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Be True to Your School

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I guess it should be easy to create the perfect school. All you need is a great team of set designers and builders, and a call to central casting. Better toss in a hefty line of credit at Brooks Brothers and L.L. Bean.

Because lots of people seem to have an idea of what an independent school should look like, and there seem to be equally strong ideas of what the people in them should look like. Go ahead and check a handful of school websites; you’ll see what I mean (and it doesn’t help that a handful of vendors predominate in the independent school market: “Insert quad photo here”). There seems to be a pretty clearly understood vision, and it is absurdly simple, right down to the smiling kids looking at laptops and carrying lacrosse sticks. Heck, there’s even a place for someone who looks a little like me.

Times are tough. A second recession looms, and despite the apparent imperviousness of the truly wealthy to hard times, there may be yet another sag in the curve of admissions and development prosperity for many independent schools. Plenty of places will be looking for the strategy that will save the day.

For some schools that strategy will be what a friend calls regression to mean: Look like the popular idea of a private school and make sure your students fit the moviegoing public’s image of preppy kids–with the cynically comforting thought that some diversity is permitted, even preferred. Keep your program old school, canonical and rigorous–kinda like in Finding Forrester or The Emperor’s Club. Epitomize type.

In other words, respond to stress not by figuring out how to be something different, something special, but rather by working like crazy to emulate the most familiar and comfortable stereotypes promoted in the popular culture, seasoned to local tastes. If necessary, jettison whatever makes your school quirky, distinctive–that is, open to question.

In theory, of course, no two schools are the same, as each is set apart by its mission statement. But independent schools of late have been required to ramp up the degree to which they enact their missions, or at least the ways they talk about enacting their missions, as those statements–many of which don’t do much to distinguish their schools in the first place–become the touchstones for all things related to accreditation.

Now, I’m certainly a big fan of the well-crafted mission statement and of the well-executed accreditation process. But my friend observes that for schools that are short on both confidence and vision, the “accreditization” of mission can speed regression–it’s kind of like figuring out how to give the safest, most generic answer to a real puzzler in a job interview or an oral exam.

Many years ago those savants of secondary school culture, the Beach Boys, reminded us how important it is to “be true to your school.” In a place where the regression has proceeded to the point where the school is making every effort to get across the message that it can be all things to all kinds of students, being true to the school becomes an impossibility: the school presents little to be true to.

What is sad here is that the school probably may actually offer plenty that is worthy of love, devotion, and generous annual giving. The school may even be sustained through hard times by the loyalty and support of families, alums, and even staff who see through to the essence even when the school’s brand managers, leadership, or governors have lost the courage, or perhaps even the optimistic insight, to focus on it; they’re too focused on making the school look perfect to attend to the far more essential task of making the school into an ever better version of itself.

So, a challenge to all schools: What does it mean to be true to your school, to its essence (and not just its mission, although you may be in a wise and fortunate place where the two are the same) and its highest aspirations? Are you making this your highest priority, or are there areas in which your programs or your messages are in danger of regressing to the mean? Has fear of change stifled not just innovation but even staying the current course?

Creating the perfect school isn’t about appearances. Just as our highest ideals for our students should be to support and inspire them toward becoming the best possible versions of themselves, we need to make our institutional work about epitomizing not the type “independent school” but realizing the finest possibilities of the school itself.

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