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Establishing an Episcopal School: An Introduction

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Last Updated: Jun 22, 2017, 10:17 AM
Date Posted: May 25, 2017, 15:41 PM

If you, your congregation or a group of individuals are exploring the establishment of an Episcopal school or Early Childhood Education program in your community or diocese, you are not alone. Each year, NAES receives calls about starting a new Episcopal school or preschool. The decision to establish a new Episcopal school requires discernment, education, planning, and time.

Successful exploratory committees follow a series of sequential steps that include:

  • assessing the need for a school;
  • engaging relevant constituencies to embrace and support a school;
  • developing a compelling mission, Episcopal identity, and educational program;
  • developing a sound governance structure and a high-performing board or school committee;
  • developing a financial plan for long-term sustainability;
  • understanding best practices in school governance and management, including legal, regulatory, and accreditation requirements;
  • securing space and hiring an educational leader;
  • and, ultimately, welcoming children and families.

The following six key considerations for exploratory and start-up committees have been culled from the experiences of successful—and unsuccessful—Episcopal school start- up projects. NAES urges all exploratory committees to read and discuss together each of the points outlined below and their implications for any potential new school.

Six Key Considerations for Exploratory and Start-Up Committees

1. Opening a new Episcopal school takes time, and a strong planning process lays the foundation for a successful school.

It is easy to believe that starting a school can be fast and easy: all that is needed is a classroom or two, a couple of teachers, and willing students.

In reality, establishing a successful and sustainable school  is a multi-year process, the first stage in a long-term commitment by multiple "generations" of school and Church leaders to the education of children. Savvy parents, rectors, vestries, and other key founders understand that they are in it for the "long haul" and that, in all likelihood, the school will not open in time to meet any immediate, pressing educational needs f their own children. It is far better and far more responsible to delay, suspend, or terminate a school exploration process than to open a school prematurely. 

Sometimes Episcopal parishes consider starting an Episcopal school in order to increase revenue for parish operations. While a school can share some costs with its parish, it will not nor should it  exist to fund the church. Rather, the impetus to establish and sustain an Episcopal school should be mission-driven such that the parish sees educating young children in a particular way as fundamental to its calling as a Christian community. 

If there is good communication between the exploratory committee, its sponsoring body, and at-large communities, a decision to open or not to open—or not—will be understood and supported by all constituencies. Failing such clarity, the school exploration process can be divisive and the school itself will fail or fail to thrive.

2. Transforming the singular passions of individuals into a shared vision is critical to success.

The personal commitment and dedication of a small number of leaders who can see the school in their minds’ eyes with clarity—and can communicate that vision to others—is essential. At the same time, the decision to open a school cannot be a matter of personal opinion or individual influence, but the result of due and diligent process by an exploratory committee populated with a range of skills that is accountable to a supervising body.

In a parish day school, the exploratory committee should report to the vestry. Diocesan schools would report directly to the Bishop or to an appropriate diocesan committee. Independent Episcopal schools face a challenge in determining to whom they should be accountable. It might be an advisory board established for that purpose and which could continue its work, when the school opens, as being “of counsel” as appropriate.

3. The transition from exploration committee to founding school board is critical.

Successful schools must be soundly governed. There are a number of governance models in Episcopal schools, and exploratory committees should develop a vision early on of how the school will be governed and educate itself about best practices in school governance. Well-crafted bylaws and a founding board must be in place well before the school opens.

4. The search for and hiring of the founding head of school requires time, care, and money.

Ideally, the founding head of an elementary, middle, or secondary school to be in place for at least a year before classes begin. Founding Early Childhood Education program directors should usually be in place for at least six months before school.

The arrival of the founding head or director facilitates the transfer of administrative duties (such as faculty recruitment and curriculum development) from the founding board to the head and allows the board and head to work out any glitches in their working relationship before the pressures of a school year begin. In addition, the founding head of school or director becomes the visible face and voice of the school for prospective families—critical for both faculty and student recruitment as well as the school's long-term vitality. 

5. Securing sufficient financial resources, including appropriate compensation of school staff and adequate financial aid for qualifying students, is essential.

Time and again, many young schools find themselves without a sustainable financial plan. Exploratory committees must develop a realistic budget and evaluate revenue streams such as realistic numbers of students, bench marked fees and tuition rates, appropriate staffing and salary levels, and fundraising needs and goals.

Although Episcopal dioceses, The Episcopal Church, and other Episcopal entities can be mission partners by spreading the good news of the new venture, financial support is rarely possible. The exploratory committee will need time cultivate “angel” donors both inside and outside of the Church who are enthusiastic about being early contributors to such a cause, including significant start-up funds prior to the school's opening.

Parishes that are founding a new school often will contribute real dollars or in-kind support, particularly in the school’s first years, such as providing and underwriting the costs related to parish facilities and/or allocating parish staff time on behalf of the new school. However, the parish and school need to have frank conversations about how long such support will continue and how those services and costs will be accounted for in future school and parish budgets.

6. Positive references to public education and proactive communication with neighboring schools are indispensable to the start-up process.

Episcopal schools need to come into being for positive, life-affirming reasons. In all public communications (e.g. publications, presentations, and all conversations) the new Episcopal school’s leadership should speak of an addition to educational options, rather than refer to a choice between those options. Public school officials should be apprised of the exploratory committee’s existence, and possible forms of partnership between public and Episcopal schools. Connecting to neighboring private and independent school leaders will strengthen professional networking and collegiality. If all members of the community, especially Episcopalians, understand through such efforts that there is a commitment on the new school’s part to support public education, wider support can be gained and misconceptions avoided.

How can NAES assist you?

NAES has supported numerous Episcopal school exploration committees as they move from inception to planning and, for some committees, to the opening of a new school. We ask that you:

Contact NAES to tell us more about your project.

So we can begin to assist you in your discernment process, email NAES or call (212) 716-6134 to schedule an initial conversation with Ann Mellow, Associate Director.

Join NAES as a School Exploration Committee.

NAES membership provides you:

  • School Exploratory Committee Self-Assessment
  • Detailed School Exploration and Establishment Timeline and Sample Budget Lines to Consider
  • Sample Feasibility Studies
  • Connections to others who have started successful new Episcopal schools
  • Online and phone consultation with NAES staff
  • Subscription to Network, the NAES monthly newsletter
  • Full access to member resources of NAES

Most importantly, NAES membership connects you to the larger network of over 400 Episcopal schools, both young and old, across the provinces of The Episcopal Church and to peers who can offer support, guidance, and ideas.