Welcome back to another school year. We at SAIS are delighted to congratulate 73 heads who are new to their roles this year, the biggest turnover among heads that we have seen in some time. Among those leaders are over twenty first time heads of schools and we ask that you help support these new leaders in our midst.
As we return to the rhythms of the school year, I just want to remind you of the themes these we saw at the end of last year. I encourage you to think of these items not as elements of a crisis, a sign of the world on fire, or anything else that might get our collective adrenaline up more than necessary, but as challenges that so many institutions of all kinds are tracking and managing to ensure long-term stability and success.
In no particular order, here are six topics to track in the year ahead:
The economy is better now than it was last spring, at least in some regards. It keeps adding jobs, with a current unemployment rate of roughly 3.5%, a fifty year low. Gas is now under $4 a gallon, and a better than expected CPI report last Wednesday indicates that inflation seems to be slowing. Home affordability is a serious issue right now, with the median home price in the US around $400,000 and mortgage rates climbing. This is particularly true across many spots in our region as people continued to move south last year. For schools, the uncertainty means managing costs as much as possible and taking pages out of the playbooks of other businesses that are streamlining services. This can include providing fewer options outside of the core services (think cafeteria choices) as well as creating efficiencies wherever possible.
While all of these are indicators of a strong economy that is skirting around the edges of a recession, staff shortages are a real side effect of the Great Resignation, and our industry has not escaped. In our schools, we see this issue from two different angles. The first are non-classroom positions that help our schools operate smoothly, including cafeteria staff, custodial workers, grounds crews and others. These staffing struggles can also extend into human resources, technology support, and others. In short, where our schools compete with other businesses for employees, we find ourselves facing the same struggles. Some schools have worked with third party vendors to outsource these positions, others have been increasing salaries and benefits or providing more flexibility to positions (including teleworking).
Teaching faculty is one place where schools feel a unique pinch. In the spring, a good number of schools reported struggling with filling faculty positions, with some schools reporting receiving a handful or no resumes for positions that were previously easy to fill. Indeed, the falloff in liberal arts majors seems to be catching up with us as some schools reported shortages in English and history teachers. For many years, people have been writing and wringing their hands about the teacher shortage, and we have watched public schools carryon with open positions for many years at a time, but our schools now also appear to be struggling. For more on the trends here, see this research report from NAIS. Now is the time for our schools to revisit their compensation structures and better articulate the value of working in our schools. This piece from Jeff Shields at NBOA is helpful on this topic, and many more pieces have been written at what is at the heart of so much employee turnover. Retention will be a ball to keep an eye on as this year unfolds.
Finally, schools should be watching the trends around unionization. As many of you have seen, union growth at places like Starbucks has gained traction, including in southern states. Unions have been slowly growing in independent schools, as well.
If the events within the news of the last week are any indication, polarizing politics are unlikely to fall by the wayside in the near future. Schools bear a special brunt in the battle for political control as focus continues to fix on classrooms. These political tensions have been complicated for schools to navigate, as they often find themselves the victims of websites and social media attacks run by anonymous groups or individuals, some of whom have no connection with the school at all. In many cases, what has been said or done within schools is different than what is represented, but there is no easy way for schools (or associations for that matter) to communicate what happened. These issues have been unnerving for teachers as they find themselves managing vastly different parent and education expectations that are sometimes in conflict. Further, states have been implementing laws that reach into schools, such as Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, that require schools to also ensure they are not inadvertently violating new laws.
There does not appear to be one clear way to manage the array of topics and incidents that can come up for schools here. However, schools that are in alignment on mission, governance, leadership, and delivery of that mission in what is happening in the day-to-day life at school seem to weather these storms more effectively. As we head into mid-term elections this year with fiery races anticipated in states like Georgia, and the next race for president around the corner, these flames are unlikely to die down any time soon.
Schools, like many businesses, found themselves confronting a racial reckoning in the summer of 2020 and beyond in a way that added to the fodder of the pandemic and other challenges. In some cases, schools were moving too quickly and caught the ire of unprepared communities. In other cases, school leaders were caught flatfooted as their communities and students demanded more action.
As time has continued to pass, the word from those supporting schools working on diversity issues is that the work is deepening within schools. This work focuses on the belonging of students and community members in all the ways in which they each bring difference to our schools, how they are experiencing our institution, why the schools are doing the work they are doing, and what they are trying to achieve in concrete goals. For more on these trends, see this follow-up interview with Nishant Mehta. In short, many schools are finding that alignment around mission and what diversity and belonging mean in the individual schools, relative to the school culture and expectations is what tends to be driving this work in a healthy way.
Covid has not gone away, but it is not eclipsing the news or schools’ back-to-campus plans in the same way that it has in the last few years. Last Thursday, the CDC released updated guidance for schools. CNN obtained a draft of the updated recommendations which are designed to reflect the shifts in public sentiment and the increased immunity within the population due to vaccinations, prior infections, or both. The CNN link has an overview of the highlights of the changes. CHOP has also updated their return to school policies to reflect many of the realities that we saw in the last academic year. This includes not requiring exposed, asymptomatic individuals to isolate at home. Experts do foresee ebbs and flows in the virus in the year ahead.
Student Wellness and Achievement
The final topic that many schools are continuing to work to understand are around how our students are truly doing. Student mental health data have continued to show declining mental health in American students, and the pandemic exacerbated these feelings for many. Further, student academic achievement had lapses and general inconsistency due to the disruption of the pandemic. Further, social emotional learning for students was curtailed by being away from campus and then it was still impacted by the limitations on in-person experiences when students had to remain socially distanced. Schools are now starting to report seeing gaps in the knowledge and skills of incoming students, causing schools to revisit their admissions practices and transition plans for incoming students. These are issues to which there are no clear solutions, but one that schools will need to track carefully and consider as they evolve.
Finally, before those topics crowd in too closely, the number one thing I am hearing from schools and hearing more about from the business world at large is a need to resituate. This is not quite back to basics, but the spring term ended with exhaustion and existential questions. There appears to be a real need to re-discover the signal in the noise both for the purpose and meaning of your school and education, but also for individuals who are struggling to remember why they are doing what they are doing in the first place. Personally, I find this the hardest kind of thinking and leading. This appears to be a time to go slow to go fast. It requires placing some bets and delaying or setting aside many of the bright, shiny objects that are so tempting.
Along these lines, see the following pieces.
Welcome to this new school year. In spite of these challenges, schools remain exciting, safe havens of learning and friendship. If there is anything that we at SAIS can do for you, please do not hesitate to reach out.
In this recording, we joined SAIS President Debra Wilson for the new Trustee Education Series focused on best practices in independent school governance, including boundaries, confidentiality, committee structure, and more. The curriculum is designed for heads of school, board chairs, and trustees.