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Strategic Planning: Taking Appropriate Risks

Seven years after conducting a strategic planning session for a School, Littleford & Associates received two unexpected emails from its just retired Head and his long time Chair. The emails were a day apart and were a complete surprise to us.

The note summarized as: “Thank you for pushing us to take the risk of exploring seriously adding a high school to our program, as we may never have done it without strong encouragement from you that flowed from the parent feedback in your strategic planning approach.” The notes went further to describe the success of the first graduating class, the innovative campus and the excitement about it in the internal and external community.

The recently retired Head had invited our Firm onsite for one week of strategic planning. This Consultant interviewed about 175 constituents: parents, teachers, staff, board administration, and older students. This School like most Montessori programs was very strong in the early childhood/preschool grades but then enrollment in the early elementary to upper elementary grades tapered off ending in a weak middle school of only 25 students in grades 7 and 8.

The School “bled” students off to other area independent schools not because of parents’ desire to leave but because parents are always concerned about transitions as well as access to other good area schools. Thus when a local K-12 or 7-12 school had openings in grades 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 the parents of this Montessori School seized upon those opportunities. That caused a weakened economic condition, less effective fund raising, and split school loyalties. Even board members left early to ensure that their children had access to good local independent middle and high schools.

Interestingly, many parents loved the inquiry-based Montessori model in action at the School. Many also came from parts of the world where Montessori was trusted and well established. There was a good international balance of students to the local US clientele. The resultant mix was really quite intellectually and socially stimulating.

The parent focus groups revealed a powerful undercurrent of parent anxiety and worry about when and whether their children would gain entry into the very good independent K-12, and 7-12 schools in the area. When those schools had strong enrollment demand, they were willing at times to wait for these qualified Montessori students after 8th grade, but after the 2008 recession those schools began “robbing” schools like this Montessori School. In other words, they were protecting their own turf by “eating their own seed corn” or using this feeder school in a way that harmed it but protected the larger cross town K-12 or 7-12 schools. One could understand this. The frenzy after 2008 was due to a steep drop in the entire early childhood and elementary marketplace right up through 8th grades. In many parts of the country only high school enrollment demand held up during this time.

It was also clear was that the younger parents in particular had not yet begun to think about leaving the School but they wanted a clear path to a PK-12 grade school with NO transitions to another school, thus reducing family anxieties. As the market picked up again access to the prestigious schools again tightened.

Very few Montessori schools have high schools. During the strategic planning feedback session, this Consultant pressed the case with the Board and leadership team that the undercurrent of support for building a high school was strong and powerful through lower elementary and even into upper elementary. Admittedly it was less strong in grades 5 and higher as those parents were already thinking about how fast they could gain slots in the other private schools before 9th grade when the doors would be shut effectively on them. Therein lay the risks.

The group gathered for the planning session were at first incredulous. “We have thought about this before and it never went anywhere. There is insufficient demand. Where would we put a HS? What would the program be? How could we compete? It is not a financially viable model.” But was it? It was sufficiently clear that if the space could be leased, built or found in some other way, and if the program could offer mission continuity with the Montessori model, the parent body would stay.

Out of this session came some interesting ideas about exploring the IB as many of the parents had heard of the curriculum and felt that there might be some basic similarity between the inquiry based model of 1B and the Montessori approach. There was also a sense that any High school program would need to be a creative, innovative approach that would attract new 9th graders as well as keeping the upper elementary and middle school families with the School for the long haul.

The Head and Board took this challenge on in serious ways by exploring the very few Montessori programs in the nation that have high schools. But from one strategic planning visit and extensive dialogue, exploration, and marketing analysis, the School now has its high school housed in a lovely new facility in another part of town with abundant civic, research and cultural opportunities. It has enough students whose families are attracted to higher learning based upon Montessori traditions. The IB is offered in Grades 11 and 12, and this makes it one of the few high schools to offer it in the area. The Head has just retired having stayed on several years longer at the Board’s request to ensure the financial and educational viability of the new high school.

This is also a story of a great Head/Chair partnership; a trusting, believing Board willing to take appropriate risks; and of a Head who wanted to leave a legacy of a school that could compete effectively with the K to 12 rivals and offer a desired and alternative approach.

Taking appropriate risks, seriously discussing options that are often tossed aside too easily, and exploring risks, threats, challenges but also opportunities, is a major part of creative and effective strategic planning. We are proud to have been a part of this School’s successful experience.