The end of the school year is always an opportunity for reflection. A posture of intentional reflection is well supported considering the historic and monumental changes to the independent school landscape in the past few years. We are rocks on a rough and rugged shore being shaped and defined by the waves of national and global forces. 

We are feeling the impact of a less abundant workforce. It’s harder to find teachers, administrators, maintenance personnel, bus drivers, you name it. A global pandemic seemed to have fueled the fire of the “what am I doing with my life” reckoning. Shortages of personnel in schools are prompting an inevitable spike in compensation. This, and inflation, have led to higher than historically typical tuition increases. All-too-regularly-occurring school shootings have led to a massive allocation of resources – and responsibility – by schools to provide safer and more secure environments.1 If that’s not quite enough, many believe that one of the most significant changes in the history of modern education is upon us. What will AI mean for education?

Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Anxiety prompts opinion and commentary. So, it is likely you are the recipient of more opinions and commentary about what your school is doing, with increasing questions about safety, enrollment, finances, tuition, admission, and so forth. This commentary is often posed as definitive statements lobbed from the grandstands, such as

  • We are too expensive.
  • We have too many or too few students.
  • We do not pay our faculty and staff enough.
  • We are under/overstaffed.
  • We need more space. 

This FastStats presents a number of “essential questions” and how you might answer them objectively. Moreover, the answers to these questions should be known by the head, senior administration team, trustees, and, for some of these questions, parents.  

The Questions

The following are five of the more frequent and important essential questions that data can help you answer effectively. (In Appendix A, you will find many more questions that you can reflect on or use to facilitate discussions with your board or your school leaders.) 

  1. Why are we so expensive?
  2. Why do we have so many students in our classrooms?
  3. Why are we understaffed?
  4. Why aren’t we paying our faculty more?
  5. Why are we losing so many good students?

Why are we so expensive?

If you have worked as an administrator in an independent school for more than an hour, you’ve probably heard a question, perhaps even a declarative, that implies you are too expensive. Acknowledging that “expensive” is a hugely complex and massively relative concept, the first step to answering the question is to understand how your tuition compares with benchmarks?

For this question and the other four below, I use data I collected from DASL (NAIS’s Data and Analyses for School Leadership). I also use my school, Currey Ingram Academy, as a case study for didactic purposes. The specific numbers will not be applicable to your school, but the rationale and process should apply to your school.

Figure 1 shows Currey Ingram’s gross tuition and fees over the past ten years compared with benchmarks. To fully answer the question, “are we too expensive?”, determining proper and useful benchmarks is critical. For this analysis, and many others, I use the following three benchmarks:

  1. “NAIS” schools. This is data representative of all 1793 NAIS independent schools. It is almost always useful to compare your school to the entire sample of independent schools.
  2. “LD” (Learning Differences) schools. For many analyses I use a “custom group” I create in DASL that includes 40 LD schools from across the country that are very similar in mission and scope of program to Currey Ingram. Because LD college prep schools like those in this group have demonstrable structural differences, such as much smaller class sizes, it is important to include this comparison group in many of my analyses. 
  3. Independent Schools of the Nashville Area (“ISNA”). It is very often useful to include schools in your local market. So “ISNA” is a custom group that includes 27 of the most similar schools to Currey Ingram in the Middle Tennessee region.
  4. Currey Ingram. Unless you ask DASL to do otherwise, your school is always included for comparison in any analysis that is run.

So, are we expensive? It is an interesting question at Currey Ingram that requires some reflection. For this school year, our gross tuition and fees are almost $50,000 for our day program. Compared with the median of $30,600 for all NAIS schools, we seem expensive. Compared with the median of $27,000 for ISNA schools, we seem expensive. Compared with a median of $47,000 for LD Schools, $50,000 seems reasonable but still a little higher. 

By-the-numbers, we are expensive. So you must know your story. Why does our tuition vary a lot from typical schools? In a nutshell, ratios. The median student-to-staff ratio for all NAIS schools is about 10:1, whereas, our median is about 3:1. (For just faculty, our ratio is about 5:1.) Ultimately the advice is to know these numbers, present these numbers, and then ask if everyone is happy about these numbers. If my board was not happy with our tuition, I would say, “no problem”; the most immediate and impactful way to change that is to adjust our ratios. Then that leads to a discussion about whether we could deliver the mission as well as we currently do. The discussion usually stops right there.

Why do we have so many students in our classrooms? 

You have likely been asked by teachers, parents, and trustees alike about “overcrowding” in your classrooms or perhaps just been told, “There are too many children in my child’s class/grade!” After you close your office door, grab a pillow, and scream into it as loud as your voice will allow, the next best thing to do is to analyze and benchmark your class sizes.

Figures 2a, 2b, and 2c show class sizes for my four comparison groups. Thus, the response to the question of “too many” at Currey Ingram is well, yes, some classes have three to four students, and some have six to seven students, but by any reasonable benchmark, we seem to be giving ourselves an opportunity to deliver upon promise of the mission to provide a very individualized education for every student. 

