3 Challenges Small Independent Schools Face NOW

Jul 10, 2020

Remember in December when we all thought 2020 was “our” year?  It was going to be the best year ever, the one where we hit all our goals and took that amazing trip to Italy.

Who knew that just months later, with the impact from COVID-19, we’d go from optimistic projections to fighting to find toilet paper at grocery stores?

Much like our beloved local small businesses, independent schools have suffered greatly during this time.

As economic realities hit families and distance learning creates frustration for teachers, students and parents, independent schools are struggling to find their balance and plan the rest of 2020. 

But if history has taught us anything, it’s that independent schools are scrappy and resilient. 

During this time of upheaval, we’ve seen schools pivot quickly from traditional on-campus models to distance learning within days of state mandates. Even the most tech-phobic teacher has embraced Zoom. School communities have rallied and #closeapart has brought them together.

And that’s why I’m writing this article. Because I know that these amazing schools have an opportunity before them...the chance to face the challenges ahead and overcome them.

“In the Weeds” 

Sometimes when we’re in the weeds of daily tasks or the familiar issues we know so well, it’s hard to step back and see the high level vision. 

When I’m working with Heads of School, they’re often so overwhelmed by the to-do list of developing distance learning, dealing with the financial ramifications, and coming up with 14 scenarios for fall re-entry that it’s difficult to focus on the larger challenges ahead that need to be addressed in order to come out of this stronger.

But these are those sneaky kinds of challenges...the ones we’re just too in the weeds to notice. And by the time we do, they’ve grown to huge problems that are difficult to tackle. 

I invite you to look at the challenges that independent schools are facing now and see if any of them apply to you. If you can relate with the list below, then that’s great news because it means it’s now on your radar and you can take action. 

Many of us might look at the challenges before us and be paralyzed by the enormity of the situation. However, as Roy says in this quote, it’s our job to see it as an opportunity.

“Every challenge, every adversity, contains within it the seeds of opportunity and growth.”

― Roy T. Bennett

Challenge #1: Magnification of “Small” Problems 

My friend told me that divorce rates are expected to skyrocket. Why? Because couples forced to stay at home now have to confront each other daily.

What seemed like minor annoyances before were now magnified into huge problems that they believe cannot be repaired. 

It’s the same with independent schools. Take a moment to think of your school before COVID-19. What issues did you struggle with? Enrollment? Retention? Financial stability? Time-consuming employees? Tech-fearful teachers?

Now take a moment and write down the issues you’re facing now. More than likely the problems you faced before COVID-19 have been magnified 100 times. And they’re probably hurting your school and its ability to thrive, and maybe survive. 

In my work with Heads of School, I’m often able to see the high-level picture when they cannot. Why? Because they’re too close to the problem. 

It’s like that stack of papers on your kitchen counter. You walk past it every day until you kind of forget how messy it is.  And you don’t really notice it until your best friend comes over and kindly asks why there’s a paper mountain next to the coffee maker.

That’s exactly what happens with many of the problems with independent schools. Here are a few common ones I’m seeing more and more during these COVID-19 days:

Example #1: Not Your Ideal Team Players 

Um...this is a huge one!! 

Remember that staff member who takes up 80 percent of your time with their drama, inability to embrace technology, unhappiness with your decisions? 

Or the one who clocks in and out but doesn’t do one thing over the bare minimum for their job? 

Or the person who talks behind your back to parents? 

They’re still on your staff!! Yep. And worse, they’re now taking up your precious time even more. It’s become glaringly obvious that this is a problem. 

But as Heads of School, we’re often swayed by the notion that our school is “family” and that if we just relocate the person to another position or have the 15th meeting with them, then everything will be ok and we won’t have to do the unthinkable - let them go. 

It could be Beatrice, your receptionist, who knows everyone in the community but abhors technology so never checks email, embraces your Google calendar, or joins your Zoom meetings.

Or maybe it’s Frank, who does just enough to get by in the classroom but doesn’t see responding to parent emails and calling families part of his job.

Or maybe it’s Denise, who doesn’t buy into the “all hands on deck” mentality that schools are facing during this time. Asked to do something, she responds that it’s not her job.

The mistake of keeping staff and faculty who are not aligned with the mission, not committed to going above and beyond during this crisis, is that they will jeopardize your important work now and in the future. 

These problems can no longer be ignored. Now is the time to address these issues head on. You need team players, people willing to embrace technology and learn new skills. 

So I urge you to take action. Phase out those who are not going to serve your school during this crisis. Bring in the energy that aligns with this new normal we’re living in. 

Example #2: A Leaking Bathtub...Retention! 

So, here’s the deal. What would happen if you kept filling a bathtub every day but didn’t check to see if the drain is plugged? It would leak!! All that hard work you put into getting that water in there is wasted.

That’s what I’m seeing in independent schools. They’ve spent years trying to attract great families to the community. But far less time is spent on retaining those amazing families. Some schools weren’t even tracking retention/attrition by class/grade/year!

Research shows that it costs at least five times more to retain current customers than to attract new ones. Yet, many of us have been ignoring the writing on the wall citing not enough staff, time, money to devote to building a sustainable retention program. 

