Developing a clear and effective administrative structure is fundamental to building a great school.
It is typical for boards to follow a pretty set “curriculum” of board training, but then what? Can we go further in preserving and passing on institutional knowledge while simultaneously addressing more immediate concerns?
The Head Support and Evaluation Committee is the place where the strategic Board, as boss of its one employee, interacts with the operational Head.
The Head Support and Evaluation Committee is the place where the strategic Board, as boss of its one employee, interacts with the operational Head. A poorly functioning HSEC inevitably builds frustration on both sides of this interaction. In this session Heads and Board Members will be challenged to think beyond a formulaic and too often perfunctory Head Support and Evaluation Committee. We will explore why a Head should want a meaningful HSEC, how the Head should use it proactively to give the Board comfort about the operations of the school, and why this will reduce the Board’s temptation to step out of their strategic role. Board members will asked to think beyond the fact that they have “only have one employee” to discover what it takes to be a good boss to the most crucial person on campus: the Head. Target audience: Heads and Board members
Leslie Moeller is the current Chairman of the Board of the Society for Classical Learning, former Chairman of the Board of the Geneva School of Boerne, current Board member of New Covenant Schools, former Head of Upper School at The Covenant School, and former Head of School at Geneva School of Boerne. Leslie has used her broad experience in teaching, administrative, and governance of classical, Christian schools as the basis for her consulting work with boards across the nation over the past 12 years.
Classical, Christian school start-up’s are often founded by people of conviction and action. Their founding board’s have “skin in the game” and care about the outcome.
Keith Nix has served as the Head of School at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia since 2010. Mr. Nix is the Vice Chairman of the Board of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS) and President of the Board of Academic Advisors for the Classic Learning Test (CLT), and was the prior Chairman of the Society for Classical Learning (SCL). Keith and his wife Kim have two grown sons, and a daughter in college. Keith enjoys tennis, golf, travel, and reading.
The perpetuation and equipping of the Board is the Board’s primary responsibility and a key means by which the Board protects the long term mission. This means your Board’s Committee on Trustees is critical for your school’s success.
I received a notice in the mail recently from the 100-year old Episcopal boarding school down the street announcing the appointment of a new headmaster. It took my breath away when I looked to the bottom of the letter to read the school’s mission statement, which for a century has been the verse from St. Paul to the Ephesians, “…until we all come to the full measure of the stature of Christ.” This statement is written in Greek in the stained glass of the campus chapel. The statement at the bottom of stationery, however, proclaimed boldly: “until we all come to full stature.” The “of Christ” part was neatly deleted with a simple keystroke, so I presume the students are just growing up with no particular end in mind. Well now, might we be just a wee bit embarrassed about Jesus? Clearly, mission drift has been going on in that school for a long time.
The hard work of sustaining fidelity to a clear mission challenges the most august and established institutions. The last twenty- five years has been a founding generation of classical schools in large part because the mission of providing classical education was dropped by schools that once espoused it.
Since the publication of Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, there has been a renaissance of schools rising to the effort called for in that and subsequent books. There is a palpable energy felt in the hallways of these schools, freshness in the spirit of teachers in the classroom, an enthusiasm unmatched in any sector of private education. Once the first flush of success dims, however, mission drift can be a great enemy.
The mission of a school is obviously the stewardship of the “owners,” the board of directors. Boards, however, can only affect a relatively small handful of factors that keep the school on course, and most of those are systemic – hire the right head of school, enact policies that are on mission, etc. They cannot – and should not – interfere in the daily discharge of the school’s work. Thus, mission drift is most successfully attenuated when there is buy-in to the mission from top to bottom. Board members must be appropriately profiled and selected, but so must faculty members and students themselves.
School heads are in the single strongest position to guard the mission because they work directly both with boards and with staff. That doesn’t mean that teachers and other administrators don’t play a role. Here are a few suggestions that headmasters and faculty members might try:
Read your school’s mission statement out loud routinely. It sounds cheesy but lead teachers, deans, or heads of schools should consider beginning formal faculty meetings with a unison recitation of the mission statement. I’ve done this for more than ten years, and my faculty agenda template includes the mission statement and the collect of the day (ours is an Anglican school). Every meeting begins with these, and I have often found that even some minor detail on the agenda links directly with something major in the mission statement. Moreover, as time passes, this practice helps newer faculty members obtain a sense of what is important to you. Use those first moments of a meeting to “catechize” new members of the faculty in the big picture in a conversational and uncontrived way. Over time, they will come to understand that the mission is who you are. If you find that reading your mission statement this way is awkward, ask yourself if that feeling is because the mission statement sounds disconnected from what you’re actually doing. If the answer is yes, you’re already in mission drift.
