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Kids Can't Come to School if They Weren't Born!

How to Tribe-Source Inspiration to Fix Schools & Maybe Yourself

Over twenty major private liberal arts colleges have closed or merged since 2016. Declining birthrates are also slamming K-12 school enrollment. Lack of affordability doubles the trouble for tuition-charging private schools.

Forces are coalescing which may force more than 20 percent of private schools to close or merge over the next ten years. Any educator paying attention to the big picture is worried and asking questions such as:

“Is my school sustainable?”

“What actions must we take to make sure our mission to educate children is alive and thriving ten years from now?”

“Will I have a job in five years?”

How Did We Get Here?

My path to education thought-leader has followed a zig-zag path through colleges and K-12 private schools. I have worn the hats of teacher, administrator, school founder, trustee, and consultant.

As the CFO of private Viewpoint School in Los Angeles, I led a 2012 research project to investigate why kindergarten applications were declining. We discovered that birth rates had declined in the neighborhoods from which we drew kindergarten students.

Around the same time, research came out from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) confirming similar sinking fertility rate trends. WICHE projected its data into the 2020s to predict a substantial decrease in the number of high school graduates in a number of states.

The following year, I wrote an article titled “Reverse Musical Chairs” for the National (school) Business Officers Association (NBOA). My research and the WICHE data led me to the simple conclusion that kids can’t come to school if they weren’t born.

I predicted, in the wake of the Great Recession, that 10 percent of independent schools would close or merge in the next five years. That prediction came true in some areas. In other quadrants, schools raided endowments and tapped donors to stay afloat, hoping that declining enrollments were only temporary. Many have managed to eke out a few extra years of existence, but are now on the edge of collapse.

The train about to hit us has been coming down the track for a while. Structural change started hitting independent schools beginning in the early 2000s. The U.S. birth rate began to decline at the same time as the number of women in their childbearing years dropped, reducing the number of future K-12 students.

New categories of competition also emerged, including taxpayer-supported charter schools, online schools and for-profit schools using venture capital funding to further their national expansion plans.

Now add to this a major pricing problem and shifting consumer tastes. In many schools, tuition has ballooned and fewer customers are able, or willing, to purchase the private school product. Furthermore, the core pedagogical approach championed by many traditional independent schools is no longer the only model that parents are considering.

From a macro sense, fewer kids, more competition, financial sustainability issues, and changing consumer tastes have created a perfect storm. The marketplace for independent private schools is heading into a consolidation phase, and the schools that survive and thrive will need to employ every available success tactic.

The Wisdom of Tribes

The herd mentality of crowds is a double-edged sword. A stadium of fans can provide a home-team advantage and lift struggling players to victory. Herd mentality can also inflate economic bubbles, like that preceding the 2008 Great Recession or the 1637 tulip mania in Holland.

The internet has amplified the power of crowds, for good and evil, making it easier than ever to find a good restaurant, or to be manipulated by Russian internet trolls.

Crowds work better when they are focused on mutual support and encouragement. Anyone who has sung a hymn in church, chanted in a group meditation, or pushed to match the pace of fellow cyclers in a spin class can attest to the power of like-minded tribes. I find this power in a yoga class, where I use tribe inspiration to overcome my embarrassment as a geezer klutz and strive to learn by watching those with deeper skill and longer practice.

As an educator, I find this inspiration by being in community, real and virtual, with others who are working to buck the waves of education sector disruption.

I recently experienced some major tribe-sourced inspiration at the Enrollment Management Association’s (EMA) annual conference. In September, nearly 1,300 school enrollment professionals gathered in Washington DC to discuss challenges, share strategies, mine the meaning of current data, and share inspiring stories.

Those who think that private-school people are all stuck-up snobs haven’t spent much time around this EMA Tribe. A major underlying theme at the conference was improving access to quality education for all American children.

In keynote speeches, Dr. Derrick Gay challenged the group to rethink outdated ideas about diversity; Luma Mufleh brought the audience to tears with her story of starting Fugees Academy, the first school in the US for refugees; and Ana Navarro and Donna Brazile had the group rolling in the aisles with zingy one-liners, which disarmed to allow their core message of empowerment to sink deeply and resonate.

Breakout sessions allowed members to share success strategies, debunk false cures, and wrap their arms around the changing landscape. One of the best such sessions featured EMA leader Heather Hoerle and NAIS President Donna Orem unpacking data and trends in higher education and drawing corollaries to the world of private schools.

From Left: Donna Orem, Chad Tew, and Heather Hoerle

Beyond the content of any session or speech, however, the thing that stayed with me as I flew home from the EMA annual conference was renewed inspiration supporting my work to ensure, despite disruption and consolidation, that every community retain robust independent school options, and that children, regardless of identity or background, have access to that education. This tribe-sourced inspiration gives me faith in the future of schools.

No matter your career or passion, you are part of a tribe, even if you’re too pig-headed to embrace it. Too many people sit at home, to quote Springsteen, “worrying about your little world falling apart.”

In addition to its annual conference, the Enrollment Management Association offers year-round regional and local conferences, an online community and resources, and countless services tailor-made to support independent schools. Whatever your tribe, I bet these types of organizations and resources are available to you, too.

Stop yelling at the TV and checking your feeds every ten minutes. Go out and spend time with people who will inspire you, challenge you to be better, and drive you to make the world better for others. Go tribe-source yourself some inspiration!

Note: It’s hard to be an educator of any stripe. My friends in public education face significant challenges and unique constraints. My professional school collaboration work seeks to extend branches within and between all parts of the educational landscape, be they public, religious, independent, home school, or public benefit for-profits.

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