Case Study on Strategy: The Pike School (MA)

Winter 2023

By Ashley Marshall, Kate K. Moran, Stephanie Rogen

This article appeared as "Adapting for the Future" in the Winter 2023 issue of Independent School.

In the spring of 2021, the Pike School (MA), had successfully navigated a full year of COVID-19 without a single unplanned school closure or on-campus transmission of the virus. Under the leadership of our new head of school, our faculty, staff, and administrators were looking forward to the future. We were excited about the chance to focus less on the pandemic and more on opportunities for Pike to reach its full potential. The school was due to embark on a strategic planning process, and we wanted an approach that would allow Pike to adapt to any challenges that might lay ahead. 

Talking Strategy

Traditionally, strategic planning might include a long list of exciting but often disconnected or ungrounded tactics. For instance, the plan might include the introduction of a new learning space or a new wellness program—additions that play to the common independent school stereotype of more, more, more. This tactical approach to strategic planning is linear and chronological, favoring the known, concrete, and achievable. A school may need a new makerspace or more financial aid, and strategic planning becomes a step-by-step, five-year plan to these ends. However, as demographics shifts, economic conditions change, or a pandemic ensues, the traditional five-year strategic plan won’t position schools to thrive. 

To begin envisioning the school’s future, Pike partnered with Greenwich Leadership Partners (GLP), educational strategy consultants. We knew we needed to shift to strategy—creating a framework that would help the school determine where to focus energy and resources. Strategy embraces the iterative nature of changes and forces schools to imagine multiple pathways and explore the right questions that lead to answers based on data and mission alignment. As GLP framed it, “Some schools try to meet the challenges ahead by attempting to serve as many potential audiences as possible by adding programs, constructing facilities, and chasing trends. This ‘all things to all people’ pursuit is noble, but it breeds strategic incoherence and often results in mission creep, whereby schools pursue activities that may or may not be truly important to their success.” 

Together, GLP and Pike’s strategic planning committee—composed of 10      administrators, faculty members, and trustees—listened deeply, uncovered core values, developed scenarios and hypotheses about the future, and examined the conditions for the changes and improvements the school wanted to make.  

Finding Purpose

In September 2021, the entire Pike faculty and staff came together with the GLP team to ponder an unusual question: If the Pike School was being transplanted to Mars, what five artifacts or people would they insist on sending—and why? Of course, we were not planning to go to Mars. But our leadership team wanted to acknowledge and emphasize that the launch of the strategic planning process was, in fact, a type of journey—one of venturing into the future. 

The leadership team knew it was crucial to develop a strategy based on the beliefs and values that were nonnegotiable to Pike. In response to the consultants’ question, team members identified common themes and throughlines, and they probed deeply to uncover the powerful, fundamental values or principles they knew Pike would never compromise. The exercise also allowed the school to consider where it wanted to evolve—with a focus on the student learning and outcomes—given that the world our students are inheriting will be increasingly complex and uncertain. By surfacing the school’s values, the leadership team articulated a foundation on which to update or evolve traditions, practices, and programs well into the future.

This approach is rooted in what GLP refers to as adaptive challenges—those with no easy, ready solutions that require asking new questions, reframing problems, and thinking creatively. Tackling adaptive challenges demands strategy, not simply strategic planning. It requires schools to challenge assumptions about the identity and effectiveness of the school and to rigorously and clearly determine what it will and will not be and do. The pandemic, along with other external factors and trends, brought to light new adaptive challenges for schools. An adaptive question might be: “What kind of school will prepare students for a radically different economy?” Or “How might we retain and nurture our best employees while attracting new ones of different generations with different needs?” 

To grapple with such questions, and with support from GLP, Pike then began a yearlong, in-depth analysis of the data collected from all constituencies, including students, via a community survey and a variety of listening sessions. The surveys were designed to uncover answers, and specific evidence, to help us understand where the Pike experience and its educational promise was most powerful, relevant, and valuable.  We also formed learning teams that included all our constituencies—trustees, current and former parents, faculty and staff members, and more—to investigate three key adaptive challenges: cultivating talent and leadership; achieving deeper learning; and promoting equity in education. 

By the end of the 2021–2022 school year, Pike celebrated a year’s worth of reflection and research with a “strategic reveal party” in which we shared the school’s new mission, vision, and set of articulated values. Informed by feedback from students, families, faculty, staff, and others, they will guide us in navigating and shaping a future in which our students will thrive. 

Mission: A Pike education ignites a lifelong journey of discovery. 

Values: A Pike education liberates human potential and possibility to transform ourselves and our world and is rooted in our motto, Non Sibi Solum (not for oneself alone). We value: 

  • Authenticity: We embrace the identities of every person. 
  • Intellectual Ambition: We foster curiosity, inquiry, engagement, and initiative in learning. 
  • Social Good: We care for ourselves, for one another, and for our community. 

Vision: The Pike School strives to be an exemplar for transformational education and a center for purposeful learning, leadership, and impact. 

The Journey Continues

Determined to grapple with our adaptive challenges, we are embracing an aspirational—and urgent—charge: leading the way for independent schools on what it means to be a school of the future. With clarity and coalescence around our new mission, vision, and values, Pike began the 2022–2023 school year with an eye toward strategy, not strategic planning. 

In September 2022, Pike welcomed back faculty and staff members for a weeklong conversation about how it might use its mission as a rubric, not a roadmap. A roadmap might assume that there are predetermined stops, but a rubric allows for flexible outcomes. Instead of crafting a lengthy to-do list of new initiatives to help us discern where best to focus energy and resources, we challenged ourselves to continue to ask tough questions. Given Pike’s mission, vision, and values, and the available data about its community and the larger world, our faculty and staff members considered: What’s worth learning? And how might we enable that learning? 

Pike intends to spend this year, and many more, interrogating such questions in cross-departmental and divisional learning teams focused on topics ranging from professional development to secondary school operational processes. And while our intention is to end the year with specific tactical and measurable accomplishments, our larger goals center on nurturing a school culture that can thrive amid iterative change, reconcile the tensions of meeting current needs and future unknowns, and stay true to our basic institutional values while adapting for the world that lies ahead. 

In these ways and for our current and future students, The Pike School strives to be an exemplar of transformational education and a center for purposeful learning, leadership, and impact. 

Ashley Marshall

Ashley Marshall is head of school at The Pike School in Andover, Massachusetts.

Kate K. Moran

Kate K. Moran is assistant head of school for strategic outreach & impact at The Pike School.

Stephanie Rogen

Stephanie Rogen is the principal and founder of Greenwich Leadership Partners and a consultant, coach, and facilitator to educational and nonprofit leadership. Her work integrates more than 25 years of experience in the corporate, educational, and nonprofit sectors.