By Moira Kelly, President, Exploration Learning
With thanks to Kevin Roose for his article, How the Blackberry Died: Five Mistakes That Killed a Once-Great Device.
Blackberry Academy was founded in 1962 and serves students in grades 7-12. For years, Blackberry was a good educational option for families who valued small classes and were disappointed in the sliding test scores at the public schools. Eight years ago, a new superintendent of the local public school system was appointed. Within two years, she had appointed new principals to each of the local schools in the district. Significant changes have been afoot at these schools and families are taking notice. In addition, a micro-school opened four years ago that offers a la carte options, a Russian Math franchise has opened, and an arts center offering a wide array of enrichment courses will open next month. Eight years ago, Blackberry Academy enrolled 540 students. Five years ago, that number dropped to 475 and for 2021-2022 the school is projecting an enrollment of 395.
Blackberry Academy … where did it go wrong and how does it find its way back?
1. The Academy has an identity crisis.
There isn’t clear alignment on what the school is all about. Ask 20 different people what the school stands for and you’ll get 20 different answers. The Academy hasn’t actually shut its doors. Instead, it’s what my colleague Ross Peters would call a “Zombie School — a directionless facsimile of its former” self. It “abandoned strategy and has been making choices that look more like those of a B-movie Zombie, flailing outstretched arms and moving toward the next shiny object that captures its attention.” This was happening before COVID and too many at the Academy are blaming issues on COVID when really COVID is simply exacerbating long simmering problems.
Life in the Age of COVID has thrown many of the best laid strategic plans off course. It’s quite possible that strategic priorities your school had in early 2020 may no longer make sense. It’s time to do a review. What are the most important goals and objectives for the next 12 to 18 months? Once established, everyone has to align on them. No secret or quiet priorities. Priorities are public or they are not priorities. (At EXPLO Elevate, we have a process we use to help schools determine their goals and objectives and move into alignment. We use it ourselves. It’s called Two-Five-Ten, which my colleague Ross wrote about here.)
2. The Academy didn’t play well with others.
The Academy valued its independence so highly that it didn’t see how this independence was causing it to become more and more insular. While other schools prioritized looking outward —they collaborated with other schools, joined networks, communities of practice, and professional cohorts, as well as took on joint projects—the Academy didn’t move much beyond its gates nor did it invite others in.
Blackberry didn’t understand that in this Age of Acceleration, information and wisdom is increasingly emergent and action must be taken before certainty can be established. When dealing with imperfect and emerging information, collaborating with others reduces the risk for all involved and it allows schools that work together to leapfrog ahead of those who do not collaborate. This is especially true of smaller schools with limited endowments.
Over the course of the last nine months, I’ve heard many Heads of School say that they have never felt more connected to other Heads of School and the feeling of competition has given way to collaboration. (Kudos to many of the regional associations for being the means by which many of these connections have been made.) Smart schools will make sure they continue this collaborative posture well after COVID is no longer a threat. These connections will serve schools well for the inevitable next crisis, but they will also enable schools to tackle issues and problems more quickly, effectively, and efficiently than going it alone.
Going further … small schools often don’t have departments large enough to support idea hunting, curricular reimagination, and the build-out of those ideas. This is where partnering with one or more similarly situated schools can be very helpful.
Partnering with colleges and universities is also a possibility. Students concurrently enroll in high school and college so that by high school graduation, students have earned one to two years of college credit. This can be a way to help families–particularly lower income families and families whose children will be first generation college students–see a compelling value proposition for your school.
Given there is a free education available to families in the form of public schools and an increasing array of alternative educational options, independent schools must articulate a clear value proposition that resonates with families. The failure to do so will consign a school to being irrelevant in the marketplace.
3. The Academy does not have the courage to shut down programs, processes, initiatives, or courses that don’t deliver even though the cost of maintaining them is completely out of proportion to their usefulness.
The reasons are legion. No one wants to take on the burden of dealing with upset faculty, parents, students, or alums. The Academy has no mechanisms or tools to determine if something is working well enough to keep it. There is a lack of institutional research. There are no clear standards for adding new requirements or moving from a pilot to something school-wide and permanent. The result is that a tremendous amount of time and energy is devoted to things that have outlived their usefulness or may have never delivered on them in the first place. Over the years, more and more things have been added, resulting in a school community buried in white elephants and dinosaurs. The atmosphere is permeated by exhaustion and pockmarked by something my colleague David Torcoletti calls “islands of resentment”. (He and I have, on more than one occasion, reflected on the ubiquity of these islands in independent schools.)
Exhaustion and resentment poison the healthy and prevent an institution from thriving. So, helping your school evolve into something simpler and more agile is important. But be aware that people often cling to the old way of doing things because they really cannot envision a different and better way. This is where painting a clear picture can help and if you need help painting that picture, then get it. Call in help.
