© Gary R. Gruber, Ph.D. June 2014
These ten essential factors for a successful school assume that a good business model is in place and operating efficiently and effectively. Every school needs to be operated in a business like manner because it is a business and its business is the education of young people, and often, adults as well.
How these essential elements are developed further and applied will depend in large measure on the history, culture and philosophy of the school, the school’s leadership and the measure of support enjoyed by the school.
What these ten essentials illustrate is something of the complexity of a school with so many parts that all need to work together toward a common purpose, a common vision and common goals. That is how to build a learning community. It takes time, patience, perseverance, and a lot of talent and energy. Combine those with kindness and compassion and you will be well on your way to a high level of success.
1) Financial sustainability – financial futures are based on how much money is available for the future, either short or long term, and it is often difficult to predict how much will be available with a high degree of certainty. That said, we must still project how much income is anticipated from all sources whether tuition or non-tuition revenue.
Some schools have been the beneficiaries of a large gift or of many smaller ones. Others have established foundations separate from the school that help support the school through tax-deductible gifts and contributions. This is particularly true most recently with charter and public schools. Establishing and growing an endowment fund also helps to provide a cushion for the future, even when the bottom falls out of the market. For a family-owned and operated school (a term sometimes preferable to proprietary) a separate, 501c3 foundation is a productive way to receive tax-deductible gifts, grants and contributions.
Tuition revenue in a private school is based on enrollment and what percentage of the annual budget is dependent on tuition can be revealing. Parents are not only the source for tuition, but can also provide other gifts whether financial or gifts in kind, and encouraging others to send their children to the same school helps with enrollment. Tuitions have been rising at most schools, including colleges, and that puts increasing burdens on families for whom it is a stretch to pay for a private school, often for more than one child.
Schools with longer histories, good reputations and more support are in a better position to raise money than most of those that have started in the past 40 years. However, as these schools and their constituents mature, there will be more opportunities for increasing the levels of financial stability and that will help insure a healthy future.
Having the ability to project with some degree of accuracy what the anticipated income and expenses are for the coming year, with a goal of a balanced budget, keeps a school financially healthy, thus sustainable.
While it sounds rather simple and straightforward, a school’s budget is kept sustainable either through increasing revenue or decreasing expenses. Or, in some cases the challenge may be finding strategies to do both in ways that are reasonable and realistic. One final note about financial health is that being able to pay competitive salaries to teachers and staff, while meeting all the of the other expenses attendant to supporting the school overall, helps attract and retain the best teachers and administrators.
2) A high quality staff of teachers and administrators who know how to work together for the common good – The first and perhaps most important variable in the education equation is hiring teachers and administrators who have the characteristics and qualities that will connect genuinely with the mission, vision and values of the school. Each person added to the staff should enrich the school, as well as making specific contributions to the grade level, classroom or department that is his or her primary responsibility.
Some of the characteristics and qualities that one seeks in a high quality staff are a) a visible and palpable commitment to the well-being, growth and development of children b) a passion for teaching and learning c) a philosophical match with the core values of the school d) a willingness to extend one’s self, participate in all-school activities and go the second mile and e) the requisite energy and enthusiasm that are contagious.
In addition to the aforementioned descriptions, some other desirable attributes sought in exemplary teachers are the abilities to be creative and collaborative. These traits can often be confirmed by means of thorough and deep referencing prior to hiring any particular individual.
Ongoing in-house opportunities for professional development, helping teachers to learn how to “work together for the common good” is one strategy that may well contribute to a staff that is more cohesive, cooperative and mutually supportive.
Giving teachers a faculty handbook that spells out the expectations for a full time teaching position helps to provide a document and a guide which teachers can, in fact, help design and implement. This documentation can also lay out ways that assist in the assessment and evaluation process for teachers, which can be transparent to all constituencies.
3) An appealing program and curriculum that engages students totally – mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. There are many qualities of a curriculum that meets the following four criteria: a) comprehensive, b) developmentally appropriate c) integrated and d) performance-based. These benchmarks can be applied as a kind of litmus test to see if the program has qualities that are inviting and welcoming to students and whether students are attracted or whether they resist.
