There is no better source of information in the aggregate about independent schools across the United States than the NAIS Trendbook. Like I did last year, I read this year’s edition cover to cover, and like last year, I found a ton of excellent research and data presented in clear language and helpful visual representations.
The first chapters on economic and demographic trends name the fact that financial hardship and disparity are only worsening amid the pandemic. Although many independent schools saw an uptick in enrollment over the summer as families concerned about whether or not public schools would reopen sought admission for their children, these same schools are wise to wonder whether their full rosters will persist, and for how long, when the pandemic subsides. NAIS continues to track attrition rates at smaller (<300) schools while noting increased enrollment in some of the larger schools, due in part to higher admission and yield rates.
Looking back to the recession of 2008, Joseph Corbett and Amada Torres recommend that independent schools collect local economic and demographic data while engaging parents as to their satisfaction and using the Jobs To Be Done framework to try to meet their needs. Millennial parents are less financially stable than previous generations, so tuition-driven schools will continue to need to raise and grant financial aid funds. “[T]here is no one-size-fits-all response to a recession’s impact on financial aid demand, tuition strategy, or net tuition revenue,” counsels Mark Mitchell.
NAIS President Donna Orem discusses charitable giving and fundraising in her chapter on philanthropy, highlighting the impact of tax reform and technology on how, why, and when people donate to non-profits and schools. Orem cites research pointing to an increase in online giving, particularly for women (Women Give 2020- New Forms of Giving in a Digital Age), even within the context of the pandemic and social unrest.
Leading an independent school has never been easy, but amid heightened concerns over health, safety, and racial equity, administrators and board members have even more on their plates than usual. Anne-Marie Balzano and Margaret Anne Rowe discuss the fact that head of school tenure continues to get shorter (from an average of 9 years in 2011 to an average of 7 years today) and that boards are under increased pressure to manage “the short- and long-term implications of the COVID-19 crisis.” Balzano and Rowe advise more intentional board member training and evaluation along with more concerted board support for heads of school.
In addition to the need to address COVID-19 related complexities, heads of school and boards are called to address questions of equity and justice within historically and predominantly white institutions. Noting an increase in leadership roles for diversity practitioners in independent schools since 2009, Caroline Blackwell and Jay Rapp share research on ongoing challenges inhibiting progress. “[A] lack of strategic alignment, poorly defined responsibilities, burnout and other factors” might be mitigated with more board-level attention and commitment across independent schools. Diversity practitioners, Blackwell and Rapp say, need more support in order to increase both their impact and their well-being.
Arguably the most seismic change for independent schools in 2020-2021 was the shift to hybrid and remote learning. After years of keeping one foot in and one foot out of teaching with technology, in March of 2020 independent schools responded swiftly to the sudden reality of students and faculty mandated to their homes. Subsequent changes were tremendous for many and traumatic for some, as hallmarks of independent school teaching and learning fell by the wayside. Tim Fish, Rowe, and Jackie Wolking cite a relatively low number (<50%) of teachers who reported feeling adequately supported in their rapid adoption of educational technology, and an area of continuing concern is how to assess student work during remote and hybrid learning. Fish et. al recommend keeping compassion, equity, and rigor at the forefront of educators’ minds.
Relatedly, independent schools continue to worry, and rightly so, about the health and well-being of their students amid a moment of increased uncertainty, stress, and challenge. Rates of depression and suicide among children and teenagers continue to climb despite greater attention and training of faculty advisors and school counselors. Myra McGovern points out that “the coronavirus pandemic is the perfect storm of health threats, economic disruption, and societal shocks” and that, unfortunately, student depression and anxiety is not new, but worsening. For example, students, always concerned about college admission, are increasingly so, as their college plans have been upended by the pandemic.
This summary is intended to reflect gratitude to the researchers and leadership at NAIS, to spur readers to dive in to this year’s NAIS Trendbook, and to bring educators together through research on students, teachers, and families at this anxious time.