Some aspects of this work are akin to cleaning out the attic or basement of the house grandma and grandpa lived in for 60 years. No one really wants to take on this work and the mere act of unpacking the boxes is going to bring up memories and feelings. Nostalgia. Loss. Grief. The way to start is one room at a time. Success in cleaning out one area can give you the confidence and fuel the resolve to move onto more areas.
You may also want to consider a playful approach to get the muscles warmed up. “What if” exercises, alternative scenario building, and futures simulations can all help your community become more comfortable with change. Getting people into the habit of intentional evolution and renewal is half the battle.
Another muscle that needs building is institutional research, something that seems a mountain too high to climb for too many schools. My colleague, Sudipti Kumar, recently completed a research report exploring how schools can build their institutional research capacity. We’ll be publishing that report soon. It provides direction on building out a research function that can, among many other things, help you rout the white elephants you’ve got and help you identify the new ones that will show up at your door.
4. The Academy was comically inept about staying abreast of changes in the world.
Blackberry Academy believes that a great school does not bend to fads and hence is what would be called a slow adopter. Over the years it had made minimal investments in technology and professional development for faculty. When COVID arrived, the switch to remote teaching was frightening. This change was hard for most schools, but was particularly challenging for the Academy.
Then came the national reckoning on systemic racism and racial injustice, and the school found itself on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of criticism and ire from current and former students. BIPOC alums told heart wrenching stories about their time at the Academy and questioned if things had changed. The Head of School responded that they had, but current students contradicted him. Faculty, who had done very little DEI work, felt unprepared and unsupported in dealing with the anger and hurt coming from students, families, and fellow faculty.
My colleague Mark is an avid mountain biker. One of the notions we often use with schools we are working with is looking down the path as far as possible since if you look down at the rock or tree in front of you, the chances of flying over the bars is great. Unfortunately, we have far too many schools close to flying over the handlebars because they are not looking down the path.
Looking down the path has to be a skill employed by every leader in your school–division or department head. Institutional research and good data analytics should be informing your admissions operations and strategy and retention plans. We know dramatically more now about learning science than we did 10 years ago, but it’s astonishing how we cling to old and debunked methods. We know more about assessment and grading, yet fail to act. Schools need to be willing and able to innovate, and to do this work they need to develop idea hunting systems. This hunting for ideas will help your school community prepare for multiple futures, which is the only way to ensure resiliency.
Families are now used to things they were not used to before–online learning, learning pods, home schooling, home delivery, purchasing many more things a la carte, working from home, personalized service, and trying things in new ways. Their appetite for things remaining the same as before has been reduced. Disruption opportunities are in the air whether from the school down the street or from alternative education providers who may arrive in person or virtually.
Instead of trying to go back to “normal”, which no longer exists, this may well be the time to lean into things being volatile and tumultuous. This is just the time to embark on planning for changes that up until this point have been too difficult to attack. For example, with a schedule already thrown into a tornado, this could be the time to declare that starting in fall of 2021 that there will be two hours carved out every week for faculty PD and collaboration–ideally the same day and the same time for the entire faculty. Imagine what that could mean in terms of curricular review and design, skill development, idea hunting, and ensuring the program is ever evolving and therefore relevant. This includes making a real commitment to DEI work. Can you really afford not to take the leap?
5. The Academy had too many of the wrong leaders in place and didn’t recognize the real leaders in the faculty.
The Academy has a seasoned group of leaders–Head of School, division heads, head staff, administrators, and department heads. The problem is that too many of them acted as managers and not as leaders of their functional area. Too many waited for direction from the Head of School–for the Head to be the one looking down the road of their functional area–when what was needed were leaders who could idea hunt, thoughtfully assess situations, plot a strategic course, propose solutions, get others to move, and communicate quickly, clearly, and often.
With faculty hiring season upon us, it behooves schools to hire strategically. Yes, sooner or later, COVID will become part of our past, but the next crisis is lying in wait and we need to be preparing for it now. Who do you need to be on your team to move gracefully with an uncertain and volatile future? We all need teammates who are oriented to a progress culture and every school needs some carefully selected mischief makers who are able to be the provocateurs who prompt us to change our ways. If you are approaching hiring as simply replacement, then you are hiring in a way that ensures you will stay on the same old path. Every single hire is strategic–not just senior leadership–which leads us back to mistake #1: it’s essential to know who you are and where you want to go. From there, you then can focus on hiring the right people who will play significant roles in moving the entire endeavor forward. It’s hiring for purpose, and people who feel that their work is purposeful are more engaged and they stay longer.
In 2008, Blackberry (the device) had a 50% market share and six years later it was under 1%. There are cautionary tales all around us if we simply look. The world is not going back to the old normal once we are able to put COVID behind us. We have, in the words of Yeats, “been changed, changed utterly.” We can live in fear, anxiety and paralysis, or we – in concert with others – can courageously walk through the fear and build something new and better. The first step is to pick up the hammer. At first it might feel heavy, but once you get practice using it – you get those muscles built up – you’ll be surprised at just what you and your community can do.