Lessons from a School’s Unique Mission and Financial Model

Winter 2024

By Justin Hajj

This article appeared as "The Power of Making Do" in the Winter 2024 issue of Independent School.

When I became head of The Learning Project Elementary School (MA) in 2020, I inherited a worn, old—and seriously heavy—oak desk. The type of furniture that causes people to run their hand along it and say, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore.” It was a desk discolored by years of oils and cleanings, stained with coffee spills, and marred by scars born of heavy use from one of the most intelligent, dedicated, passionate educators I’ve ever known. Michael McCord founded The Learning Project in Boston’s Back Bay in 1973 and served as head of school for 47 years before retiring in 2020.

Settling in behind the mammoth wooden beast on my first day on the job was a profound moment for me. I had been at the school as a teacher and an administrator before being named Michael’s successor 18 months prior, and I’d had a long transition, but sitting down I felt the weight of where to begin? Tidying up the office and organizing the desk seemed like the easiest way to start. I set about testing pens to ensure they worked, separating small paper clips from large, and so on, but it wasn’t long before I began to come across some hidden treasures that were left behind for me to discover—quotes, lessons learned, and reminders written on random sticky notes, on an old baseball resting on the windowsill, on index cards slid into binders and books. One scrap of paper in particular caught my attention and made me pause that first day. Scrawled in pencil, it read, “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” 

In my eight years at the school, I had never actually heard Michael speak those words, but the impact the note had on me in that moment was driven by the quote’s clear connection to our school’s mission and culture; something that was so undeniably foundational to not only The Learning Project’s unique financial model but to the education we provide to our children. I read that note several times that day—and many times since. And I left it in the desk, tucked away at the front of the top drawer so I would come upon it often, knowing that I’d need the reminder in the days and years ahead.

A Unique Model

The Learning Project has been described by many as “thrifty” in its approach. In rare cases, some have used the word “cheap.” We prefer words with a more positive connotation, such as “prudent,” “watchful,” or, as the school was described in its most recent accreditation report, “frugal.” The school directs the majority of its funds to where it’s needed most: faculty and staff salaries and our educational program. In these two areas, we loosen the purse strings to ensure highly competitive compensation in one of the most expensive cities in the country and to offer a truly excellent academic, social, and emotional educational experience for our students. Beyond these domains—staff and program—the school truly “makes do” where possible. We do this for two reasons: One, over the years, it has collectively saved the school thousands upon thousands of dollars and is a key component of our financial model. And, two, it teaches our children the value of respecting the earth’s resources.

At The Learning Project, we do not dispose of paper unless it has been used up—ideally on both sides. We teach children never to leave blank pages in a journal; when they want to start a new piece of writing, they draw a line, write the date, and begin on the very next line. We repair books until they cannot be repaired anymore, adding tape to spines to give them another year (or more) of life—and children know that a book’s appearance should never diminish its content. Students use pencils until they are too short to hold comfortably. They are taught to always respect their school supplies, down to their rulers and erasers. School administrators and parent volunteers have built or repaired a large number of items throughout the school; all of the bookshelves were crafted by Michael McCord himself, painted by community members repeatedly over the years. And, as is the case at many small schools, willing and able administrators or other community members and volunteers handle a variety of maintenance tasks. We’ve saved a lot of money over the years with staff and community members rolling up their sleeves and pitching in as needed, investing that sweat equity into the school.

Also critical to our model and program is the city of Boston. The Learning Project is fortunate to be centrally located in the heart of the city, and we use the city’s plentiful resources to the fullest. We don’t have a library at our school; instead, classes walk to the central branch of the Boston Public Library to check out books or do research. Our school building is a brownstone nestled among many others and doesn’t have green space, so we take advantage of the Charles River Esplanade just a couple blocks away, or the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, the Boston Public Garden, or the Boston Common. For recess, we have been using a neighborhood playground since the space was created back in 1979. Engaging with the shared space around us has played a major role in minimizing the school’s operating costs.

Frugal and Financially Sound

Not only has our frugal approach helped build the school’s financial health and solid foundation, but it is core to what we strive to teach our students—to be engaged citizens and community members who care for and grow into responsible stewards of the city around them, and to be connected to the earth beneath their feet, conserving its resources and actively helping to protect the environment. That is, frugality is foundational to our program, embedded into what we do and teach, and is driven by the school’s mission and philosophy. In this way, the school’s value proposition to its families is something much deeper than an elementary school education—it instills in students the values of simplicity, sustainability, and the recognition of what it truly means to be part of a community and being a global citizen—interconnectedness and care.

This thrifty approach to spending and conservation has, in part, helped lead us to a unique financial model that works for us: We maintain a tuition that is lower than our peer schools in downtown Boston; we have remained small in our enrollment at 118 students; we benchmark faculty salaries in the highest tiers based on regional data; and we offer robust financial assistance—so robust, in fact, that the school has never denied a child access due to an inability to pay tuition. In order to maintain this intricate financial dance, the school looks to its community for support. The Learning Project has been blessed by consistent, loyal support from current parents, from alumni and alumni parents, and friends of the school. The school community gives generously—at whatever level works for them and their circumstances—because they know that when we ask for donations to the school’s annual fund, it’s for a good reason. And they know each donation will be spent wisely and put to good use. The community has seen this prudence in action and understands that it’s embedded into the fabric of the school.

Michael McCord used to often say, “You can’t spend the same penny twice.” And, truly, pennies are counted. During my first year at the school, I distinctly remember a child returning from the playground carrying in the palm of her hand a dirty penny that she had found beneath the play structure. The child, as honest as they come, handed it over to Michael to see if he could find the owner. He smiled, informed the student that we’d hold onto it to see if anybody came forth—and that, if we didn’t, we’d donate the penny to the school’s annual fund in the child’s name. And that’s exactly what happened, resulting in quite a smile on the child’s face. The same scenario has occurred a number of times since then with a variety of “lost” coins and dollar bills being turned in by students and eventually passed on to the school as a gift in the child’s name. The dollars and cents add up, and, perhaps more important, the lessons internalized by children during these seemingly small acts of giving back are hugely impactful on a child’s personal development and their sense of connection to something bigger than themselves. 

Of course, found pennies and dollar bills only go so far in a school’s budget, and frugality alone cannot lead to financial stability. That elusive target consists of a number of factors, some of which are out of our control. However, being thrifty in a school’s approach to spending does provide some wiggle room where needed, some extra dollars in the bank, and when this approach is embraced year after year, those pennies add up to something quite spectacular, including—and especially—in life lessons for the next generation. “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” remains a constant reminder that I share with the school’s leadership to remain prudent, watchful, and, yes, frugal. Because by doing so, we support the mission of the school and, in turn, we benefit our children and the planet itself. 

Life Lessons

I have to admit that I no longer sit at that old oak desk. Four years into my role, I decided that it was time for a change—my aching back needed a standing desk. And while I know that my new desk made of alloy steel and laminate particle board won’t stand the test of time like that classic piece, I hope that it can hold out for enough years that it earns its stains and its scars. And perhaps when the next head of school decides that they, too, would like a change, my desk can be repurposed and used elsewhere in the school, just as Michael McCord’s weighty oak piece was—after being lugged to a classroom upstairs to replace a desk with a broken leg, it now serves as the sixth-grade teacher’s desk.

Repurposing. Sweat equity. Simplicity. Excellence without extravagance. These are core to The Learning Project’s financial model, and important life lessons that we hope to instill in our children. An ethos and the meaning of a lifetime of important lessons revealed within an old, oak desk.  

Justin Hajj

Justin Hajj is head of school at The Learning Project Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts.