Adaptability Project, On the Eve of Day One

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.


4 thoughts on “Adaptability Project, On the Eve of Day One

  1. glichtman

    What a great challenge…one in which all indy schools should engage. Here is one major thought based on my own dozen years focusing on the question, as well as what I see amongst other schools. Opportunities for real transformation lie much more in the “how” we teach than in the “what” we teach. Expenses at all schools are largely driven by the student-teacher ratio, and most schools are stuck in the quantum box of X students spending Y time with Z teachers. As long as we stay in that modality, good luck with cost reductions. It is the same as trying to reduce the national budget while leaving entitlements and defense untouched. And this quantum box is the same one that defines the industrial age model of learning.

    The good news is that, given actual freedom of changing how we teach, the vast majority of educators want to see fundamental change (see my ISM article “What If” in last February issue). And those changes offer TONS of opportunity for cost savings…if adults are willing to let go of their rigid attachments to the current model. It is about separating learning goals from resources, and realigning them, which is uncomfortable, but has to happen, or the model busts in the relatively near future for many schools.

    I would love to see what you and your team come up with, and if you want to bounce any ideas around, would be happy to. Part of busting silos is about reaching out beyond our walls; would be happy to skype in for a discussion with your team if you want!

    1. Eric Wolarsky Post author

      Thanks for the generous response, Grant. Of the group assembled here to work on the Adaptability Project, I am the most “connected educator”-y of the bunch, and I am very willing to consider dramatic changes to pedagogy that involve technology. Some of my colleagues are thinking similar thoughts, and others are reconsidering how we define the school year. Our Head of School is encouraging us to be creative and bold, so sacred cows might get tipped over.

  2. Pingback: Flying the Flag (Adaptability Project, Day 10) | ericafterschool

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