaders and administrators can discuss to determine whether their institutions have mission clarity.  
  • What is the school’s founding mission? How does it relate to its current mission?
  • Can you identify the school’s real mission?
  • What community needs is the school best positioned to serve?
  • Which of the school’s institutional assets are most compelling for school families?
  • Does the school’s mission inform its day-to-day operations?
  • Are there any impediments (financial or otherwise) that threaten the delivery of the mission?
  • Are all stakeholders (board, administration, faculty, and families) able to articulate the mission?
Author
William J. Lippe

William J. Lippe served as head of school at Cluny School in Newport, Rhode Island, before it closed in 2017, and is now a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.