Signs That Your School Might Be Failing
Signs that your school might be failing don't suddenly appear all at once like a flashing neon sign. Instead, they appear gradually over weeks, months, and years. I am targeting small private schools with these remarks and suggestions with the hope that you will see telltale signs of concern long before they become major troubles.
As you and your board of trustees review the list which I have set out below, I would suggest scoring each item on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the low end, and 10 the top. So, for example, as you look at your enrolment data for the past 5 years, if the trend shows a deterioration in enrolment, you would score that item 5 or less. And so on. Then tackle the items on the list which need the most attention. The following video discusses signs that a business is in trouble. Many of these will apply to a private school which is, after all, a business.
Let's start with enrollment. Filling your school's seats is essential for balancing your budget. If you are having trouble doing that, then you need to find out why you are not able to fill all your seats. If you are a seasoned enrolment professional or have one on your board, then seek his advice and follow it. Enrollment professionals will look at a host of things which impact filling your seats. Among them will be determining what market your school serves and how familiar that market is with your school and its programs. You would be amazed to discover that plenty of people in your market area may have heard the name of your school. However, they have no idea what you teach and how you teach it. They don't know that you have graduates who went on to some outstanding universities. They have no idea that one of your older graduates is a prominent judge. That's what the enrollment professional will help you do. She will identify the selling points of your school, the things which set it apart from other schools.
You need an experienced, credentialed business manager running the books. These financial professionals will alert you to problems with things like cash flow or poor endowment performance. Moreover, a financial professional will offer solutions to help mitigate both the short term and long term problems. She will also prepare reports to inform your board of the school's financial status. Financial professionals also tend to be a conservative lot, so pay heed when your business manager warns you about rising interest rates or insurance costs. Having to dip into your reserve fund once in a while to deal with an emergency repair is one thing. Dipping into that reserve fund to make payroll is another. Constant vigilance is the financial professional's watchword. This video illustrates how a financial professional looks at any business' financial condition.
Private schools everywhere have adopted social media as an inexpensive, potentially effective marketing tool. The problem with this kind of thinking is that social media is not inexpensive. Your school needs a professional marketing program in order to achieve the results you need. After the enrolment professional identifies features of your school's program which need to be publicized, you need to task a professional marketing person to handle your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube pages. They will become your virtual front door. Presenting your school effectively on social media is just as important as having a professionally designed website with a staff member who curates it regularly. If your school scores 5 or less on social media and its web presence, then you need to huddle with your enrolment and marketing people and do something about it.
I understand that not every teacher is going to stay at your school forever. On the other hand, if teachers are happy and appreciated both financially and spiritually, they tend to stay and do a very good job. Explore the reasons why teachers have left your school. Are you giving them the tools and facilities which they need in order to do the best possible job? Do you have an academic dean or another administrator who treats her staff poorly? Look at all the reasons why teachers left. Whenever possible, observe classes, speak with parents and understand your strengths and weakness when it comes to teaching. After all, that's why your school exists - to teach.
Parents not helping publicize your school
You can spend a fortune on marketing but if you don't have your parents singing the praises of your school, you are missing one of the most important marketing tools every school needs and must have. You know the way we parents make decisions when it comes to anything to do with our children. We do our research. Then we ask trusted friends and advisors what they think. It's the same process with choosing a school. Once we think we have the fit right, we start asking around. If your parents aren't supporting your marketing efforts by promoting the school with their friends and family, you really are missing out on one of the best marketing tools.
Weak alumni support
The secret to building strong alumni support is to begin asking for their support after they graduate. Maybe they can only give you small amounts of money while they are in college, but get them in the habit of thinking of their alma mater and all that it has done for them. That requires regular communications, newsletters, get-togethers, and visits to groups of alumni in more distant locations. The old adage "The squeaky wheel gets the most grease" applies to alumni support. Strong alumni support doesn't happen. It requires lots of hard work and time. So, if your annual fund generates disappointing results, you and your board need to roll up your sleeves and do some serious work. That hard work and investment of time will yield serious results for your endowment. This video gives an overview of how alumni support can work.
Endowments don't just happen. They require endless planning and constant asking. Don't let your alumni and parents think "Oh, they don't need my $10,000 gift. Let me give it to the hospital." People read stories online. They hear about situations which beg for their generosity. And they act. You have a huge advantage over many other needy organizations. You know your past students and current families. But don't assume that they know what the school needs. Copy the successful capital campaigns you have seen at schools such as Lawrenceville and Andover. Yes, they have huge endowments. But those endowments were built up because the school asked for a gift. If your endowments aren't throwing off enough income to fund your financial aid program or other major needs, then sit down with a development professional and your board and develop a five-year plan.
Keeping your school healthy and poised for all the challenges which will surely come your way takes time and planning. Trust me. It will be time and effort well-spent.
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