Summer 2016

By Temba T. Maqubela

30-35 Feat-Maqubela_Page_1_Image_0001.jpgThe students at Groton School call it the I-word.

When I was appointed headmaster at Groton School (Massachusetts) in 2012, I began speaking of inclusion on day one, and I have not stopped. I believe the message cannot be repeated too often. I don’t mind that our students refer to inclusion as the “I-word” — it means they are listening. Often when I speak of inclusion, whether to students or donors, I simply ask: Who is not at Groton today, and who will not be here tomorrow, if we don’t address inclusion?

Yes, the fight for inclusion is deep within my heritage. Like many members of my family, I fought against the apartheid laws — government-sanctioned exclusion — in my native South Africa. I was arrested in my high school biology class, where my mother was the teacher. Chalk in hand, she watched as South African police marched me away. Years of exile followed in Botswana and Nigeria before I finally arrived in New York City in 1986 with my wife, Vuyelwa, and infant son, all of us political refugees.

Step back and think: the fight for inclusion may be within your heritage, too. Did your ancestors flee exclusion, pogroms, poverty, or simply a lack of opportunity? Were they included in their native land? Were they included when they arrived on these shores? The lessons of exclusion are important motivators, but more important is the realization that education can help the persecuted maintain their dignity.

Inclusion is what every parent wants when he or she sends a child to a school or playground. It is what every person who feels out of place craves. Still, even if you don’t have personal experience with exclusion, you can be a champion for inclusion. In fact, I have found that many who have not had significant personal experience with exclusion are among the biggest ambassadors for inclusion.

In November 2014, to broaden access to Groton School across the entire socioeconomic range, the board of trustees endorsed GRAIN (GRoton Affordability and INclusion), deeming the initiative its No. 1 strategic priority. GRAIN has frozen tuition for three years, through the 2017–18 school year; increased the number of students on financial aid; and guaranteed that Groton School would consider all applicants without regard to their ability to pay. The term GRAIN quickly became ingrained at Groton and widely recognized within the independent school community.

No doubt many of you are thinking, “If my school had Groton’s healthy endowment, we could do that, too.” A healthy endowment is an advantage. But even if you can’t do exactly what we’re doing at Groton, you can do something. Of all the groups in society, we, as educators, must be impatient for inclusion. We must push for greater inclusion in our schools in a way that is sustainable for each institution.

When Groton announced its GRAIN initiative, the policy provided forward momentum for an ethos long embedded in the school. The school received a $5,000 gift for financial aid scholarships back in 1889, and another $6,000 in 1894. In 1899, just 15 years after the school opened its doors, founder Endicott Peabody invited Booker T. Washington, an educator and former slave, to speak at Groton. Washington returned to campus to speak with students in 1904. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent two days on campus in 1963, delivering a speech that foreshadowed his “I Have a Dream” speech six months later. The first black admitted to Groton, Roscoe Lewis III, graduated in 1956 and went on to serve on Groton’s board of trustees in the early 1970s. In 1975, Groton welcomed girls, embracing coeducation despite vocal opposition from some constituents. The school has sponsored initiatives to increase opportunity in underserved areas and lent early support to programs that help prepare children of color for an independent school education. While they may not have used the word “inclusion,” throughout history Groton’s headmasters were striving to open the malleable minds of their students.

Inclusion, the idea, is not a hard sell. Inclusion, the reality, can be. Leadership is key, as are flexibility and creativity. 

Parents want their children to be educated in a world that looks like the world they will inherit. Many of us strive to create diverse communities, but diversity is merely one chapter in the book of inclusion. While most people embrace diversity as the most important chapter in that book, very few of us take the most logical step: to include. Beyond diversity is inclusion.

30-35 Feat-Maqubela_Page_2_Image_0001.jpgMany independent schools focus their financial-aid dollars on students of modest means. While that is admirable, focusing solely on those of modest means and those of significant means inadvertently excludes the vast majority of those who are caught in the middle. My predecessor at Groton, Rick Commons, implemented a policy to waive tuition for those with household incomes below $75,000. GRAIN builds upon that; its all-inclusive approach acknowledges those who are typically caught between the extremes. As word gets out about GRAIN, we hope to see a significant increase among applicants from the middle and professional classes. How can independent school students have a real-world experience if we omit the talent from an enormous socioeconomic group?

Leading the GRAIN initiative came naturally to me, and fortunately, that was true as well for our board president, Jonathan Klein. This dual resolve is imperative if an inclusion initiative is to succeed. A core team quickly formed at Groton, which also included the board treasurer and a trustee who believe deeply in the cause and offered a significant donation to catalyze the effort.

That early investment was essential: a million-dollar gift from an alumnus (once disaffected from the school because he had felt excluded as a student) inspired the entire initiative. A $5 million gift to GRAIN quickly followed. The vote of confidence among these donors gave the initiative momentum and motivated others — including some younger alumni — to throw their weight behind the effort.

Groton’s board treasurer, Will Gardiner, along with Groton’s former chief financial officer, Hale Smith, spent countless hours on extensive financial modeling to anticipate various scenarios and determine how we could fund the initiative without affecting salaries or programs. They ran model after model to anticipate solutions for every financial scenario.

Some have asked me, with Groton accepting only about 12 percent of its applicants, why we froze tuition. For one, we hoped the shock of a three-year freeze would get Groton off the top of tuition lists (indeed, after the first year of the freeze, Groton’s tuition dropped from No. 1 to No. 14 among the members of the Association of Business Officers of Private Schools, and dropped further to No. 29 after the second year of the freeze). But our intent was much deeper; we hoped the freeze would send a powerful signal and generate discussion in the educational community. Clearly, it has. At least one school besides Groton has frozen tuition, perhaps at the impetus of GRAIN, and others have indicated that they are looking at income from summer programs or other imaginative ways to reallocate resources and slow tuition growth.