Of note, having an average class size of six in our K-5 classrooms is not by any stretch of the imagination the “right” answer necessarily for any other school but Currey Ingram. The right number of students in a room is dependent on your mission and the promise of your value proposition. And I’m sure you have thought of this already, but the fewer the students in your classrooms, the greater your tuition needs to be, all things being equal.

Why are we understaffed?

You likely have a couple dozen variations of questions related to “needing” more staff. There’s data for this, as well. 

Figures 3a and 3b show full-time equivalent (FTE) staffing numbers per 100 students.3 Again, I compare Currey Ingram to relevant benchmarks. The reader will note that Currey Ingram, not surprisingly based on the information presented in the previous two analyses, has a relatively large number of staff members compared to benchmarks. This is especially true for the administrators. 

The quick conclusion from Figure 3a and Figure 3b is that Currey Ingram does not “need” more staff, especially administrators. Or, at least, we need to think extra hard about whether we can justify adding another position. Indeed, this data has been especially insightful and helpful to me over the years because we did suffer from a significant case of administrator bloat for many years, and, with this data as support, we have worked hard to trim, yet maintain mission delivery.

Why aren’t we paying our faculty more?

No doubt you have heard a variation of this question too many times to count. But this question is especially sensitive because it connects directly to how we materially value the people who make the magic happen. And how do you put a dollar amount on that? Compounding the challenge is the basic economics of teachers’ salaries in our society: across the board they are below comparably educated professionals (see previous FastStats for more on this topic). Thus, even though I will share some thoughts on justifiable benchmarks that can be used to objectively evaluate how you are compensating your staff, the wise head knows to supplement this information with constant cultivation of culture and morale.

For this analysis, a couple of changes were made to the benchmarking groups. I added “WCS,” which stands for Williamson County Schools. WCS is a prominent school district in our region and a logical benchmark for teacher salary comparisons. I also used the benchmark “SAIS” schools, instead of NAIS schools, which allows for a regional comparison of salaries. In this graph, the median salaries of Currey Ingram teachers are compared with four relevant benchmarks, providing a body of knowledge and talking points on just how our teachers compare. As with the other analyses, it is not important to know Currey Ingram’s data; it is more important to know you can create a similar benchmarking comparison for your school.

Why are we losing so many good students/families?

Schools lose families and students for all kinds of reasons. When a school loses a student, and it is not due to graduation, it is defined as attrition. The median attrition rate of NAIS schools is about eight percent. This is natural attrition. We all have a certain percentage of students leave before finishing the highest grade the school offers. Some schools, like international schools and schools for students with learning differences, have much higher natural attrition rates (approximately 12 to 20 percent) due to their special circumstances and structure. What all schools want to avoid is attrition due to “unnatural” reasons – essentially, dissatisfaction with the school for some reason. 

Clearly, this can be a significant issue because of attrition’s direct hit on enrollment and thus a direct hit on financial sustainability. So, the first question to ask and answer is, how does your attrition rate compare with benchmarks? If you are consistently higher than the median attrition rate for comparable schools, and there is no structural reason that can be identified, then it is time to dig deeper.

Figure 5 shows the attrition rates over the past 10 years. This is a great example of how our school understood and utilized data to support a strategic goal (reducing attrition). Although Currey Ingram’s attrition is still the highest among the benchmark groups, it is significantly lower the past three-four years than our longer-term historical trend. 

A fun analysis (for a data nerd like me) is to determine what enrollment would be if attrition were different from what it is now. You might ask, what would our enrollment be in five years if we had normal attrition instead of what we have been averaging?

Currey Ingram’s 20-year attrition rate prior to 2020 was about 20 percent. Although we are an LD school with student transitions being much more common,4 this was still an attrition rate I thought we could moderate. So, I brought data to the board that showed if we were somehow able to curb our attrition rate from 20 percent to about 12 percent, after 10 years our enrollment of 300 would become 600.5

Concluding Thoughts

For this FastStats, some thoughts on how to use data to respond to essential questions are shared. In using this mindset and approach over the years, I have ended up in a win/win scenario most of the time. If the questions and the observations from the constituents have some accuracy to them, I did well by finding data points that confirmed the observations, yet still affirmed that it was the head of school and the board who were making these critical decisions. On the other hand, if the questions and observations are off base, you are on solid ground by countering them with objective and sensible data.

As noted in the introduction, we have been embroiled in a lot of change over the past few years. The turbulent tides of change have sculpted our shores, leaving us as steadfast rocks shaped by the relentless forces of national and global transformation. The scarcity of resources, a dwindling workforce, and the wake of a global pandemic have propelled us into a profound reckoning of purpose. In the face of such uncertainty, a cacophony of opinions and commentaries inundate us with doubt and scrutiny.

But we can embrace and face the commentary through the small but meaningful use of objective knowledge that is available to all of us. The main takeaway from this FastStats, as always, is to consider how you might deploy some of the tactics, ideas, and processes for data utilization shared in this article to further the strategic direction of your school.

As always, I am happy to answer any of your questions.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell 
Head of School
Currey Ingram Academy
Brentwood, TN

Appendix A (also available as a download above)

Essential Questions and Data for Trustees and Leadership

Over the years, I have put together an array of “essential questions”, some that require hard data, some softer data, and some historical knowledge. The key idea is that you, your trustees, and any other key players should know the answers to all these questions. If you do, foundational knowledge for strategic decision-making is enhanced.   


