I was at the ISACS (Independent Schools Association of the Central States) Head’s conference last week. At that annual gathering, heads of schools from 18 states from Ohio to Arkansas to North Dakota gather to learn from experts, share and connect, and talk to peers from across the country.
During the conference, one session touched a problem in many independent school markets: the amenities and tuition “arms race” between elite schools. Elite schools seek to add to their attractiveness by adding the most prestigious amenities: a robotics lab here, an Olympic swimming pool there, a pottery workshop, maker space, or television studio there. With each of these additions, the school’s price increases, and the schools find themselves competing for a dwindling set of extremely affluent families who can afford a premiere experience, while middle-class families find themselves priced out.
I sat in this session with my arms crossed and the expression on my face wry. This, I thought, is not the problem we have at Chicago Friends School. Rather, priced at half to a third of the cost of the most expensive schools in Chicago, we struggle on the opposite end of the spectrum. As a school, we have been committed to affordability. But because of that, we get by on a bare-bones budget: continuing to provide our core program but struggling to grow and expand our capacity in meaningful ways. When I think about the amenities arms race, I have to laugh because, while any of those things would be great to have, my wish list for the school in the near future doesn’t go as far as a TV studio. A part-time learning specialist/counselor, a part-time facilities manager, and matching classroom furniture would feel luxurious to me right now.
And then I think about the point of that arms race: to increase the school’s appeal. And I think about the premise that for many elite schools, the best selling point is to keep building amenities, projecting wealth, and showcasing the new and flashy. So why would Chicago Friends School Appeal? I would go so far as to say that we are the opposite of flashy. In a world full of Olympic swimming pools, we have furniture that doesn’t match and hand-me-down IT equipment. So what is the motivation to join our community that goes deeper than amenities?
I believe that we as a school community are motivated differently than some of those schools. The very motivation that a school has to be better and better than its peers is antithetical to ideas of service and simplicity. By and large, our community members are not looking for the next flashy thing to brag about. We understand that resources need to be carefully stewarded and that education isn’t accomplished by the amenities. Education is a thing of minds and hearts, contact, conversation, continuity, and being known. We know that if you put an unnoticed kid into a robotics lab, they come out on the other end still lonely. And as much as it would be nice to have a pottery studio, a studio can’t pick a book that will connect with a child’s experience and draw her into literature. Time, attention, care, and commitment does that. The opposite of flashy is committed, centered, real and honest. It’s our scrappy, affordable, little, authentic school.