The key to success in life is mastery, in order to achieve mastery you must immerse yourself in an appropriate learning environment. Private schooling is a valuable vehicle that can serve as a potent alternative to traditional public education. Smaller class sizes, the ability for enhanced student involvement, increased interactive learning experiences, etc., often found in the private school environment, provide a learning option potentially conducive to children on their own unique path to personal mastery.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult for private schools to acquire the resources needed to create meaningful incentives for both teachers and parents to stay. While private schools have the ability to provide a more targeted education to the children they serve; there are many business issues that arise which their public counterparts are better prepared and better funded for.
To remain competitive, private institutions must reflect upon their strengths and weaknesses to learn how to utilize their resources better, and create a community and learning environment that everyone is proud to be a part of.
Two roads diverged in the wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and it has made all the difference.”
– Robert Frost
Private schools must combat the stigma that they exist solely for the wealthy elite of America. By adopting an ideology of inclusivity, and quality, it may inspire parents to explore the opportunities that private schooling may offer their children. Although tuition prices can be burdensome to parents on a limited income, there are channels that can be utilized to ease the financial impact.
In this approach, it is imperative to tackle concepts that should be the pillars of your institution: integrity, humility, community, and empathy. There is a mentality of “entitlement” that exists in private schools for both parents and students. Many parents have the perception that because their child is attending a private school, and that they are paying a fee for their child to attend, that their child should be receiving good grades, and on the path to an Ivy League University, or premier secondary school. There is no such thing as a fast path to success, and it would do the school well to dispel such illusions. Instead, you should target your audience by offering them a dynamic learning environment that is accommodating to the needs of their particular child. The focus should be on creating a tightly knit network of people, a family, of teachers, parents, and students that are committed to the learning process, and helping each other develop and grow.
Attracting and retaining quality staff:
Let’s face it, there is a teacher shortage. With the increased needs of UPK, the retiring of the baby boomers, and a drop in the number of individuals going into the field, finding qualified staff has been difficult; and if you need related service providers (PT, OT, and ST) good luck.
So what can you do to attract and retain quality staff?
The irrefutable law of the market is that if there is a demand for a product, the supply will follow. Typically the salary of a teacher in a private school is less than that of one in public school. This is the result of limited access to government funding. But fear not! Many studies have found that financial compensation is not the number one reason people stay at a job, it is work culture. If you had a choice between working a job that paid $50,000 a year but made you unhappy; and a job that paid $39,000 a year that you loved every day of, which would you choose? Personal happiness is a philosophical matter, and it requires a great deal of thought when it presents itself. The goal should be to be proactive in addressing that situation, do not create a reason for the teacher to leave. The most important assets of a school are its teachers, so invest in them!
Furthermore, Private schools have the exclusive opportunity to have teachers that do not have a teaching degree! This provides a medium to perhaps employ individuals with real world experience to teach the students. This can be a differentiating factor for a private schools, drawing upon key professionals in the marketplace to provide real insight into the job market and real world business. Additionally, it can also open up avenues for global learning through shared telecommunication with private schools classes in other parts of the world.
Bringing on additional discretionary funding:
Most private schools can sell the benefits of the private school environment (small class sizes, enhanced learning experiences, maybe language emersion) to families, however, it is often quite difficult to get them to pay the full amount necessary for increasing staff salaries and benefits, the most up-to-date technology, program enhancements, and property related costs. Most schools need to subsidize parent tuition rates through fundraising. This is especially important with the increase in charter schools and the need to provide financial aid to stay competitive. The problem is, who other than the families of the children attending the school are interested in supporting the school, and with families paying high tuitions, it is hard to ask these families to also dip into their pockets again for more. Private schools need to do an effective job of focusing on impact (how is the school creating a benefit for the families they serve, the businesses in the community, and the community as a whole) and selling that impact to potential donors. In addition, maintaining alumni databases and tracking the progress of alumni is a long-term strategy, but could prove beneficial if any alumni do well down the road. Private schools need to find ways to build communities and educate potential donors on the benefits of supporting their school. They should also solicit their parents and staff to leverage the relationships they have to support fundraising, as studies have shown that donors are more likely to support people than agencies.
Grooming and Inspiring Future Leadership:
As already discussed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain quality staff. So if a school cannot effectively attract staff, where do its future leaders come from? What’s more, too often heads of schools have strong educational backgrounds with no real business acumen to complement it. The role of head master transcends the program aspects of running the school and needs to incorporate an understanding of fiscal matters, risk management, human resources, development, contracts, banking, compliance, staff motivation, and more. It is not always easy to find an individual with that broad background of skill sets. In addition, the tone of an organization starts at the top, which means finding effective board leadership is equally important. Private schools need to do a better job of cultivating board members through a committee structure that helps to identify leaders within the organization’s volunteer base. Also, providing soft skill training (leadership, communication, etc.) to pre-identified staff could help to marry these staff to the school.
The adage goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.”
A private school intrinsically possesses an ethos of intimacy; parents are willing to pay money to be a part of a meticulously woven community so that their children can access a wealth of opportunities as they progress through adolescence. A community is a family, not by blood, but in spirit. You want to manifest the bond of family, and solidarity in your institution. In doing so, parents, teachers, and students will feel an emotional connection to the school, and this will attract a range of high caliber alumni that are genuinely invested in the development of the institution for years to come.
No list of private school challenges could be complete without a discussion of technology. Technology is pervasive in every aspect of every business; however it is expensive to stay current and safe. Private schools notoriously lag in technology and areas of security. Many schools do not have appropriate policies regarding passwords, access controls, connectivity (the whole BYOD – bring your own device issue), recoveries, intrusion reviews and detection, etc. In today’s environment, where children are virtually born with increased IT capabilities, and tremendous levels of home and mobile access, in order to be competitive and relevant, private schools need to be able to offer a high degree of technological learning; through class offerings, up to date equipment, and appropriate band width to bring the outside world in, and bring learning to life.
Most private schools are not going to have the budgets that a public school has. What’s more, they are asking parents to pay for an education that they are already paying for through the tax structure that exists; so private schools need to sell their staff, the communities, and the families they serve on their value proposition. In order to create value, private schools need to build effective cultures built on an innovative curriculum, taught by inspired educators, utilizing the most recent technology, while effectively collaborating on a local and international level to draw in resources and expertise. Not an easy task, but one well worth the energy.
Kenneth R. Cerini, CPA, CFP, FABFA
Ken is the Managing Partner of Cerini & Associates, LLP and is the executive responsible for the administration of our not-for-profit and educational provider practice groups. In addition to his extensive audit experience, Ken has been directly involved in providing consulting services for nonprofits and educational facilities of all sizes throughout New York State in such areas as cost reporting, financial analysis, Medicaid compliance, government audit representation, rate maximization, board training, budgeting and forecasting, and more.