  1. Is there a strategic plan, and when was it adopted? 
  2. Is there a strategic financial plan?
  3. Is tuition rising in line with inflation?
  4. Who were the last five heads of school and length of tenure?
  5. What is the name of the auditing firm?
  6. What was/were their top recommendation(s)?
  7. What are the terms for trustees and officers?  
  8. What are the names of all the board subcommittees?
  9. What are your school’s top three in each of these areas:
    • Strengths?
    • Weaknesses?
    • Opportunities?
    • Threats?


  1. How many acres is the campus?
  2. How many square feet of indoor space does the school have?
  3. What is the square footage per student?
  4. What is the annual budget for the physical plant?

General Finance

  1. What is the total budget? 
  2. What is the operating surplus/deficit?
  3. What is our income less expenses versus benchmarks? 
  4. How does tuition compare with benchmarks? 
  5. How does Net Tuition Revenue compare with benchmarks? 
  6. How much is in the endowment?
  7. What is the total debt? 
  8. What is the annual budget for food services?
  9. What is our expenditure on professional development?
  10. What are the ancillary programs/profit centers of the school, and what do they net?


  1. How much did the annual fund generate last year?
  2. What is the parent participation rate?  
  3. What are the other key fundraising events, and what do they net? 

Tuition Discounts/Financial Aid

  1. What is the need-based financial aid budget? 
  2. How many students does it serve?                                       
  3. What’s the percentage of financial aid compared with the total budget?                 
  4. What is the tuition remission policy?

Staffing and Compensation

  1. What are the starting, median, and high end teacher salaries?                   
  2. How do salaries and benefits compare with benchmarks?


  1. How does enrollment compare with benchmarks? 
  2. What does our admission funnel (from inquiries to applications to acceptances to enrollments) data tell us?
  3. What is the attrition rate, and how does that compare with benchmarks? 
  4. What is the annual enrollment trend? 
  5. What is the target enrollment? 
  6. What is the average class size per division and grade?

Essential questions that are less answerable by data but will provoke deeper insights and excellent conversation

Here are some fundamental ideas in the form of reflection-promoting questions that are at the core of who we are as independent schools. Over the years, I have done many presentations for parents and professionals fleshing out the importance of each.

  1. How are you independent? 
    • The idea that allows the other ideas the freedom to breathe…
  2. How are you intentional? 
    • What is your North Star?
  3. How are you evidence-based?
    • If something is not working, do you consult the evidence?
  4. Does one size fit all?
    • How individualized are you?
  5. Do you teach skills and habits in addition to traditional content?
    • Arguably as much or more than content knowledge, you want students to leave your school with a vast array of transferable skills and habits. Are you maximizing your executive functioning and social emotional learning opportunities?
  6. Do your students, staff, and parents feel they belong?
    • Are you creating and cultivating a space that centers belonging…where everyone is seen, heard, valued, and loved…?
  7. Is your communication clear, consistent and proactive? 
    • Are you partners with parents? Do you employ the notion that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Do you go beyond anecdotes and use benchmarking data to answer your most important questions?
  8. Do you celebrate and empower students?
    • Do you specifically and systematically identify and provide opportunities to showcase student strengths?
  9. Do you create advocates of graduates? 
    • Perhaps the most important trait of a graduate?

1 I also believe that the growing expectation that the personnel of schools should be SWAT-like in their capabilities to defend against and take down active shooters is having a real impact on college students entering teacher certification programs. 
2 Creating Custom Groups in DASL is straightforward. The trick is to know which schools you want to include ahead of time. For “LD Schools”, I did some research and gleaned from my experience which ones were similar enough to Currey Ingram to include. If you are a large Episcopal school, you may want to create a Custom Group of all the K-12 Episcopal schools over 1,000 students. If you are a small Catholic school, you may want to create a Custom Group that only includes Catholic schools under 300 students. If you are a K-8 Catholic school, you may want to limit your Custom Group to only K-8 schools under 300 students. The point is that there is utility in comparing your school to schools that are very similar structurally and philosophically.
3 Per 100 students levels the comparison. Schools vary in size, and, of course, staffing varies with size, but using a per 100 students analysis allows for a direct comparison.  
4 And the somewhat frustrating irony of our attrition numbers is that they are not due to dissatisfaction (at least not any more so than any other school). Our families leave incredibly thankful that their child is ready to take the next step in their educational journey. As a story, it is powerful. As a business model, it is precarious.
5 Fingers crossed, but, over the past four years, our attrition rate has hovered around 12 percent, and our enrollment is now well over 400 students.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school at Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, TN, where he has been since 2014. Prior to coming to Currey Ingram, Dr. Mitchell served for five years as head of Tuscaloosa Academy in Alabama, four years as director of Park Tudor Lower School in Indiana, and as a teacher and administrator for 11 years at St. George’s School in Vancouver, British Columbia. He received his B.A. from the University of Winnipeg and both his master’s in educational administration and his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia. His passion is educating students with learning differences.