The Painful Saga of Some Faith-Based Schools

Now before you think this is an all “doom and gloom” article regarding faith-based schools, let me say that there are a number of faith-based schools across the country that are doing things “right,” evidenced by their continued growth, vibrant parent community, excellent work atmosphere, healthy support from donors and alumni, and phenomenal students that personify excellence.

Further, in certain parts of the country, faith-based schools are being built – and filled – which creates a different type of problem – one that deals with how to pay for the building of a new school facility.

Make no mistake – those are good problems to have.

Still, there are a number of faith-based schools which are experiencing a phenomenon known as “shrink,” as population bases age, young families move out of the area to seek economic opportunities, and the composition of the parent and student community changes.  Further, there is not a “one-solution fits all” approach for any of these schools.  While Christian school difficulties may have stemmed from volunteer teachers than may not have been certified nor schools in educational strategies decades ago, and Catholic school difficulties may have begun with the departure of the men and women religious who taught in the schools for little or no compensation, the circumstances surrounding every school has changed – technology is powerful, ubiquitous, and mutable; parents are members of a different generation; students are members of a different generation; schools now have advisory or boards of governance; a myriad of business models in the marketplace regarding how schools collect (or don’t collect) their tuition; and, a growing reliance on “fundraising” as a long-term strategy to generate additional revenue for a school rather than focusing on the long-term development of relationships with the school to foster significant support, rather than a dollar or two here and there.  Indeed, there is a difference between “fundraising” and “fund raising.”

One common denominator of the many schools that are thriving is that they have some type of development or advancement professional as a part of the school staff.  It’s a necessary position to develop relationships with alumni, businesses and community members outside the walls of the school, to offer tours of the school to parents of prospective students, to follow-up with families that have expressed an interest in the school, to develop effective marketing strategies to increase the number of families that want to find out more about the school, and maintain a positive learning experience for students and their parents alike.  Those parents will tell other parents about the great school their child attends, and become evangelists of the school through the power of word-of-mouth.

How critical is this position today?  If schools don’t have this position on their staff, it would be as if a commercial business didn’t have a sales manager.

Think of your last car buying experience.  Even though you may have dealt with the sales consultant for most of your visit, did you meet the sales manager?  Perhaps you met the finance manager when you signed all the papers.  Even if the sales consultant handled everything, there is still someone who manages the process.  Many board members or parents at those struggling schools today will say, “That’s the principal’s job,” when it comes to enrollment, development and marketing.  However, when you realize that many of these functions require being absent from the school, I wonder what the parents or board members would say if the principal wasn’t at the school 75% of the time, and then wasn’t there on a Friday because there was a football game on Friday night, a forensics tournament on Saturday, and a swim meet on Sunday that they had to attend.  Today’s school communities (parents and board members, especially) expect that the administration of the school will become a sole and all-encompassing vocation of leadership, similar to religious men and women cared for faith-based school children in the past.  Wait…you have a family?  Your child is sick?  Is there someone else who can attend to that, because there are families here at the school that need your attention, and demand it now.  That sounds pretty harsh – but it’s a prevailing mentality.

The principal is expected to do all those things, be there when the school opens and long after the school closes every day of the week, including weekends.  Unfortunately, school administrators can’t tri-locate, let alone bi-locate yet.

Some school administrators have turned to a teacher to help them with these activities, offering an extra stipend so they can do these necessary activities after the school day is done.  Unfortunately, this practice is akin to a commercial produced by a well-known insurance company, where a man sinking in quicksand asks a cat to go for help.  Productive business meetings don’t necessarily happen on a part-timer’s schedule, either.

Faith-based schools espouses academic excellence.  Yet, many schools that are having difficulties will say, “Everything’s fine,” so as to not cause panic to set in among parents and result in an exodus at the mere mention that the school is experiencing difficulties.  However, there are two problems with this approach.  First, it’s against the commandments.  Truth must be told.  Second, “fine” is not congruent with “excellence.”  If your expectation is excellence, and school administration works to create excellent academic achievement, excellent business processes are also necessary so that the experience of the school can be an excellent one.  Success supports success.  The community will “help” in a crisis, but constant crisis management is a great way to burn out.