Print your mission statement everywhere.
If you’re sending out printed information, include the mission statement appropriately on every print piece. Will this avoid mission drift? Of course not; but it’s a simple thing, that, over time contributes to establishing the main thing in everyone’s minds. Don’t overlook it.
Consciously justify programming in terms of the mission. Every program a school starts, changes, or eliminates, should be done because there is a missional purpose. If a school has an athletic program, it should be because it comports with the stated mission of the school. A perceptive leader will quickly realize that this drives other less visible policies. If a school’s sports program, for example, is driven by its mission, does it make sense to restrict students from playing sports because of poor grades? Maybe; maybe not. Would a student be withdrawn from, say, Latin, because he had a 74% average? Why then should a student be pulled from athletics if it was within the stated mission to develop students with team sports? One could substitute any number of other curricular inclusions in this example, but the point is to think through the mission and consider how it should drive policy.
Eliminate programs and practices that are not on mission. Before a school starts a new program, leadership should ask the basic question: Are we starting this because of a felt need, a temporary circumstance or because it’s within our mission? If a school’s stated mission is to educate traditional learners, it makes little sense to make significant and costly accommodations for the inevitable minority of students who present learning disabilities. I am not suggesting that a school should or shouldn’t, but before going out on that limb, the board needs to determine if it is part of the mission. A teacher in the classroom can be guided in the same way, albeit at a more granular level. If it’s the school’s stated mission to develop students who think and reason critically, one would expect that faculty and sectional team meetings would buzz with strategies to incarnate those skills in science, history, or Latin class pedagogies.
Talk openly with students about the kind of school they attend. Teachers should not take for granted that youngsters “get” the first principles of the school. They may know the buzz words, but they might not have a clue as to what Trivium, liberal arts, or dialectic actually mean for them. Take time to make the student self-consciously aware not only of what he’s learning, but of the larger commitments the school maintains. In short, provide the larger context of his efforts and the principles that are guiding that process.
Summarily, the mission of the school should not simply be a statement written down on the first page of the school’s by-laws. Every member of the school’s board, administration, faculty, and student body should be conversant in the school’s first principles that give identity and direction to their efforts. In that way everyone gets stewardship of the mission. As these constituencies gel over time, they will give unified voice to the school’s fundamental purpose, and the school’s reputation will successfully express its mission.
If one were to conduct a nation-wide poll of private school leaders asking them to identify the greatest threat to the health, stability, and future of their schools, undoubtedly there would be a myriad of opinions. Negative influences such as a toxic youth culture, dysfunctional families, unreasonable parent demands, rising tuition rates, a shortage of qualified teachers, and the emergence of charter schools and home-schooling would certainly make the top ten list of concerns for most school administrators. Indeed, these trends and issues have been the subjects of articles published in leading educational journals for years.
Yet, as difficult and perplexing as these challenges are, they are not the greatest menace to our schools. The most serious threat to our schools may be their own governing boards. A lack of knowledge, understanding, and application of sound governing principles, what the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) calls “Principles of Good Practice,” pose the greatest danger to private school health and stability.
When boards behave badly, when they are guilty of unethical practices, when personal agendas emerge, and when shortsighted decision- making is the norm, a trust is broken and the entire school community suffers. It is time for regional accrediting associations and professional membership organizations to do more than publish another article urging school boards to invest in their own development.
Serious threats call for serious measures.
The non-public school board, whether self- perpetuating, elected by parents, appointed by a religious body, or some combination thereof, is a peculiar institution in American society. The qualifications for membership are not always stringent and the process of selection is o en casual. To be elected or appointed to a school board often depends less on merit, more on familiarity or popularity. Few boards take the time and make the effort to really investigate potential members. Fewer boards go to the trouble of profiling their own membership to identify deficiencies, then invite those individuals onto the board whose talents and a liations can best meet the needs of the school.
Most often, nominating committees propose individuals whom they know well and with whom they enjoy a personal or professional relationship. This fraternal approach to board selection usually results in the selection of well-intentioned individuals who may very well support the school and its mission. But, it may also result in the selection of individuals who are ill equipped to function as effective trustees, or who bring counterproductive assumptions about their roles and responsibilities, or, worse yet, who bring their own personal agendas onto the board.
