How Sustainable is Your School?

How Sustainable is Your School?
How sustainable is your school and its business model? We examine some of the elements of a sustainable school.
How sustainable is your school? This article is written with small to medium-sized schools in mind. Larger schools are able to plan and use professional resources of all kinds in order to ensure their sustainability for the future. On the other hand small schools typically have limited resources to begin with. So with this in mind I want to look at three aspects of how your school runs and offer some suggestions as to how we can make sure it will be running for many years to come. In other words let’s make sure that your school is sustainable and will continue to be sustainable for many more years.
We are going to look at two types of day schools: for profit schools and not for profit schools. A large number of primary schools are what we would describe as for profit schools. These are the kinds of schools which a well-intentioned, visionary educator has established because she believes in a certain style of teaching and wants to reach certain kind of clientele in her local area. I use the description of well-intentioned advisedly because many of these wonderful people have great pedagogical ideas but lack the business experience to make their school become an ongoing reality. Here are some practical steps that the owner of a small primary school to take to make sure that her school stays viable.
Develop a business plan
When you started your school, you knew that it was not enough to simply think that you could budget for, say, 50 students and charge tuition at the market rate and that was all there was to it. You developed a sound business plan with realistic projections of your expenses as well as realistic projections of your income. You sought professional help from an account and/or a business person you trusted. That business plan which you developed looked carefully at three things: the local market conditions, a viable business model and your finances. Let's review each component of your business plan with a view to the sustainability factor.

Understand the local market conditions

Your business plan was based on knowledge of your local market. You knew how many other schools served your local market. You also knew what the growth projections were for the area in which you live. Incidentally these are readily available from sources such as Wikipedia. This data gave you the information you needed to make sound projections of your enrollment in future years. Understanding all this data is critical because your school is serving a local as opposed to a regional, national or international market.

Where sustainability comes into this business plan is understanding how the demographics of an area change. For instance, in Raleigh, North Carolina, inside the beltline used to be where everything happened. If you lived inside the beltline, you were part of the action. North Raleigh and Cary and Morrisville in the south were out in the country back in 2000. Now the booming parts of the metro Raleigh area are North Raleigh and Cary/Morrisville. You need to extrapolate such population growth changes in your local area and try to project where the growth is going to be. Why? Because ideally you need to be in a growth area to stay in business or in an area which has a constant influx of new families which will provide you with the clients you need and want to keep your school going.

Business model

The typical private school business model assumes that your income will largely come from tuition. The problem with that model is that it is not sustainable in the long-term because you have to keep increasing tuition in order to offset rising expenses. Fund-raising is always an option. Indeed you must include fund-raising in any serious attempt to keep your school sustainable. Other sources of revenue worth looking into are preschool and after school care programs. Yet another is a summer program. Most private schools operate from September through early June. It just makes sense to take advantage of the need for well-run summer programs during the academic down-time.

Implicit in your business model is the need to find qualified teachers. Your school's reputation rests to a very large extent on its teachers. Qualified teachers cost money. If you are going to attract good teachers, you need to offer a compensation package which is not only competitive but one which will encourage teachers to stay on from year to year.

The important thing to do with your business model is to develop relationships with other similar private schools in your area and in your region. Exchanging ideas of what works in the present economy is fundamental to creating a sustainable school.

Develop a pipeline of potential families. Reach out to them with open houses and other events open to the public such as concerts and sports. You will find that becoming friends with a successful local realtor will help develop your pipeline. So will regular communications with the human resources departments of local businesses. Employees move in and out all the time. They can and should be a steady source of new students for you.

Be flexible with your applications deadlines. If you are a school which typically has just enough applicants for available places, then consider using rolling admissions. As your school’s reputation grows, hopefully you will be in a better position to institute an application deadline. Having more applicants than places is a desirable position to be in and will solidify the sustainability of your school.


Managing your working capital and cash flow are critical parts of your business model with serious impacts on sustainability. Even a small school needs a professional accountant to manage your books and alert you to any expected or, worse yet, unexpected deviations from the budget. This is one area where technology makes the accounting side of your operation so much easier. Your books can be online. Give your account access to the account and he can check things out regularly and efficiently. Find sponsors for events. A couple of local business people who rely on the goodwill and patronage of your school families will usually be happy to buy an ad in a program or put up a banner. The following video offers an in-depth review of accounting for non-profit organizations.


What I am really suggesting is that either you or another trusted partner needs to manage the business side of your school as capably as you manage the academic side of things. The two aspects of running your school go hand in hand and will go a long way to creating what you so earnestly long for: a sustainable school.

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