Tuesday, March 14, 2006

What sort of school?

Frosted Spider Webs
Originally uploaded by .myke.
I'm currently in Houston, facilitating "the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" for 17 fellow Coasties at the air station. I'm working with a colleague from New Orleans, Scott. He picked me up at the airport when I flew in yesterday; on the drive to the hotel, he asked how my search was going.

"Slow, at the moment," I told him. "At the moment, the live leads seem to moving painfully slow, if at all."

And then we got to talking about what I'm specifically looking for. I told him, "I'm primarily interested in college prep, boarding schools for high school students. There's probably only about 280 schools that meet that criteria, and that's just the start."

And then I started to tell him of my other criteria: can't be an all girls school (I have school age sons; part of what I'm looking for is not only a school at which to teach, but for Andrew to attend), needs to predominantly boarding, smaller is better.

As I was going through the list, I was reminded of something I read on Robert Kennedy's "about private schools" blog earlier this month:
When a boarding school has only a handful of day students, the school basically can control the school community's dynamic. Everybody is confined to the campus. Rules and regulations can be enforced. A parent who lives a thousand miles away from the school needn't worry about her son hopping in a day student's car and heading off to enjoy God-knows-what! Unfortunately a private school located in a wealthy suburb will attract a higher percentage of day students than one located in the boondocks. Combine expensive European cars and spoiled teenagers with substantial cash. Add a gorgeous luxury home with no parents present - they are at work, of course. The result? Well, I'll leave that to your imagination.
Actually, Mr. Kennedy hasn't left it to my imagination; I've lived it.

I told Scott that I'd applied recently for a job at a school that had several hundred upper school students, but only forty boarding. If offered the position, I'd actually have to think long and hard about it, since the boarding students would be such a small minority, an after thought in the school's community. I don't really want to be somewhere where the boarding students are an after-thought. I rather be somewhere where the day students are an anomaly and wish they were boarders.

There comes a tipping point where it's all over. I figure 40% day students is about the tipping point. From 1/3 onward, it's a long, quick slippery slide; and the slide is sometimes painful. I'm more impressed with a school that ditches its boarding program (for philosophical reasons) than one that holds on to an ever-shrinking program. Recently, I spoke with an assistant headmaster at a day school which, as recently a decade ago had a boarding program. The program became so small that no only was it not financially sound to continue, but they realized they were doing their students a disservice. That takes guts to make the recognition and follow through.

One of our fine Virginia schools, Saint Catherine's, is closing their boarding program this year. Will the school be the same next year as it is this year; no, but at least they know who they are and what they are about.

Like the commercial says, “Less is more; small is big.”

I'm reminded both of Jim Collins and Good to Great and Bo Burlingham and Small Giants.

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