What are the consequences of such a casual, non-strategic approach to board selection? Ask any head of school or chairman of the board who has had to confront a board member for crossing the governance—management boundary. Ask any head of school who has been in the uncomfortable position of considering a “special request” from a trustee who determines his or her future. Ask any of the hundreds of school leaders who have been dismissed without cause because of the political or economic pressure placed on their boards from disgruntled parents, dissatisfied teachers, or disillusioned donors or alumni.
Considering the shortening tenure of private school heads and the fact that the majority of all heads depart their schools having been red or forced to resign, there must be a major flaw in how our schools are governed.
This topic leads to some perplexing questions: How can a school sustain meaningful change when it frequently rotates the very people responsible for implementing that change? How can a school maintain its integrity when board members insert themselves into vital operations without the invitation of management? How can a school remain focused on its mission when decision-making processes have been politicized?
Clearly, the answers to these questions lie within the board itself. Boards must be willing to invest in their own development. Since the majority of board members join a board with little or no experience, it is imperative that they receive the proper orientation and on-going training necessary for them to be effective in their roles as governors and trustees of a school’s mission. Yet, too many boards have given only token attention to this necessity.
So, in the interest of solutions, here’s an idea. Virtually every accredited school requires that its instructional personnel possess the proper credentials (degree, certification, license, etc.) required to do their job. Additionally, almost all schools require teachers and administrators to pursue a professional growth plan that mandates the completion of a certain amount of continuing education in order to retain their credentials. If we expect our professional educators to meet minimum standards, then why not require some standard of training for those individuals who determine the mission, the philosophy, and the policies which define our schools, and who are ultimately accountable for its direction and viability?
If we believe that purposeful selection and on-going development of trustees are the best tools available to produce an effective, stable governing board, there must be a mechanism to ensure that boards take this responsibility seriously. Volunteers must be able to earn the responsibility to govern our schools rather than to assume their right to govern.
The answer is for our accrediting and professional associations to mandate board orientation and training as a prerequisite for accreditation and membership. It will take the authority of such organizations to compel school boards to address this deficiency in their model of governance. Heads of schools, educational consultants, and professional organizations can write articles ad nauseum extolling the virtues of board development. But we all know what happens when our schools offer a parenting workshop; the very parents who would benefit most don’t bother to attend. Similarly, the very school boards that would benefit most from board training do not show up either. Unless it is mandated, many boards will not make the orientation and training of its membership a priority.
This is where accrediting associations can deliver a valuable service to their memberships. Accreditation is a credential that most non-public schools deem essential. Accreditation is designed to affirm that schools are following sound principles of governance and management. It legitimizes a school’s educational program and affirms that a school is fiscally sound and operates under prudent management. Most importantly, the accreditation process requires a school to periodically undergo a critical self-analysis leading to a plan of self-improvement. During the “self-study” phase of accreditation, weaknesses and deficiencies are identified and addressed.
Wouldn’t it be reasonable then, to expect school boards to conduct similar self-assessments? Why not require a candidate school to provide documentation that its governing board is actively engaged in its own development? Schools already provide curriculum guides, standardized test scores, policy handbooks, and many other forms of documentation to peer review teams, so providing evidence of on-going board training and development is not unreasonable. Shouldn’t the one stake- holder group that has the most influence on the success or failure of a school be required to develop and implement sound governing principles in order to receive the endorsement of an accrediting association?
Consider this proposition.
1. Require accredited schools to submit evidence that all new trustees a ended an orientation that includes education in the “Principles of Good Practice for Governing Boards.”
2. Require school boards to adopt a policy that no trustee may be officially seated or vote on any matter until they a end the orientation session.
3. Increase the number and expand the locations of board development workshops offered to member schools.
4. Develop a list of educational consultants and current and retired non-public school administrators who are available to conduct on-site governance workshops to member schools.
5. As a part of the documentation needed for accreditation, require boards to submit a copy of their official minutes that contain the date(s) on which board development was conducted and the names of the trustees who a ended the training session.
6. Establish a special accreditation status or endorsement that recognizes schools for following sound governing principles.
7. Sanction schools which fail to take seriously their responsibility to follow sound principles and which refuse to invest in their own board development by withholding accreditation or placing the school on probationary status.
8. Establish a grievance procedure by which school personnel, board members, or parents can request a review of suspected board misconduct.
Accrediting associations and professional membership organizations serve a public good. They provide parents, teachers, and administrators with a critical piece of information needed in the school selection process. By and large, the public trusts the accreditation credential. Shouldn’t there be some assurance that accredited schools are not only well managed, but also well governed? I challenge our accrediting associations and professional membership organizations to seriously consider this proposal. In the end, stronger schools make for stronger associations. And stronger schools will be around to fulfill their missions for years to come.