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Shifts & Opportunities on the Path Ahead

Monday, October 5, 2020  
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In times of crisis, it can be difficult to look up from day-to-day struggles to see the opportunities on the path ahead. Heather Hoerle and John Katzman can help; they make it their mission to keep their eyes firmly set on that future-focused path. Both took time to offer their perspectives on the shifts happening in the education industry and the opportunities these shifts could provide independent schools. They’ll continue their conversation at the SAIS Annual Conference.

School Leaders Rising

The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated challenges independent schools already faced, forcing key decisions and opening up critical opportunities.

To Heather Hoerle, executive director of The Enrollment Management Association, on the broadest level the pandemic has required that schools and school leaders step into an elevated role in society. “Our country is in need of healing and reconciliation,” she says, “and schools must play a key role.” She explains, “In the 1990s independent schools were focused on building and growing; in the 2000’s we were focused on the cool new things in education. Today there’s a need to return to thinking about education as critical to how we function as a society, as a country.” In her hands-on work with independent schools, Hoerle has seen several examples of leaders rising to this challenge and seizing opportunities to be community leaders and to innovate.

Suzanne Walker Buck, head of Western Reserve Academy (OH), is one leader who, Hoerle says, has led with clarity through the challenges of the pandemic, strengthening community on her campus and beyond. “Early in the pandemic,” Hoerle explains, “Buck held a one-day ‘idea factory’ focused on how to keep the school community together, even though they were physically apart. She and her team worked together to generate ideas--from creating student care packages to shifting school traditions to creating ways for new students to build relationships.” One idea that gained traction involved not only the school but the local community: preparing meals for the local food pantry. This kept food service employees working and strengthened ties with the local community. Iteration 2.0 was the purchase and deployment of a WRA branded food truck for the 2020-21 school year.

To Hoerle, Buck’s actions exemplified what she has seen emerge among other independent school leaders as well—that is, a willingness to embrace an elevated role as “ambassador” in the community. She also points to Noni Thomas Lopez, head of Gordon School (RI). “In the midst of crisis, through video messages and other communication,” Hoerle says, “Lopez committed to transparent, compassionate communication and embodied the ambassador role.”

Lastly Hoerle calls out Tom Sheppard, head of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (MS), as a leader who has found opportunities for innovation amid the pandemic. Leading efforts to open a camp and an online school, he has used the pandemic as an opportunity to find ways to expand points of access to the school. Hoerle says, “He saw this as a time to focus on entrepreneurship and on the community and ask: ‘What is it we could do? What do we want to be?’”

Hoerle emphasizes how important board support is to a leader’s ability to embrace innovation in such a way. “The first step is to get governance right. If a board doesn’t stand behind innovative efforts, we will be stuck where we are.”

Crises also underscore the need for school boards and leaders to be prepared and aligned. On this point, Hoerle draws inspiration from the book Think Like a Rocket Scientist. “Given all that could go wrong when launching rockets into unknown territory, rocket scientists have to take scenario planning to the next level. They must consider dozens of scenarios, and every single member of their team has to be 100% clear on the plan for each scenario. This requires constant communication and healthy debate so that everyone is on board before the mission begins.”

Collaboration Calling

The most compelling opportunity education entrepreneur John Katzman sees for independent schools today comes in the form of collaboration. He envisions the possibilities for schools to coordinate at scale in order to reap the benefits of technology in cutting costs and enhancing online instruction.

“The 800-pound gorilla in the room for independent schools is, and long has been, affordability,” says Katzman. “The number of families who can afford independent schools has steadily decreased as tuition growth has outpaced income growth. Today’s unfolding economic crisis will only exacerbate this trend. And yet finding ways to cut school costs, in order to reduce net tuition, has proven to be an enormous challenge.”

Katzman believes one solution is for independent schools to network and take advantage of technology to reduce both technical and administrative costs in areas such as school record management, marketing, HR, and financial aid. “Technology can help,” he says, “but few schools can do it alone.” He explains that technology favors scale and requires an upfront investment that is out of reach for most individual schools. Further, many suppliers of education technology overlook independent schools, focusing instead on district sales. Only when schools create networks will technology drive real benefits. That will take commitment and hard work, he acknowledges, but the reward could be high. “If each school can cut net tuition by 20% without impairing its education or ethos, it would be a game changer.”

Beyond hard work, such collaborations face obstacles of the cultural sort. It just hasn’t been the way schools—including colleges and universities—have worked. Indeed another challenge is inherent in independence itself: Schools want to maintain their independent character and unique strengths, and so have traditionally resisted joining forces with other schools. Katzman believes it is indeed possible to maintain the independent character and academic quality that families experience, while also employing shared, cost-saving administrative practices on the back end.

Katzman sees another benefit to collaborative use of technology—that is, the enhancement of the online learning experience. The pandemic has swiftly accelerated the adoption of online learning tools, yet few schools are truly using available technology and online learning expertise to their full potential. Katzman believes that independent schools could work together to be leaders in creating rich online learning experiences. “Independent schools have an opportunity to define the quality and resilience of online instruction. Small classes using technology can really be at the cutting edge of teaching and learning.” For example, true differentiated instruction–-including understanding each child’s journey and mastery of building-block concepts-–is hard even for the best teacher and even in the smallest classroom. But good software allows teachers to better join each student’s journey. “Again,” explains Katzman, “only collaboration will make it possible for independent schools to explore those tools.”

Hoerle’s concluding thoughts summarize the scope of challenge and opportunity for schools today: “The pandemic has ushered in our ‘new abnormal,’” she says. “We need to communicate differently, teach differently, lead differently, and govern differently.”

Heather Hoerle is executive director of The Enrollment Management Association.

John Katzman is founder and chief executive officer of Noodle Partners.

Hear the latest from Heather Hoerle and John Katzman at the SAIS Virtual Annual Conference, October 21-23, 2020. Register at


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