There are significant differences between teacher-centered instruction and learner-centered instruction. Research suggests that student-centered programs engage students better, keep them involved and invested longer, and have longer lasting results. The following outline lays out the differences between the two paradigms and the reality is probably some combination of the two, not simply one or the other.
Teacher- Centered vs. Learner-Centered Instruction *TC* *LC*
TC- Focus is on instructor
LC- Focus is on both students and instructor
TC-Focus is on language forms and structures (what the instructor knows about the language)
LC-Focus is on language use in typical situations (how students will use the language)
TC- Instructor talks; students listen
LC- Instructor models; students interact with instructor and one another
TC- Students work alone
LC- Students work in pairs, in groups, or alone depending on the purpose of the activity
TC- Instructor monitors and corrects every student utterance
LC-Students talk without constant instructor monitoring; instructor provides feedback/correction when questions arise
TC- Instructor answers students’ questions about language
SC- Students answer each other’s questions, using instructor as an information resource
TC- Instructor chooses topics
SC- Students have some choice of topics
TC- Instructor evaluates student learning
SC- Students evaluate their own learning; instructor also evaluates
TC- Classroom is quiet
SC- Classroom is often noisy and busy
In today’s world the role of technology in schools is being developed and refined as educators debate the best ways to benefit from the advances in hardware, software and online connectivity. Children now grow up as digital natives, with computers, tablets, and smart phones as integral parts of their everyday lives. Taking advantage of these tools and using them to advance learning and an awareness of how to get the most benefit from these devices will continue to be a topic of interest in most schools.
Finally, if you hold everything constant, the one variable that makes the biggest difference in the education of children is the relationship between the teacher and the student. This is what motivates students and what engages them in a meaningful experience that is both productive and lasting.
4) Supportive parents – Parents want an educational experience for their children that meets their needs and one that is both challenging and supportive. The school’s program can be both rigorous and nurturing and if parents feel that their children are safe, that they are being loved and cared for and that the teachers and staff have the children’s best interests at heart, those qualities go a long way toward developing and cultivating parental support. Helping parents to understand, accept and embrace the school’s mission and involving them as “volunteers” whether in a parent organization, in special events or in the admissions and enrollment efforts will also help the dimension of parental support.
One of the more difficult challenges with many parents is letting them know that the school and the teachers are the professional educators, that they are especially trained and talented to deliver a high level of service to their children. Their role as parents is to be an active partner in the education of their children and they need to respect the boundaries between home and school just as the school must also respect those same boundaries. Think of the health care profession with the physicians and nurse practitioners as the trained professionals for diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. Think of a well-trained faculty as the professionals for assessment, recommendations and a program of learning and growth. When parents understand and support teachers, teachers can understand and support parents.
Happy children make for happy parents and happy parents are supportive parents. This assumes that the teachers are also enjoying positive relationships with both students and parents. If any of these are out of sync, then there is an indication of where attention is needed to make the necessary improvements.
5) Good communication internally and externally Most parents and teachers start their research on a school through finding the school’s web site, thus a well-designed, comprehensive, user-friendly web site is an essential part of good communication. It can also be used to keep people informed and up to date. Additional sources for communication may include regular newsletters, one to internal staff and one for external constituents. These may be posted and may also be sent via an email blast.
Keeping people abreast of what is going on in a timely manner engenders a positive feeling of being included. Making a provision for feedback and suggestions helps people feel like they have a voice, even if they don’t have a vote.
Taking advantage of opportunities for ongoing conversations both internally and externally about the school also helps with continuous, two-way communication.
Press releases about special events or student and teacher achievements help not only with communication but also with the next essential of a clear identity and brand in the larger community.
Those connected with the school are also good sources of communication as long as they are equipped and empowered with accurate and clear information that can be articulated to anyone with whom they come into contact. If teachers, it should be obvious what they can share. If parents, their word of mouth is priceless as long as it’s positive. If students, their excitement and enthusiasm about their school can be apparent when they are asked about their school experience.
6) A clear identity and brand in the larger communityIn the larger community a school’s objective should be for people to know the school, be familiar with its programs and be able to say what the school is all about in a precise, succinct and compelling way. In other words, when someone mentions the name of your school, the desired response is “Oh yes that is the school that has such an outstanding education for children” or something similar, preferably with some specific illustrations about what the school does that sets it apart from others.
