David C. Faus
and Tucker M. Clark
The economic downturn that became a crisis in the fall of 2008 created a flurry of contingency planning sessions and emergency board meetings at independent schools everywhere. Hoping to establish an operating budget that will cover expenses, many of our schools have spent the past academic year anxiously trying to guess enrollments, interest rates, and utility costs — hoping to find a formula that would assure their survival.
One might assume that our smallest schools would be the most vulnerable in hard economic times. And certainly some are struggling — particularly younger ones that have unfavorable debt, a small endowment, a weak foothold in the admissions market, and a bottom line dependent on tuition. But, despite the wretched economy, many small schools are surviving and, in some cases, even getting stronger. In these schools, as it turns out, small size is seen as a virtue, not a limitation.
Full disclosure: I am an unapologetic small-school advocate. After working for 25 years in large schools, I enthusiastically accepted the headmaster’s position at a deliberately small school (it averages about 220 students in grades 7–12). Why? In a small school, teachers control the culture. Trust, the most efficient way to run a school, is a fragile commodity that is most likely to thrive when the community understands and shares core values, when teachers generate more decisions than administrators, and when bureaucracy is minimal. Small schools have the best possibility of running more on trust and expectation than on rules. Yet, while I do have a professional, small-school bias, much of what I have to say applies to all independent schools. Which is to say, if you’re not small, there’s still value in thinking and acting small.
What is “small”? Somewhere below 50 students per grade, so that all teachers and students can know each other. In truth, an actual number may be less important than the feel of a school. Kevin C. Spingler, academic dean of the 182-student La Lumiere School (Indiana) suggests that a small school “exhibits characteristics such as a close-knit community of learners, an ability to respond personally and quickly to individual issues as they arise, and a community that works hard together but also can relax easily together.”
For all schools, small or large, hoping to emerge from this recession in good shape, it’s worth considering the essential elements of successful small schools that make them built to last and allow them to overcome the small-school disadvantage of cost per pupil with focused missions, financial simplicity, nimbleness, and a strong sense of community.
In a competitive admissions market, a distinctive school mission helps prospective families know what exactly they will get for their money. By mission, I mean focus — a school community’s collective understanding of why faculty and students are there. Focused schools will be able to develop useful “mission statements” or “brands,” but the mission comes first. As Bruce E. Buxton, headmaster emeritus of Falmouth Academy (Massachusetts), notes, our current economic climate creates “a litmus test for schools’ missions.” Free-market competition will ultimately be good for independent schools, he says. “Schools with strong, well articulated missions will survive.” This is true for all independent schools, but it is essential for small schools because it forces one of their greatest strengths.
A small school that loses focus will never be able to compete with large public and private schools that have the staff and money to offer “something for everyone” — or at least something for a broad spectrum of learners. A school with limited resources is forced to stay focused. Focus is a small-school strength.
Chapel Hill–Chauncy Hall School (Massachusetts), about 180 students in grades 9–PG, spent the past year clearly identifying its mission and then articulating what makes the school distinctive. Focusing on the school’s unique ninth-grade curriculum — which is designed to address the intellectual, social, and individual needs of students during this important transition year — as well as its commitment to cultural diversity, the resulting mission statement reminds the school community and explains to prospective families and friends what it stands for and how it differs from its competition.
Head of School Siri Akal Khalsa attributes the school’s success to studying the mission and building a mission-centered marketing program out from there. “In our yearlong marketing initiative, we spent a considerable amount of time discussing our mission, defining our ‘brand’ and then identifying our desired position in the market,” he says. “We came to understand ourselves as a school with a particular market niche. We realized that we weren’t the school for everybody and gave ourselves permission to stop trying to be a school for everyone.”
The results speak for themselves. “We exceeded our enrollment targets in 2008,” Khalsa says, “and the inquiries/interviews/applications numbers for 2009–2010 are even stronger than last year’s.”
Andrew Rodin, headmaster of the 273-student, 200-year-old Friends Academy (Massachusetts) listened to families who were increasingly concerned about their children’s language-based differences, including difficulty acquiring reading, spelling, written expression, math, and organizational and/or study skills due to dyslexia or a specific language disability. He says that, within a year, Friends Academy planned and implemented a school-within-a-school to serve these children. The program, The Sally Borden School, supports and enhances the PS–8 school’s mission to give each student a solid educational foundation and sense of well being.
“Because Friends is a small school with relatively few stakeholders, we could make these changes with some ease,” says Rodin. “We thought we would be lucky to start last fall with 10 or 11 students in a couple of grades. Instead we found a lot of interest, opened the program with 25 students, and the phone is ringing all the time.”
At my school, Falmouth Academy, we also have a clear mission. Students study a core curriculum. The school has electives in the arts, but none in the academic curriculum. No honors or AP classes: just five core academic disciplines studied in depth. This core curriculum is what makes us unique, what allows us to have great conversations throughout the school, and what we do better than any school in our region. We would not change our core curriculum even if the economy forced us to cut our budget. Our core curriculum is a non-negotiable part of our mission.
Not until last September was Falmouth Academy almost grateful that its endowment is small — too small to significantly affect operating costs. Large schools with once enviable endowments that fed as much as one-third of their operating costs are now suffering from surprising and devastating market losses. I agree with Andy Rodin who said, “Don’t get me wrong. I would be happy to have a large endowment, but since we have never been able to rely on endowment returns, we don’t have to find a huge amount of money to replace them in this economic downturn. I’m glad that we haven’t been banking on returns that don’t exist.”
Adds Kevin Spingler, “We have been fortunate in a sense that we do not depend on an endowment to provide a portion of our income or financial aid. As a result, we have been able to weather some of the economic difficulties in a better way than several of our peer schools in the Midwest.”
The current financial stability of many small independent schools is due in part to their constant need to run lean and to keep their focus on teachers and curriculum rather than on buildings. Small schools have generally controlled overhead with modest facilities. And when they have built, expanded, or replaced facilities, many preferred to raise funds rather than borrow them.
Dave Mullen, head of The Nora School (Maryland) for 18 years, says his school has always been financially conservative. “We have always used tuition to pay for operations. It’s raining now, but we have a rainy day fund invested in CDs. They are only earning about 3 percent interest, but that’s better than losing 30 percent,” he says referring to the loss in value of many once-large endowments. The 60-student, grade 9–12 school has historically used annual giving for technology, field trips, and financial aid, but never for operations.
Mullen offered his board seven possible 2009–2010 budgets based on various enrollment scenarios. “My budgets ran from ‘everything is fine’ to ‘catastrophic,’ and they chose one in the middle,” says Mullen. “We do not want to cut programs, so the board also gave me permission to run a deficit for a year or two if necessary and to use fund-raising for operations if needed. But I don’t think we’ll have to do either.”
As of February, The Nora School was fully enrolled with a waiting list for 10th grade, and admissions inquiries for 2009–2010 were “very active.” Mullen attributes the success of the school not only to its conservative financial methods, but also to its focused mission. “We serve kids who have struggled in other schools, kids who have felt anonymous in their previous schools. Our mission seems to be recession-proof,” he says.
Saint George’s School (Washington) is over 50 years old. The K–12 country day school sits on a 120-acre campus and has 144 students in the high school. It now has more than 10 buildings built without taking on debt. “The school was incredibly lucky,” says Head of School Mo Copeland.
Just after its founding in 1955, a friend of the school provided the funds to purchase the current property. For many years, the school simply used the former farm’s original buildings. “The horse and cow stalls in the barn became classrooms, and the old mansion housed a number of classes,” Copeland says. “We added new buildings only very slowly: I think the first was our gym in 1964.”
As is the case at many schools, St. George’s financial situation was continually on edge, says Copeland, who mentioned stories from the early days that described “literally passing the hat at board meetings in order to pay the teachers. Since the school’s financial situation was so fragile, it never occurred to anyone to borrow money to build buildings. It also just didn’t make sense when we already had too little tuition to cover our hard costs each year. We did borrow money — actually quite a lot — in order to run the school for a few tough decades.” St. George’s first capital campaign — to retire debt (a tough sell) and build a lower school — was successful because of a few key donors making significant gifts. In 2000, the school ran a campaign for a new upper school and theater and, six years later, one for the athletic center. “Now one of our greatest assets is that we funded our entire campus with capital campaigns, and we have no debt,” says Copeland.
Most small schools that have survived their early years and been able to run in the black have done it because they run lean and careful. They have also done it because families want their children in school communities with the kind of clear values and expectations that small schools offer.
More than ever, families want their children in a school community that counteracts the culture they read about in newspaper headlines. They want a school “where everybody knows your name” and where adults have a strong presence.
“I think small schools like ours have a rare and distinct advantage during difficult economic times, in that the relationships our schools tend to have with families transcend the customary vendor/consumer relationship characteristic of other sectors of business,” says David Provost, head of Nantucket New School (PS–8). ”Our schools and the unique, intimate educational experiences they provide are, more often than not, very high on the list of priorities for families, even those faced with difficult economic choices and the prospect of making real sacrifices. If we do our jobs well, we become an extension of the family and thereby secure a position high on the list of economic priorities.”
