I have heard the phrase, “Before your school can be a good faith-based school, it first has to be good school,” for a number of years. The first time I heard that back in the early 2000’s resolved a dispute between a couple of individuals, one who contended that a faith-based school was a ministry, and one who contended that a faith-based school was a business. Neither was correct, as each person was only looking a one aspect of the school, and both of them were missing a critically important aspect. First and foremost, the school was a school, and it needed to be a good school if it was going to be a successful ministry and run on sound business principles. In fact, the faith-based school was not just a duality, it was a “triality” – a school, a business and a ministry.
A few years later, I heard more and more schools pointing to three pillars in their marketing materials that made their schools “remarkable” places where learning took place. The three attributes were Christ-centered values, excellent academics, and a safe and caring school community atmosphere.
At the same time, I read a book by Jim Collins titled “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t.” It outlined the business practices established by companies which distinguished themselves as leaders in their fields, and many of these business practices could be applied to today’s faith-based schools.
1) Schools first had to be good schools – which implies they weren’t in some (or, in some cases, many) respects. If you’ll recall the article from last month that mentioned the “black ooze” which slid down the wall from the ceiling in the Kindergarten classroom as well as its leaking roof, it took a lot of effort to convince a family that this was the place where their child should spend the first year of a full-time academic experience. Even though many other elements of the school were exceptional, a parents could have a difficult time saying this was a “good school” due to its physical plant’s failures. Unfortunately, good today isn’t good enough…especially when the school is charging a 4-figure tuition for the experience.
2) Schools must be able to go from “good” to “great.” The companies profiled in Jim Collins’ text were shown to have survived difficult times, and if businesses are able to do it, then faith-based schools need to be able to replicate the attitude necessary and conditions conducive to stepping it up a notch or two (or sometimes three or more). There’s even a Web site at www.greatschools.org which posts information and comments about schools for parents who are looking to enroll their children in a local educational environment.
3) “Great” doesn’t cut it today. If you look at how the Church names outstanding saints, the highest title they can receive is “The Great,” as in “St. Gregory the Great,” or “St. Albert the Great.” Even in sports, people like Wayne Gretzky was nicknamed “The Great One.” Even Mario Lemieux’s last name translates to, “The Great.” However, faith-based schools market themselves as being beyond “great” and focus on “excellent academics” as one of its marketing tenets. Of course, every parent wants their kindergartener to come home will all “A”s on their report card, right? And when there’s no academic benchmark that’s been set for them during their first year of a full-day academic experience, then everything they achieve is excellent, correct? Excellent academics are actually a retention strategy, and not an enrollment strategy, but that’s another discussion for another day. The point is that faith-based schools are not just “good,” like the “Good News” we hear proclaimed through the Gospels, and not just “great,” like Frosted Flakes®, but “excellent” – and that’s a bold statement to make, and an even more difficult one to attain.
So how can a school be good, great and excellent all at the same time? That’s like telling a student, “You get a C, B, and an A.” An evaluation is summed up with only letter grade – and for today’s parents, it has to be an “A.”
The fact of the matter is, your school cannot be just a “good school.” If it is, it will continue to lose enrollment as parents seek great schools. If your school is great, it will continue to lose development support because donors support successes and not attempts. Your school needs to be excellent, not only to attract parents and supportive alumni, business and community donors, but because it needs to be “worthy” of the 4 or 5 figure tuition your school charges, as well as the 4 and 5 figure major gifts you want to receive for your school.
If you see a correlation there between the 4 and 5 figure tuition and the 4 and 5 figure major gift reference, it’s completely intentional. How do you respond to a donor that gives you a check in the amount of 4 figures? Now, how do you respond to a parent that has enrolled their child in your school and is paying 4 figures in tuition? If the answer is different, providing some congruency could be step one to making your school an excellent educational environment and offering an exceptional educational experience.