Missions and Admissions: Lessons Learned

This fall and into January I had the great privilege of offering a series of webinars for the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals . I went into the project not quite sure how my perspective as a four-decade classroom educator and academic administrator might fit the needs of admission folks, whom I have known to be both friendly and open-minded colleagues and a group generally racked by the stresses and strains of the current market. Planning the sessions, in half of them aided by my brilliant crony Tiffany Hendryx of Crane MetaMarketing, helped me clarify my thoughts on a number of topics, not the least of these being the way schools frame what they do relative to their stated missions and values.


I’ve been a “mission guy” since I first started paying attention to the implied promises schools make in these statements about the kinds of experiences and outcomes they offer. As an unapologetic romantic about education, kids, and schools, I like to think of mission statements and their kin—enumerations of core values or standards, diversity statements, even standards for effective teaching—as aspirational, statements of lofty goals that schools must pursue with all their might.


Tiffany Hendryx, on the other hand, suggests that we consider these documents and creeds as foundational, the rocks on which schools are built and containing (to mix the metaphor a bit) the DNA of all future programs and practices.


In truth, these documents are both aspirational and foundational, and the import in either case is the same: the school has to match its programs and practices to the content and implications of these statements. A child’s experience—and generally that of his or her family—must align with the promises implicit in the statements.


Families choose a school because they see a promise in it, the promise that the school will be the place where their child will achieve the fullness of character and accomplishment of which they dream—that the child will grow into the best, most developed possible version of him or herself through the experiences offered. Families find this promise embedded in those aspirational/foundational statements, and they look for them to be expressed as they dig into the website, peruse the school’s printed materials, rubberneck through the tours, and (if they’re extra savvy) scan the school’s social media.


In my mind there’s a kind of Venn diagram, one in which the promise—all the words and images that lead to an expectation on the part of the parents and child—is overlaid upon the totality of quality and nature of the student’s experience, its quality and its nature.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 2.36.43 PMIn an ideal world this diagram would be a single circle, all elements of the one lining up perfectly atop the other. In the real world, there will be overlap and there will be a gap, sometimes large and sometimes small.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 2.36.25 PMThe gap ought to be of concern to schools. They can address it, perhaps, by dialing down the nature of the promise, and if there are areas of patent inaccuracy, this may be a good idea. This path, however, will almost inevitably have a vitiating effect on the clarity, focus, and substance of the promise. The term “mush-mouth” comes to mind.


The other way to address the concern, of course, is to concentrate both on maximizing the quality of the student and family experience while keeping a very conscious eye on the foundational/aspirational words that comprise the promise.


My friend Tiffany has a simplified version of this, so simple that it appears to be a truism: “Figure out who you are as a school, and then be it.”


What not to set out to be, of course, is all things to all people—this is usually the ill-fated consequence of mush-mouthing your promise.


Which brings us back to the whole question of admission and the world of the admission professional, whose task it is to understand, interpret, and communicate both promise and experience. The lesson I learned as I reflected on this whole project, and the lesson I hope that we were able to impart, is that the admission office must the keeper of the institutional flame.


To put it bluntly, the admission office has to be the place where the language of mission and values can be spoken with deepest confidence and sincerity. This also means that the admission office has to be able to speak truth about the school experience. When the experience and promise don’t align, the admission office can’t be silent or acquiescent. If the student and family experience isn’t living up to the promise, admission cannot be afraid to bring this discrepancy to the school’s leadership and, if necessary, to help guide or frame improvements to practice.


None of this, of course, makes the admission officer’s job any easier or less stressful, although I am pretty convinced that an admission office tasked with promoting a school whose programs and practices line up neatly with its aspirations and foundations is going to be a heckuva lot easier than covering for a place in which vast gulfs exist between what it says it does and what it does.

Peter Gow

Peter Gow

Associate Director at Independent Curriculum Group

Peter Gow has been an independent school teacher and administrator for a very long time. He is the author of THE INTENTIONAL TEACHER (Avocus, 2009), AN ADMIRABLE FACULTY (NAIS, 2005), and the forthcoming WHAT IS A SCHOOL? (PublishGreen, in press). He is also coauthor (with Helen Cheney) of NAIS's MESSAGING AND BRANDING: A HOW-TO GUIDE (2010). He currently works at Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts, and he blogs at www.NotYourFathersSchool.org. He did once work, incidentally, at his father's school.