Summer is here and not a moment too soon! May is a challenging month for private, independent schools, with a trifecta of factors converging to create much unnecessary turbulence.
Attrition – it is in May that the extent of any exodus from one or another grade or division becomes apparent. Numbers that could be rationalized as “tentative” solidify into fact as the school year ends. Rarely is attrition evenly distributed; rather, it seems almost inevitable that it concentrates in middle school or maybe 4th grade. Sometimes the culprit is singular—as in one particular teacher or coach—but it often seems diffuse—“my child needs more challenge”, or “we are looking for a larger peer group.” Regardless, few things galvanize a board like attrition spikes, especially if some of the departing families are members’ friends.
Annual Head Evaluation – it is late in the school year when most boards conduct the annual head of school performance appraisal, the results of which are often shared with the full board in executive session at its last meeting of the year. Even in good years, board input to the head’s evaluation is frequently mixed, with at least one (or more) members availing themselves of the opportunity to critique one (or more) area(s).
The Last Board Meeting – the ending of the board year means not only Heads evaluation season, but that some members are rotating off—and feel compelled to make a mark as they exit—and others are arriving—fired with enthusiasm to change things up. All the more so if it is from their child’s class that some or all of the attriters are attriting. Regardless, just knowing it is the final meeting of the board year can propel a frenzy of activity.
Where the ugliness happens is when all three factors line up just so: higher than typical attrition becomes the basis for a lower or more critical head evaluation, leading to a spasm of firefighting by the board in its final meeting. The animating idea for the board goes something along the lines of, “our house is on fire—attrition—and the head isn’t taking it seriously, so rather than let it burn down we must rush in and take charge; indeed, it would be irresponsible and maybe even negligent of us to do less.”
I am usually not convinced things are as bad as they are made to sound. Boards rarely know how to take attrition in context (e.g., in terms of the usual base rate for similar types of schools) and are easily agitated by emotional cases (e.g., a friend’s child leaving the school). Lack of context and agitation lead to over-generalization and an assumption that the smell of toast burning means the house is on fire.
I have written earlier in this space about the need for heads to signal to their boards that they do take attrition (and the like) seriously. Boards, likewise, should take a deep breath and step back from the abyss of precipitous action, at least in most cases. The house really isn’t on fire, summer is short, and another board (and school) year is already close at hand.