8 Leadership Strategies for Small School Success

June 5, 2019

In today’s educational environment, many small-school leaders are encountering challenges with enrollment, financial stability, and program development. From their perspective, it probably seems like large private schools with more resources at their disposal hold an inherent advantage; however, Greg Bamford, the former head of School at Watershed School in Boulder, Colorado, tells a different story.

In his eBook, Small, Fast, and Warm-Blooded: Leadership in the Small Independent School, Bamford encourages small schools to resist the temptation of trying to compete with large schools by offering as many opportunities and programs as possible. Instead, he insists that a small school’s advantage lies in its ability to specialize in fewer programs, creating unique experiences for its students and families. To help small schools thrive in competitive K–12 education markets, Bamford offers the following eight tips for school leaders.

1. Know where your heart is.

The key to surviving as a small school in a tough education market is to accept the realities. The biggest of which is that while small schools may want to offer the same comprehensive programs as larger schools, there simply aren’t enough resources to make it feasible. The small school advantage is to do one thing extremely well, better than any large school. The goal of your small school shouldn’t be to please everyone, but to satisfy the needs of those who share the same unique vision and “heart” as your school.

2. Know who you serve.

Finding the right students is vital to develop your school’s identity. Be very clear about the mission of your school and the ideal candidates. The challenge here is that the difference between accepting or not enrolling two or three students can have a significant financial impact on your school. Despite this, it’s important to stay the course because enrolling students who are off-mission will create an internal constituency that advocates for off-mission programs. Being clear on your school’s identity means having the courage to say no to a full-tuition student.

3. Make big bets with a small focus.

What does your school do better than anyone else? Where would you invest donations and resources? These are the biggest questions that small school leaders must consider when strategizing program development. Instead of trying to follow the lead of larger schools that invest in a multitude of athletics, art, and extracurricular activities, small schools should make “big bets” on the one or two programs that set your school apart—having a few programs that are superior to those from competitive schools will establish your school’s niche in the market.

4. Stay lean and hungry.

Making only a few big bets also helps small schools stay lean and financially viable. At Watershed, Bamford’s team set a clear goal to keep student-to-staff ratios within sustainable lines. The school also developed long-term financial modeling to understand the future implications of current decision making, as well as to prepare contingency plans in case their assumptions changed. For example, what would get cut if a major donor stopped supporting the school? By understanding the inherent tradeoffs between tuition, financial aid, salaries, and program growth, school leadership can prepare for these scenarios.

5. Keep role structure combined, but clear.

To operate efficiently, the school’s administrative branch must have clear and defined roles, but these roles should evolve based on the school’s priorities as well as employee strengths and interests. Whenever roles change, or new initiatives are taken on, it’s vital to clearly communicate the new responsibilities to avoid internal conflicts or missed tasks.

6. Set clear priorities, but stay flexible.

At a small school, your market, your opportunities, your financial position, and more can change at any time. For this reason, it’s better to focus on strategic thinking instead of strategic planning. Your advantage as a small school is having the flexibility to take on promising new opportunities that weren’t laid out in a plan. Strategic thinking allows your team to set priorities and closely follow progress while maintaining the ability to adapt when unforeseen opportunities arise.

7. Tell your story well.

Marketing power has shifted from rewarding big budgets to rewarding great stories. It’s about finding a sticky message—something sharp, surprising, and counterintuitive—and getting it out there. Digital tools have put storytelling power in the hands of small schools by making it easy and cost effective for schools to capture great images, create videos and podcasts, and write blogs. Social media provides the medium to showcase your school’s story and expand its reach.

8. Experiment, start small, and scale up.

The ability to experiment on new programs or revenue opportunities is one of the greatest advantages of small schools. If it goes poorly, and you’ve truly started small, it won’t come at a great loss. Toss the idea and learn from it. If the activity was unpolished but holds potential, regroup and try again. If it’s successful, keep it. The key is that all experiments can play out in small bets that will provide valuable information one way or another.

Learn more about these strategies by reading the eBook, Small, Fast, and Warm-Blooded: Leadership in the Small Independent School.

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