Branding can be as subtle as a logo and as simple as the name of the school. Consistency is important so that regardless who is telling the story or what materials are being reviewed, the message is the same. What you don’t want are different stories depending on who is telling it.
There are some occasions where branding is a new initiative or it could be rebranding an older image with an updated and revised one. In marketing, the phrase “new and improved” can be replaced with an imperative invitation which says, “Visit the newly reorganized XYZ school and see for yourself what a 21st century education looks like.”
The message going out from the school and all connected to it must be clear, accurate, timely and compelling. This reinforces and strengthens the identity of the school. And, the visible images and text are worthy of repetition without overkill.
7) Adequate and up to date facilities and resources – The teaching learning environment is a critical piece to any successful school. While it is possible to teach effectively and productively in a barn or in a storefront, the spaces in which teachers teach and students learn can enhance the educational experience or they can detract from it.
A recent publication, The Third Teacher explores the critical link between the school environment and how children learn, and offers 79 practical design ideas, both great and small, to guide efforts to improve our schools. This book makes the point that the environment as an essential element of learning. Including a wealth of interviews, facts, statistics, and stories from experts in a wide range of fields, this book is a how-to guide to be used to connect with the many organizations, individuals, and ideas dedicated to innovating and improving teaching and learning. (Amazon.com)
Children need lots of space both inside and outside. They are very active human beings and helping them to not only take advantage of spaces dedicated to their learning but also learning how to care for their own space can be an integral part of a good program.
8) A solid plan for the future – A strategic and tactical plan for the future is a blueprint that illustrates the specifications for how the school is going to continue to move forward into the future. Goals and objectives based on fulfilling the mission and vision of the school, how those will be funded and who will be responsible for implementing all parts of the design are essential to the overall plan.
The most effective strategic plans are those that include representative stakeholders’ input and this can be achieved in a variety of ways such as focus groups, surveys and interviews. Change comes more easily for some than for others and helping people to prepare for change so that they accept, embrace and support it enthusiastically is a worthwhile goal. Most growth involves change one way or another, thus leading and managing change is a key factor in school success.
A plan that presents a clear vision, a worthy purpose and desirable goals can be a very compelling document, tantamount to a case statement when one is raising a level of awareness and desiring broader participation and support.
In most cases, it is difficult to project more than three years into the future although longer-term goals may be stated with the realization that they may take more time than the current plan allows.
Three resources, among others, to help consider how schools must change to meet the future are Ken Robinson’s The Element, Daniel Pink’s The Whole New Mind and Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future.
(9) Management protocols and procedures – An outline of policies and professional practices can be incorporated into a faculty and staff handbook. Whether or not there is an organization chart that illustrates positions for reporting and supervising responsibilities, the important issue is that employees support and follow what is considered to be effective and efficient management.
There are several models for leadership and management from those that are more hierarchical and authoritarian, a kind of top-down management, to those that are more team oriented, democratic and participatory. Regardless what model a school has in place for its leadership and management practices, what is important is whether or not people are satisfied with the results.
A board of directors, whether in a family-owned and operated school or in an independent school can serve as an advisory group to assist in matters of leadership and management, especially in fiduciary and legal matters. If there is a charitable foundation, a separate board may function as an advisory group to assist with investments of various kinds.
(10) A process for assessment and evaluation and holding people accountable – Most accrediting organizations insist on a clear process for determining how a school measures progress and improvement. The traditional method for assessing student performance has been primarily grades and tests scores. Teacher reports in a narrative form often give parents and colleagues more helpful information than a mere grade or score.
For evaluating teacher performance, there are rubrics that have been developed from various sources that can be employed to check on success in the classroom and beyond. Other methods and systems for assessing whether or not teachers are measuring up to expectations in the delivery of a high quality learning experience may include self and peer evaluations along with those of a supervisor or academic dean.
In some states, schools are now being evaluated as to whether or not they are helping students succeed and move successfully to the next level and the schools themselves are being graded on their performance.
The definition of success can be tricky as it may differ from institution to institution and from individual to individual. However, if the defined purpose is being fulfilled, that is a good beginning!