GRAIN will increase the number of students on financial aid at Groton by at least 20 over four years, adding five per year, and the school will maintain that number thereafter. Groton expects to keep its student population at the current 380. GRAIN’s success has rested on a minor bump in our endowment draw and confidence in future fund-raising. Groton is fortunate that its endowment draw had been modest for years and the endowment carefully tended; we could afford a temporary, half-percent increase in the endowment draw to help fund GRAIN. In addition, we knew the initiative would need major funding to succeed, and early support emboldened us. We’ve estimated that once we raise $25 million, the endowment draw will revert to its previous level. Since GRAIN was announced in November 2014, we have raised more than $20 million.

30-35 Feat-Maqubela_Page_3_Image_0001.jpgAt Groton, the timing was right and the board was ready to act. The board president has said that trustees discussed affordability every year, always acknowledging that the rate of tuition growth in independent schools was unsustainable. Jonathan Klein and the board were tired of hitting the replay button on this message. Even so, they were predictably, and appropriately, cautious.

While Groton has a large endowment, trustees know that they must safeguard it for future generations. So the decision to partially fund GRAIN through a temporary, small increase in the endowment draw was not without thoughtful discussion.

More than once, our treasurer has answered the question, “Are we putting the school at risk?” To that he replies: “We may be putting endowment per student at risk, but the difference will be small. If we spend on what we believe in, it’s a perfectly legitimate decision to make.” A skilled and honest analyst, Gardiner points to a fundamental and common business strategy: to build capital strength to afford the flexibility to make strategic decisions.

Klein also argued that there was little point in having significant financial resources if they couldn’t be used for key strategic objectives. Groton’s objective was to build the most talented and inclusive community possible, an accomplishment that would benefit every member of the community and, perhaps some day, might even benefit the world.

We knew we had to be very clear in communicating our goals — to trustees, but also to faculty, parents, and other constituents (partially accomplished with a blast email letter when the GRAIN initiative was announced). Our initial announcements stated that GRAIN was the board’s No. 1 strategic priority. That clarity made it easier to answer questions about directing funds to other needs.

A Successful Inclusion Initiative Needs:

A committed leader

A supportive board

Early investors to provide confidence and momentum

Clear communication of school priorities

A treasurer or other professional to create financial models

Throughout the board’s extended discussions, several messages resonated. One trustee pointed out that we should not look at a tuition freeze as a cost, but rather as a forgone revenue opportunity, and that we should realize that raising tuition has a cost as well — a more restricted applicant pool.

Also strengthening the board’s resolve to act was the realization that Groton’s service ethos was, in effect, making it difficult for talented alumni who chose careers in service to send their deserving children to their alma mater. Groton School encourages students to go into fields of service — the school motto is about service — but when they do, they rarely earn salaries that allow for boarding school tuition.

Many independent schools, like Groton, pride themselves on promoting service, yet if graduates follow those careers, they may not be able to send their children to the independent schools that they attended. The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) recently began an effort to attract more full-pay parents to consider independent schools, especially boarding schools. As of February, about two-thirds of the member schools in TABS have supported NABI-20/20 — the North American Boarding Initiative to substantially increase the number of full-pay students by 2020. More full-pay families will mean more flexibility to include full-scholarship and partial-pay students.

As my friend Taylor Stockdale, head of The Webb Schools (California), has pointed out, independent schools make sense if they are turning out graduates who will serve the global community. He describes them as “leaders with moral courage to make good decisions.” Leaders must come from all parts of our society, which means that accessibility is key.

The Webb Schools do not have the endowment of Groton, but Stockdale says that any school can be “scrappy,” and his board has supported a formula whereby a portion of each tuition increase goes to the school’s financial-aid budget. While it may not be the right formula for every school, it has allowed a school with a $30 million endowment to spend $4 million on financial aid each year. Is there a creative solution that makes sense for your school?

Stockdale asked his board to take a hypothetical $1 million and decide where to spend it; they were given several choices, including capital projects, faculty chairs, and scholarships for promising students. The imaginary funds fell squarely into the financial-aid bucket.

The head of The Webb Schools recognized two things that I believe are universal: If a school and its trustees believe that students who qualify should be admitted, regardless of their financial means, the school can find an approach to increase access. He has also realized that alumni tend to give more readily to financial aid than to building projects. We have found that to be true at Groton. GRAIN began when fund-raising for a building project was finishing up. While that was a large and successful effort, some major donors had indicated that they were interested in supporting people, not buildings. They told us to come back when that became the school’s focus, and we did.

Every school has a budget, which generally reflects the priorities of the head of school and the trustees. Schools spend on what they think is important — so think carefully. Should funds go to a new gym or to increased financial aid or to tuition containment?

I urge you to look at all you do through the lens of inclusion. At Groton, we are also piloting the GRACE (GRoton Accelerate Challenge Enrich) program to address the preparation gap that some students face. But in the name of inclusion, we crafted this program not only to launch underprepared students academically but also to serve high achievers who want to skip a level and move into a more accelerated class.

For some schools, inclusion might mean finding a way to increase financial aid; for others, it might mean deeper community engagement or a partnership with another school. Find your own path to inclusion. Patience may be a virtue, but too often talk of inclusion drags on and on. Be impatient for inclusion.

Many have embraced GRAIN because they say it feels bigger than Groton. Indeed it is. The national conversation recently has moved toward issues of access, affordability, and inclusion. Independent schools should not just join the conversation, but also propel it forward.

Temba T. Maqubela

Temba T. Maqubela is headmaster of Groton School (Massachusetts).