Cautionary Tales

In the past week, The New York Times ran two fascinating articles about denominationally-based schools here in New York City that will resonate with many Episcopal schools—cautionary tales, if you will.

The first article describes the changing relationship between Friends Seminary, a three-century old Quaker school, and is its parent corporation, a Friends Meeting. The question? Whether to separately incorporate. The issue? Whether the school, which now charges over $30,000 per year in tuition, sufficiently reflects Quaker values in the minds of the Meeting’s members.

This story of a Friends school and its Meeting raises the very same questions and themes that we hear frequently from Episcopal schools and their parishes here at NAES: What is our mission? Who do we serve? What about the economics of education, expressed in rising tuition? What about selective admissions criteria? Should we be one corporation or two? These are questions that every Episcopal school and its sponsoring organization must ask and answer on an ongoing basis, and with which they often struggle.

The second story is about Rice High School, a Roman Catholic school for boys that serves low-income young men in Harlem. 100% of Rice’s seniors go on to college, a tremendous statistic in a city with a public school graduation rate below 60%.

The problem? The school is going broke. Why? Because its founding organization—in this case, a religious order—can no longer support the school financially; and the school’s board of trustees, though aware of the school’s increasingly precarious financial position, did not insure the school’s financial solvency. Here we the have case of a successful school potentially going under because the governing body failed to plan and act.

Both of these news stories underscore what NAES has long known: all things begin and end with the leadership at the top—heads of school, rectors, boards, and vestries. It is up to these leaders to steward, articulate, and sustain the mission; and to insure financial sustainability.

They further underscore the importance of sustained and ongoing conversations between Episcopal schools and their sponsoring organizations, and the critical responsibility of our schools’ governing bodies to plan carefully for long-term financial sustainability.

Here at NAES we work with Episcopal schools of all kinds as they engage in similar conversations and face similar moments in the evolving history of their school and parish. Together, we can best insure that Episcopal schools remain strong and vibrant, here to serve the generations yet to come.