Thirteen months after I submitted my letter to be accepted as a member of George School’s Adaptability Project, the day is finally upon us. Tomorrow begins the three-week retreat for the eleven faculty members who were accepted, plus the various and sundry administrators who sit in with us. Over the next three weeks we’ll research, collaborate, and refine our projects. We have some exciting speakers lined up to address the group, too. But the highlight of the retreat will come slightly less than two weeks from today when a jury (modeled after the “sharks” from Shark Tank) will select two winning projects. That’s taking place on Thursday, June 25, if you want to come and watch.
What are these Adaptability Projects, anyway? My colleagues and I have spent the last year in a slow ideation phase, and we have refined our projects to some vague concepts that we hope to pursue. The projects must meet three criteria:
1. Respond to external pressures. The idea here is not to gaze at our own navels, but to think about the challenges facing tuition-driven independent schools like ours, and to find ways to reimagine our business model. Our projects are confined to areas of the school’s program over which the faculty has a decision-making purview, and these are the academic areas such as curriculum and graduation requirements, plus areas such as residence life and student activities. This shackles my creativity somewhat, but it is logical and fair. I’m planning to use this chart from NAIS to help me convince the “sharks” of the challenges our business model is facing:
(I found the chart via this post on Grant Lichtman’s blog. You should give it a read!)
2. Strengthen the core. The second criterion is that our projects must strengthen George School’s “core.” Unfortunately, the group has been meeting on-and-off for a year now, and we have no common definition of what is core and what is peripheral to the school. I’ll have to create my own definition and convince the “sharks” that I’m representing reality accurately. I think that the problem we’ve been facing is that our school is a “liberal arts” institution — or it would be if that term was used for high schools — and our program (especially the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program) is designed to produce well-rounded generalists. As a result, everything in our September-to-June academic program is “core,” including arts, religion, residence life, and athletics. The only parts of the school that strike me as peripheral are what our budget refers to as “Auxiliary Programs,” and these are facilities rentals, summer programs, the bookstore, snack bar, and so forth. So how do you strengthen the core while also trying to adapt to external pressures and bend the cost curve (see below) if you define the core as everything? Dear reader, you’ll have to keep your eye on my blog over the next two weeks!
3. Bend the cost curve. As the NAIS chart illustrated, runaway tuition increases are threatening our entire industry. These increases are capricious; our costs have been rising rapidly, well beyond the pace of the CPI, as we have needed to add personnel to keep up with the times. While the number of faculty positions at independent schools has remained rather steady over the last decade, schools have needed to add learning specialists, guidance counselors, admissions people, fundraising staff, personal trainers, and so forth. Meanwhile, our campuses need constant attention, upgrades, and renovations. We have to build new facilities to keep up with the Joneses, and that arms race is leading all of our schools to a frightening precipice. Bending the cost curve can be accomplished by bringing in new revenue or by cutting existing expenses. I’ll be trying to balance both in my proposal, and I want to end up with a number that actually makes an impact. I’m targeting a net change to our budget of $1.05 million, and if you keep your eyes on this space in the coming days, you’ll see where that number comes from.
I’m hoping to post a short, nightly update throughout the three weeks of the project. (On weeknights, that is. We get the weekends off, I’m relieved to say.) I’d like to provide a transparent window into my process and the development of my project. We are hoping that our Adaptability Project might provide a model for other schools that our facing the same challenges. Because we are a Friends school, our Quaker process can move slowly at times, and consensus can be hard to achieve. If we can demonstrate deftness, then other schools will have cause for optimism.