What the Heads of Exceptional Schools Think About: The Introduction

Sep 21, 2015

By Chuck Evans
Senior Partner

[We published this article in the BetterSchools Update in August as an introduction to the series of blogs on the CESA heads surveys. The first blog on Enrollment and the Marketplace is entitled Working to Keep the Students We Have.]

Around 2008, two colleagues, Tim Wiens and John Seel, and I launched an exploration into the feasibility of a new independent school association. For a number of years, we had been occasionally discussing our sense that too many schools with Christian identities, whether parochial, non-denominational, or otherwise, trailed non-sectarian and more elite historically Christian schools in terms of both reputation and educational quality. We also wondered whether existing Christian school groups, many with long histories of accrediting a broad quality spectrum of schools, could practically motivate significant numbers of their schools toward higher expectations, especially academically.

Emerging from those informal conversations were two national meetings, involving more than 100 private school leaders who responded to an open invitation to participate. Heads of school and association executives gathered in Boston and San Francisco to address the question that we posed: Is there a need for an organization designed to help ambitious faith-based schools take more of a lead in demonstrating what constitutes exceptional schooling?

In 2010 the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability (CESA) was founded as an ecumenical Christian association of schools committed to a focused, prescribed set of Standards for exemplary independent schooling. As CESA has grown to nearly forty schools qualifying through a rigorous process as Members of Council, I have noticed some interesting dynamics.

First, because CESA is a standards-based organization, and, since membership is limited to those schools that demonstrate adherence to and progress toward the standards, we enjoy an ongoing dialogue about what makes an independent school truly exceptional. You can imagine that with a room full of long-experienced and well-educated heads of school, the debates can be lively!

Originally, there was some skepticism about the feasibility of an association that required its member schools to clear a high bar of exceptionality, especially given that the original value proposition was merely membership. No accreditation, no fancy conferences, no extensive member benefits—just having a seat at the table to determine where the standards and the conversations and relationships formed around them would take us.

Interestingly, the concept of having the standards themselves has solidified over time. As had been hoped, as schools struggle with the demands of the standards—and for every member school there has been some level of struggle—the heads of school, their staffs, and their boards have invariably found the effort to be an unexpectedly significant benefit.

For schools in less competitive markets, some have realized that being considered the best private school option in their locality is not necessarily exemplary at a regional or national level. For others, the standards have renewed interest in the quality of teaching and learning or the consistency of their leadership model, beyond what accreditation typically requires. To a person, though, these heads of school are saying that the CESA standards are making their schools demonstrably better.

CESA member schools have also shared in the risks of the venture while benefitting from the constant “strategery” required when you don’t have fifty years of institutional credibility and resources sustaining you every day. The exercise of figuring out CESA collectively has provided a model for schools to re-focus on figuring out their own schools in community, even if no one would have otherwise suggested that it was needed.

Third, and perhaps most strikingly, CESA has developed into a fellowship of generally like-minded school leaders who, different as their schools are programmatically, geographically, theologically, fiscally, and demographically, have found common cause. The heart of these relationships could be stated as a desire to both lead and to motivate each other to lead in the most exceptional ways. Gathering at the various CESA conferences and retreats feels like a post graduate-level case study in striving for excellence.

Further distinguishing the CESA experience from many of my own interactions in this field is a conscious humility that seems to pervade the proceedings. For all of the accomplishment represented at a CESA gathering, you won’t find a more welcoming, self-effacing crowd.

So, why write this promotional tract on CESA for the BetterSchools Update? I wanted to introduce you to my experience in the interest of the next few blogs.

Last Spring, Valor Christian High School (Highlands Ranch, CO) head of school Kurt Unruh initiated a series of polls of CESA heads on hot topic issues affecting independent schools, especially those with a more traditional faith-based identity. I thought the results of some of the surveys were significant enough to share with the BetterSchools audience, so I asked CESA’s permission to comment on the results, to which they consented.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share and comment on survey results in these areas: determining a school’s value proposition, the lasting effects of the “financial tsunami,” leadership training and succession, and a potpourri survey asking questions on topics from technology investments to the value of national membership organizations.

I think you will find the survey results intriguing, and I’ll look forward to your feedback.