Three organizational sustainability takeaways from NAIS Annual Conference 2019

Early in my career, I burst from an 8:00am conference workshop energized by a potential new initiative only to walk back to my hotel in a fog three sessions later barely able to remember the topic of the session that had so enthralled me.

We’ve all had that feeling of conference oversaturation, our brains becoming waterlogged with good ideas.

NAIS Annual Conference 2019 (Long Beach, CA) Reimagining Independent Schools: Tearing Down Walls, Building Capacity, & Designing Our Future

Flying home with one fantastic initiative to implement is great, two or three good action items might even be possible. Most of us reach a point where the volume overwhelms of ability to convert valuable insights into “takeaways.” Following through on even one item is ahead of the curve!

My solution is to keep a ranked list in the Notes app on my phone. When I come across something that seems important or could become an impactful new initiative, I jot it down forcing myself to decide if it falls above or below the previous exciting thing that caught my attention. This forced-rank ordering helps me reflect on my experience and guides how I spend my time after the conference. Walking through that list back at my office also allows me to see potential connections and synergies that I missed in real time, which seems highly preferable to wandering around through a fog of ideas.

In that spirit, I offer the following three takeaways from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference last week in Long Beach, CA.

Takeaway #1: Rapid Prototyping and Big Ideas Taking Root

I heard the phrase “rapid prototyping” in at least four different conversations, and only once did those words come out of the mouth of NAIS Chief Innovation Officer Tim Fish. Rapid prototyping is the concept of efficiently fabricating a scale model of a physical object. With the advent of 3D printing, quickly creating and refining multiple iterations of a product has proved to be efficient and valuable. This concept is being mapped onto organizational design and program development and became a key facet of several new NAIS initiatives discussed last week. But, possibly more notable, schools have adopted rapid prototyping over the past several years as a vehicle for agile organizational change.

Concurrently, NAIS Annual Conference provided a mile marker in the development of large-scale paradigm shifting initiatives. Mastery Transcript Consortium has made tremendous progress over the past year under the talented leadership of Scott Looney, Stacy Caldwell, and Mike Flanagan (among others). The announcement of The Mastery School of Hawken is one tangible manifestation of the multifaceted rollout. Now far outside just the scope of independent schools, it is hard to think of another effort in this sector that is so clearly rooted in what Jim Collins terms Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs).

In contrast, anxiety is starting to percolate about the ability of Community Brands to implement on their suite of product acquisitions. SSS, TADS, Ravenna, inResonance SeniorSystems, etc. all exist under one corporate umbrella. Potential technology integration offers tremendous opportunity for schools and families, but the devil is in the details. Many of us remember the dark days a decade ago when SSS almost collapsed under the weight of performance issues and NAIS was rightfully criticized. Under the direction of Mike Flannagan, then CEO of the School and Student Services (SSS) Division for NAIS, the organization put the most widely used independent school financial aid platform back onto solid footing. The sale of SSS — with data and policy agreements — and resulting financial capacity has enabled NAIS to take on many of its recent endeavors. Concern, especially about the trajectory of SSS, is an area to keep an eye on over the next year. Community Brands can certainly rally. I’m rooting for them to do so. Realizing the promise of what Community Brands can offer would be fantastic for schools and families, but the company needs to deliver.

Takeaway #2: Greater Awareness about Challenges is Offset by Hubris and False Optimism

The most interesting data I saw at Annual Conference were presented by Donna Orem in back-to-back slides at the President’s Breakfast on Thursday. Grant Lichtman tweeted, “Have been to #NAISAC conferences for many years, and Donna is so refreshing because she pushes schools to be better/best at the same time she praises. Pragmatic as well as hopeful.” I agree! This is one of Donna Orem’s best qualities.

The first slide showed that 73% of schools have experienced either high enrollment decline (42% of total) or moderate enrollment decline (31% of total) over the past five academic years. It wasn’t clear from the chart how many schools have held enrollment steady. Even considering only the high decline group, that means that more than two of every five NAIS member schools are facing substantial enrollment challenges.

Enrollment slide from Donna Orem’s presentation during the NAIS Annual Conference President’s Breakfast

Although this should not have been a surprise, there was an audible gasp in the room.

Even more interesting was a comparison created in a set of bar charts in response to the prompt, “To what extent are you concerned or not concerned about the ability of independent schools/your own school to remain relevant and competitive in the future?”

Approximately 33% of heads are very concerned about independent schools as a whole. Yet, only about 25% of the same heads of school are very concerned about their own schools. Almost 75% of heads were either very concerned or somewhat concerned for independent schools as a whole, but less than 60% were either very concerned or somewhat concerned for their own schools. One might argue that there is a possibility of a sampling bias resulting from which heads responded to the survey. I think it is far more likely that the differences in these graphs represent a combination of rose-colored glasses and a hesitancy to acknowledge weakness in one’s own school. Admittedly this is a soapbox topic for me, as I’ve written about both the seduction of false optimism and what to do about it.

As an aside, an earlier slide during the President’s Breakfast showed that attendance at NAIS People of Color Conference and Student Diversity Leadership Conference has grown from 3,777 in 2013 to 6,059 in 2017. That is impressive and important progress as school’s commit additional resources and lean into the ongoing work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. These numbers have also been bolstered by NAIS’ commitment to providing financial support to promote attendance of schools with limited operating budgets, which is in part made possible by the revenue from the sale of SSS.

Takeaway #3: Helpful Tools are Coming Online, But Many Schools Still Lack the Capacity to Leverage Them

NAIS is in the process of launching an impressive constellation of new tools and initiatives. DASL Databook and Marketview both are efforts to package the power of data analysis in a form schools can access and leverage. That is no small task. Less techy but no less important, parent research within the Jobs to be Done methodology has given schools a new lens to think about their engagement with families both as applicants and after enrollment.

And NAIS is not alone. NBOA has taken giant steps into the space traditionally held by NAIS StatsOnline and then DASL with NBOA’s Business Intelligence for Independent Schools (BIIS). There have been other relevant players in this space, like Independent School Data Exchange (INDEX). While the efforts of INDEX and its member schools have been noteworthy, the scope is bounded by design.

Both the evolution of DASL and BIIS offer new opportunities to promote mission-driven, data-informed decision making if the underlying data can be relied upon and if the platform is accessible for school leaders.

A fundamental challenge still remains, especially for small and under-resourced schools. Having access to tools is only helpful if schools can actually use them. That is not a revolutionary concept, but it is still a formidable challenge.

I am hopeful for two reasons. First, there seems to be a redoubled commitment to design with the spectrum of end-users in mind. Second, a shared commitment to “playing well in the sandbox” exists among the major national and regional associations. It may not be ubiquitous, but a healthy sense of common purpose seems to exist and is likely aided by an overlap of staff and board roles across these membership associations.


I would be remiss if I did not share my tremendous gratitude for the dedicated staff at NAIS and the Long Beach Think Tank that helped to put the conference together. For many of us, NAIS Annual Conference is a joyful combination of professional development and fellowship.

Pearl Rock Kane, longtime Director of the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University

There was no better example of that than the many formal and informal moments honoring and remembering Pearl Rock Kane, the longtime Director of the Klingenstein Center. Pearl was a luminary in our world. She was also a thought leader, caring mentor, and friend.

We return to NAIS Annual Conference both because of what changes year after year — evolution of content — and what stays the same — time with thoughtful and generous educators from across the country and around the world. Pearl was an embodiment of both of those characteristics. She will be greatly missed.