If the Adaptability Project was a play by William Shakespeare, then Day Three would represent the shift from the exposition to the rising action. The inciting incident was a visit from Heather Hoerle, the Executive Director of SSATB. Heather was here to present our group with information about what’s going on in our industry, but her visit was open to the entire faculty, administration, and board, so we had quite a few guests in the room who were not part of the Adaptability Project Group.
Heather’s talk was entitled “Mission Critical: For George School’s Adaptability Team.” She probably planned her presentation to fill about an hour, but we took up two hours and twenty minutes of her time peppering her with clarifying questions, breaking into short discussions, and sharing our ideas and fears with her. I can’t overstate how superb Heather’s information and interaction was. My attention didn’t wander for 140 minutes, and at one point I was juggling two backchannel conversations with colleagues who were equally eager to discuss what we were hearing. Heather spoke to us about trends in admissions, demographics, and technology. She covered some of the recent developments in independent schooling, contrasted what we do with similar models, praised us for what we do well, and was honest with us about where we need to improve. I think for a lot of the members of the Adaptability Group, the superb data that she presented helped galvanize our thinking and bring about clarity.
Some of the Q & A with Heather was priceless. In response to altschool and its Google-modeled, iterative self-improvement model that Heather explained to us, a colleague asked her if she thought our slow Quaker process for decision-making could survive. Heather didn’t equivocate: “No, you all have to speed up.” That led to a conversation about whether the problem is Quaker process itself, or our misconceptions about what Quaker process really is. Those conversations are fascinating for those of us inside GS; for outsiders it probably seems like a strange alternate reality. For the record, in my nine years at GS I’ve come to feel that Quaker process is brilliant and vital. At times when I ponder working elsewhere, I pause and think, “But how will I be happy in a non-Quaker environment?” Still and all, we adapt too slowly to changes in our environment. Hence the creation of the Adaptability Project.
I asked Heather a question, too. Given the trend lines on the charts she showed us that reveal shrinking admissions funnels and a major trough in the birth rate that is going to smack independent schools pretty hard in the next decade, I wondered if it wouldn’t be for the best of the industry if the weakest two deciles of schools (roughly speaking) went out of business. Did Heather think that was a possibility? Heather responded that just about everyone who knows the numbers thinks that that will indeed come to pass. As I was feeling good about how that thinning of the herd will help us, our CFO reminded everyone that those schools will do a lot of damage to everyone else as they shuffle off this mortal coil. They’ll offer crazy scholarships and irrational pricing as they try to keep air flowing to their lungs, and they’ll generate bad press, too. Ugh.
In the afternoon I got back to work on my own “unbundling” ideas and the shared technology ideas that I’m working on with three colleagues. The truth is that I’m starting to gain clarity that my unbundling proposals aren’t going to stand alone very well now that I’ve spun out the tech piece, so I need to bite the bullet and throw myself fully into the team tech proposal. We are looking at building a pretty ambitious, multi-layered proposal that might include joining an online consortium, pushing blended learning here at home, opening the door for more independent study opportunities, and bringing on board a technology integration person. I dubbed this mash-up the “technology renaissance” proposal, and I think I could stand proudly with my three colleagues and present this to the “sharks” next Thursday.
The question of whether or not the techno-renaissance will “bend the cost curve” meaningfully for George School is open to some debate. The info I received from the Global Online Academy doesn’t lead me to believe that joining their consortium is going to allow us to reduce FTEs. (GOA is amazing, and I think we should apply for membership anyway for the good of our students.) My online interlocutor and former #TABSchat moderator Scott MacClintic warned me via tweet last night that the technology ideas he read about in my previous blog post would likely cost us money, not save money.
@EricAfterSchool sounds invigorating thus far….i think you will find that the online option does not save $$ but ultimately costs $$
— Scott MacClintic (@Smacclintic) June 17, 2015
[Sorry about the inelegant formatting when I embedded that tweet. I’ll clean it up when I can.]
I trust Scott’s knowledge on topics such as this one, and my team clearly has its work cut out for it. Can we find a way to reduce, say, three FTEs as a portion of our students shift to taking a class or two online? If we could save three FTEs, we could repurpose one to pay for the tech integrationist that we need to hire and still come out smelling like roses. (If you are a tech integrationist reading this and need a job, please hold off on sending me your resume, okay?)
We have another team in the Adaptability Project Group that is looking at graduation requirements, and I imagine that if their proposal and our proposal were the two selected by the sharks, there might be excellent synergies. (No, I never worked for General Electric. Why do you ask?) If things shake out just right, this whole Adaptability thing could deliver on its promise and reshape the school in positive ways that make us better equipped to face the future. I’m feeling optimistic as I put this post to bed.