Each time I’ve taken a principal job, it doesn’t take long before people ask me, “What’s your vision?” And I’ve always squirmed. I know what a great school feels like but great schools usually look so different. And when you’re just coming into a school, there’s a need to learn what works and what needs to be changed. In my most recent job, there wasn’t much sugar coating since I was told I might have to close the school due to enrollment and fiscal challenges. But it still takes some time to understand a school’s culture. So I set out to figure it out–immersing myself in the people, events, and values which help define a school.
I recommend taking the time to learn how things are done. That’s why in Parts I and II I have devoted space to operations and personnel issues. If you’re transparent about your method, people will come to understand that you are trying to understand and improve the school first–and not enacting a hidden agenda. If your goal is to save a school, then state your goal and keep your eye on the prize. That goal needs to be stated, repeated, and reminded. I have found that you can never remind parents enough of your goals. We’re all busy, we don’t read all of our emails and newsletters.
In my first year here, I was also a parent of a 2 year-old in a twice a week preschool. I seemed to receive emails every day from the preschool, from the teacher, from the church. I couldn’t keep up! So I quit reading. So I send one school email out every week (usually Thursdays)to all stakeholders. I use social media for immediate updates but reserve my weekly email for the important stuff.
After you’ve assessed what needs to be done and carried out your improvements in operations and personnel, it’s time to consider what is resonating. People vote with their feet. Employees leave; new people apply. Parents stop showing up for meetings; new faces appear. Children transfer to other schools; new students enroll. So figure out where you’ve had losses and gains. And figure out why.
I can remember a parent coming to me after a school Mass and sharing with me that she loved my vision and wanted to teach for me. “How would you describe my vision?” I asked. “It’s a place where students come first, where everyone is valued, and where students aren’t afraid to express their faith. You’re creating a wonderful school,” she said. Well, there it was…I couldn’t have articulated a better vision. And I hadn’t!
When we announced that we were going to multiage classrooms, I thought we might hemorrhage students in the upper grades. Parents were so lukewarm that I developed a “doomsday” budget and had everyone convinced that we might end up with only 80 students. So I was ready for a contingency plan and talked to everyone about how we were ready for a worst case scenario. But it never materialized because I think parents came to understand that we really were planning for the future and we weren’t going to close.
However, we saw a lot of concern about upper-level math and lower-level reading. So we hired an instructional aide for the 1st and 2nd grade classroom and purchased an online tutoring companion for the upper level (including an online algebra class for the advanced students). When we began talking about adopting a dual language model, we saw interest pique across all grade levels. So we hired a part-time Spanish instructor. And we saw interest increase.
We never saw a corresponding outcry for library, art, or PE. So we didn’t move on those subjects immediately. It was a bit reactionary–but all leaders are a bit reactionary when they are figuring out their respective communities. In Year Two, however, you can begin to help synthesize what you’ve learned. In your privileged place as leader, you have a responsibility to help a community define itself.
Start with the mission statement. Does it capture the community? Present it to your stakeholders: school board, staff, students. See if people resonate with the words or if they can point out what’s missing. Our mission, for example, mentioned a lot of really great Catholic school stuff. In fact, many Catholic school mission statements sound the same. But a true mission statement should include what is essential to your school. Ours, for instance, never mentioned that we never turned a family away that couldn’t pay. That’s an essential part of who we are. When we re-wrote it, we included that feature.
There are two ways to go about revising a mission statement. One is to hire a consultant and let him/her lead the community through a revision process. This takes time, money, and effort away from the precious needs of a struggling school. And you’ll usually end up with a statement that resembles the older mission statement with more dependent clauses and descriptors in order to make everyone happy or sounds like the school just down the road. And it will take a year or more.
The other way is to gather ideas from the different stakeholder groups and for a committee of 2-3 people to craft a new statement. Then you can take that revision to the same groups, gather feedback, and have a new statement ready 6 months after you start. I gathered thoughts, wrote a new statement, asked the pastor for feedback and suggested we post the proposed mission statement as our mission statement and wait for feedback. None came. Even after I asked groups directly, no feedback came. So it’s almost two years old now! We have a new, more accurate mission statement at a fraction of the time or expense. And this is your chance to impart your vision.
Now, take the mission statement and examine EVERYTHING in its light: policies, personnel, recruiting, educational model, communication patterns, configuration, etc. And keep it in mind as you make future decisions. If you’re not looking at your mission statement either it’s irrelevant or you are. We kept our mission statement in mind as we examined different models for our school. This wasn’t simply rebranding–we were determined to come up with a different educational model to attract more students. We looked at STEM, dual language, and Nativity-type models.
We decided to adopt a dual language model (Two-way Spanish-English) because it promised an improvement on our educational model and it was set up to recruit/attract Hispanic families. We knew that this new model would mesh with our mission to serve any family committed to Catholic education. We specifically chose Two-Way Immersion because it is predicated on the notion that half of your student body would come from English-language backgrounds and half the students from Spanish-language backgrounds. So it was imperative to attract language backgrounds first and foremost–regardless of the family’s ability to pay.
The hope was (and remains) that this choice to meld our program with our mission will lead to increased donations and monetary support from foundations. When they understand our case that we are not a typical parish school and that we serve an underserved population, they will be compelled to act. Right?
Many people ask how we were able to change our educational model so seamlessly. Simple–we were under-enrolled. So we weren’t taking seats from families already enrolled; we weren’t taking jobs from teachers already employed; we weren’t receiving opposition from all those families that weren’t there. We sold the new program as a means to save the school and a means to continue our mission. In the process, we separated from the parish, created a new board, and were able to attract lots of new funding. Our enrollment is up and we’re planning for the third year of the program.
Hard work, transparency, and good decisions can reverse trends of low enrollment, low finances, low morale, and low expectations. My vision was to save the school. I’m still not sure if we’re there. But when are we ever there? I suppose I’ll keep working as if there is right around the corner.