As the saying goes, “where your attention goes, grows.” And so now we’re seeing the evidence of long-ignored retention programs. And retention has become a huge program for schools.

Building retention programs during this time of crisis is something I’m helping clients navigate. I see firsthand how tough it is right now to prioritize retention when you’ve never had a clear system for doing so before. 

And so now is the time to systematize retention because this will only grow and be magnified in the future. This crisis has the potential to disrupt our retention rates for years to come. So please, take note and put some time and energy into your retention program.

Challenge #2: Value Proposition for Early Childhood Programs

I’ve been on about 5,000 webinars since COVID-19 hit (I’m sure you’re webinar weary too!). In almost every one the topic of value proposition is brought up. 

How do we show the value of our distance learning program? How do we sell parents on the tuition price when they aren’t getting any childcare, on-campus activities and more?

I’ve listened to countless discussions with Heads of School and Admissions Directors debating strategy. Mostly people come up with ideas like showing quotes from parents enjoying the distance learning program or hosting town halls for parents to feel heard. 

But what I haven’t heard school administrators mention is the fact that a $20,000 tuition for an on-campus school with sports, plays, state-of-the-art science labs (and more) is NOT equal to distance learning.

Look, it’s clearly not “apples to apples” here. It’s not the same. 

This is especially true for toddler and preschool programs. Anyone with a toddler or preschooler at home can attest that distance learning is not ideal for this age group (and I think most educational leaders would agree)

The whole purpose (and benefit) of these on-campus programs is to engage children with hands-on activities and in-classroom experiences and to offer childcare of sorts for working parents. 

If you’re a working parent with Zoom conference calls, you know that you will be interrupted by your young child. It’s just what happens. A distance learning program does not solve that problem for parents. 

So, when you take away the benefits of a traditional on-campus program and supplement it with distance learning, the value of your program plummets. 

Combine that with the fact that young children aren’t required to attend school at that age, and there is really nothing that differentiates your program enough from the virtual low-cost children’s activities memberships or the many Youtube toddler music and art classes available. 

Yet, I’m still hearing schools talk about, “How do we show the value proposition of this program?” 

And the truth is...you can’t!!! I know schools want a magic pill. They rely on that tuition revenue and some schools only have preschool programs. I get it. 

But this is not one of those times. 

“Knowledge is having the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right question.”

So, if you can’t show the value proposition of your Early Childhood programs, what can you do? Well, let’s look at the “why” behind the situation.

The whole purpose of you trying to show the value of these programs is to earn tuition dollars and keep students in your school enrollment funnel (if your school has an elementary-aged program). 

So the better questions to ask are: 


  • How can I generate revenue to replace Early Childhood tuition? 
  • How can I keep my Early Childhood families engaged and connected (and served) so that when school resumes they will come back?


Once you reshape the question, the answers will come. 

For example, my clients are working on revenue generating products and services to supplement this lost tuition.

They’re starting lower-cost monthly memberships for their Early Childhood families to continue to serve them without the overhead of massive amounts of staff time. 

We’re working together to look at non-traditional ways to keep these families paying for something but also looking beyond the community to generate revenue (which, there has never been a better time to do!!). 

And that’s what I recommend to every independent school. Ask the better question. What’s your end goal? 

If your end goal for this program is what I listed above, then it’s time to strategize and take massive action. I truly believe that the schools that do it will thrive now and in the future. 

Challenge #3: Revenue Generation Beyond Tuition and Camp

There are few things I’m more passionate about than revenue generation. Why? Because it’s vital to the health of independent schools and small businesses! 

Yet, many of us are still clinging to the models of camp and tuition as revenue sources. Now, more than ever, is the time for us to go beyond this limited thinking.

There has never been a period in your school’s history where diversified revenue is more important. Every school needs to be asking themselves, “How can I generate income, both passive and active, that can supplement tuition and camp?”

Although some schools have jumped at this chance, many are still devoting all resources to development of their distance learning programs OR embracing the “wait and see” model of sitting back and observing how other schools do things before moving forward.

Here’s the deal. Social media has blown up. Everyone is online. So, this is an amazing opportunity for you to develop products and services that extend beyond your community. 

This is a time of innovation and to shed your ideas of what traditionally has worked for your school. 

So now is the time to do the market research. 

What problem can you solve? What are the pain points of your target market? What do parents need? What are parents worried about? That’ll guide you to creating a service and/or product that sells. 

And then it’s about learning to sell well. It’s understanding the nuances of sales pages, landing pages, opt-ins, retargeting warm audiences and more. 

Yes, it seems overwhelming but it’s something that Admissions and Marketing Directors can easily learn to do with guidance and the right strategy. 

And the time to do it is NOW. Don’t wait until the fall or until COVID-19 is “over.” This is the time to create, make offers and sell. Your school’s financial health depends on it.

My goal is for these challenges to spur you to take massive action. I want you to succeed. 

I am cheering for your school to not only survive the COVID-19 and economic crisis but to thrive during it. And by overcoming these challenges, you’ll be well on your way to doing just that. 

As the amazing Oprah Winfrey said, “Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.”

Did you find this article helpful? If so, I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback. Connect with me on LinkedIn or email me at [email protected]

Be well, stay safe, & innovate,