Creating a Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time: An Idea Revisited Through a New Example

           #TBT: Several things I have written for the blog have remained timely in my work as a leader in an independent school. Perhaps none remains as useful as the what I have reposted here for #TBT this week. My thinking about pilot programs remains central to how I believe we can move a large complex institutions forward, while minimizing risk and maximizing potential benefit. The post came back to mind for me this week, as I have been in a couple of conversations with very thoughtful students about the role of service-learning in our school. Without going into the detail, I have been left feeling strongly that schools have largely attempted the impossible by placing service near the center of our claims for the value of the education we provide, while we have not committed either the time or the space to support those claims.
           In short, what is important in a school is what you can find in the actual program, not in what we simply tell students is important. While St. George’s has been doing many things right, it is time to do better. This is where piloting ideas will serve us well. Next school year we will pilot an idea in our schedule that will more fully reflect the priority on service and character education we hold dear in our school. Interestingly, because of our daily schedule, put in place for the 2016-2017 school year, we now have flexibility we didn’t dream of before. The schedule itself has been a remarkable success. Among other things, it allows for a later/healthier start time and for far deeper engagement in the classroom. What we have not yet explored is how it can be a vehicle for the kind of flexibility that will allow us to pursue opportunities beyond traditional academic courses without compromising class contact time. We can do that, and it is time too pilot ideas in order to learn how best to make it happen.
          Because I have not announced the idea to the entire community yet, I will hold off in describing the details, but I will point out that without the focus on the role of pilot programs, we artificially limit our chance to move a school farther, more thoughtfully, and more quickly forward. While reading what I wrote way back in 2012, please use the links to navigate to a more through discussion of each of the bullets. I hope you find my reflection helpful.
FROM 2012: Creating a Pilot Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time
RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion) 
RMS Titanic ( )

Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.

I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and in a couple of conversations recently my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots:

The Annual Fund–A Vital Expression of School Affiliation

Annual Fund words provided by the faculty at St. George’s Independent School

In the photographs I have included here, I have written the words our faculty wrote when asked to pick a single word they associate most closely with St. George’s Independent School. They picked their words at the same time they made their pledges to the Annual Fund. They are a powerful collection of words, and together they describe the place I want my child to go to school.

Giving to an Annual Fund challenges families and friends of independent schools because they have already sacrificed so much to send children to our schools. That sacrifice is real in every case for every family no matter their relative wealth. The “sticker price” of a great independent school is already high, and it is getting higher, so to give more in addition to that is hard to say the least. But we do ask. We must. And we should.

To provide some context, I have gone to and worked in independent schools since I was four.  I make a gift each year to each school where I have either attended or taught. While my gifts are modest when taken in isolation, they represent a significant portion of my family’s giving. For me, this giving is both sacred obligation, as well as expression of appreciation for the ongoing work of these rare places that challenge, care for and support the young people in its classrooms, hallways, stages, and athletic fields. The best of our institutions do valuable work in outstanding environments that provide unmatched value to young people. The value of a great school is lifelong and serves our graduates every day as they step into lives of challenge, impact, and contribution. I am fortunate to have gone to and taught within exactly such places. I work in one now–St. George’s Independent School.

Annual Funds play a vital role for independent schools. Essentially, they help schools to cover the gap between what we call Net Tuition Revenue and the overall cost of educating our students. While this gap varies in independent schools (usually between ten and twenty-five percent of the operating budget), it is essential in every school.

Some of the doubt about the role of the Annual Fund traces to a lack of understanding regarding its purpose related to the funding model of our schools. Some facts:

  • The tuition a family pays does not cover the full cost of educating an individual student (hence the gap to which I refer above). To repeat, no family that pays tuition is paying a price that covers the actual cost of the child for whom they pay tuition.
  • There are a couple primary resources that provide the funding that fills the gap: Endowment draw and Annual Fund.
  • There are other resources that fund a smaller portion of the gap between Net Tuition Revenue and the actual needs of the Operating Budget of the school. These resources include things such as: Auctions, and individual fundraisers for specific purposes (i.e., baseball parents raising funds for a Spring Break trip).
  • Tuition does not cover the capitol needs of the school. Tuition Revenue does not build buildings–it covers the yearly cost of educating young people. Capital gifts build buildings and facilities.
  • Capital gifts, the gifts that increase an endowment, and payment of tuition are separate types of funding. They are each essential to the overall funding of an independent school.
  • Gifts to an Annual Fund send a message more significant than the total fund alone. Percentage of giving sends a message to potential Capital and Endowment donors. Foundations that are likely to consider giving to an independent school look to percentage of Annual Fund participation as a barometer of school community engagement.
  • Percentage of alumni donors, parent donors, past parent donors, grandparent donors, and faculty donors each send discrete messages to the philanthropic sources independent  schools court for Capital and Endowment gifts. Each dollar and each donation given to an independent school’s Annual Fund has a value significantly greater than the number on its face.
  • Giving to an Annual Fund at whatever scale is a vital way to demonstrate affiliation with the school. I believe it is an obligation as it clearly facilitates the school’s effort to provide the best possible education to its students.

One of the first questions I ask whenever I have taken a close look at an independent school is, “what percentage of the faculty gives to the Annual Fund?” As barometers of school health go, this is an unusually accurate one. When the people who know the most about a school, the ones who know best how the sausage is made, give to the Annual Fund, it is a strong indicator of school health.

So, when the institutions that serve your kids, or that you attended, call between now and June 30th, say, “yes.” Take action. These invaluable places and their current student bodies need you.

Detail of Faculty Annual Fund words