These relationships are also why faculty and staff sign on to small schools. The importance of the work and the sense of community where everyone pitches in explain why for years small-school teachers have accepted smaller paychecks while agreeing to lots of extras like driving the school van or coaching a team, or even vacuuming the halls and making costumes for the school play.
Cate School (California), a grade 9–12 boarding and day school with 265 students, is in the midst of a large capital campaign. “When the economy began heading south in September 2008, we began contacting all of our major donors who had outstanding pledges to see if they were okay or if they wanted to modify payment plans,” says Headmaster Ben Williams. “The appreciation factor was huge and many donors actually accelerated payments to help the school. Only two needed more time, and we worked that out to everyone’s satisfaction.”
“We did much the same thing with current families in December. We advised them of the impending arrival (late January) of re-enrollment contracts, gave them a sense of where tuition would likely be, and asked them to contact us if they anticipated new or increased financial aid. In all, we heard from nine families and have been able to determine exactly what their needs will be. We have also used that information in calls to local foundations that might want to help us help families deal with the economic downturn.”
Families are obviously the most important part of our school communities, and small schools can know their families well. Schools must consider not only their own finances but their families’ finances. We cannot lower our tuitions and still cover our costs, but we can emphasize the importance of making a family investment in our values and our results.
Falmouth Academy, for instance, tries to help parents recognize that, by investing in our high school experience, they are preparing their children to shine at any college — including large, relatively low-cost universities. Their children will be able to organize their time, seek out teachers for help and conversation, and take immediate and full advantage of opportunities offered by any college.
Out of necessity, small schools are nimble. They can respond quickly and efficiently to external influences that may affect them and take advantage of opportunities with little bureaucratic slowdown. Small schools with strong heads and good working boards can make and implement spending decisions rapidly.
Nimbleness allows small schools, such as Friends Academy and its school-within-a-school, to take advantage of opportunities. Dave Provost says Nantucket New School had a chance to change a rental situation into a merger this year.
“It is important for all schools (not just small schools) to seek and take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with like-minded organizations,” Provost says. ”Our merger with our next door neighbor, the Strong Wings Adventure School, is a case in point. This nonprofit serves nearly 1,000 students per year through its team-building programs and summer camps and sits relatively dormant from September to June. As Nantucket New School began to outgrow its current campus, the neighboring facility became an obvious option, worthy of exploration.
“After two years of renting space from Strong Wings, we have now undertaken a complete merger, which will go into effect July 1,” says Provost. “The merger addresses a number of key strategic issues for the school. In effect, we will double the size of our campus and add an additional building, numerous outdoor facilities including a climbing wall and high ropes course, two buildable lots adjacent to our current campus, and an established, reputable summer program.”
Embracing the Small School Mindset
Small schools will continue to guess and to plan for the coming year and beyond. The addition or subtraction of just one or two students makes a significant difference to us, and some of us may fail. But I predict that small schools that play to their strengths — community, mission, nimbleness — and intensely market those strengths will survive. Falmouth Academy serves primarily blue-collar and middle-class families in a resort, service-oriented community — the kind of community that should be hit hard by the recession. Yet, judging by the number of inquiries and interviews, interest in our small school is even greater than last year. By the time this magazine goes to press, we should know just how this increased interest translates into our 2009–2010 enrollment.
Small country day schools have the advantage of word of mouth marketing — stories known throughout the school community and told and retold in the supermarket and town recreation centers and at neighborhood gatherings. Because it requires community-wide acceptance of its values, word-of-mouth is another small-school strength.
Word-of-mouth, our strongest admissions and marketing tool, is low-cost, but at Falmouth Academy we have also increased our advertising budget so we can celebrate the best qualities of our school loudly (and feed those supermarket conversations). We have widened and increased our admissions and marketing efforts by enlisting the help of more parents and alumni and arming them with specific results and good stories.
Falmouth Academy will also increase its financial aid budget for the 2009–2010 school year with the goal of helping current families already receiving financial aid but whose economic situation has changed for the worse. Their children will need increased aid if they are to continue at the school next year.
If anything, our tough economy has encouraged parents to look even harder for an education that is personal. They are willing to sacrifice for it. They want their children to be safe and successful, to be encouraged, challenged, and recognized. Small schools were started and supported by families who understood that. They still are.
National Small Schools Conference
Falmouth Academy will host the second National Small Schools Conference June 17–19, 2009, for leaders of small schools to meet and to talk with each other about small-school issues. The conference was sold out last year. For information, contact Tucker Clark, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (508) 457-9696, ext. 222.