Let's keep academics in the context of an overall education.
Many parents in the education market still worship at the altar of “academic rigor.” But Image Audit market research we've conducted over the years for several “traditional academic powerhouse” independent schools reveal they were seen externally, and by many inside the schools, as one-dimensional academic grinds. Treadmills. Pressure cookers. Contrary to the research, even some board members at these schools – one the mother of a current student – judged her school’s effectiveness by how much her daughter was stressed-out about the workload.
Whether this perception is true or not, its existence rules out many mission-appropriate families from even considering these schools.
In this day and age, given all the research about how we learn best, potential applicants may see these schools not for the “traditional” education they tout, but as relics from a bygone age.
Having a reputation for being one-dimensionally academic, without the context of support, collaboration, character, and an emphasis on social-emotional strength is, to quote Shakespeare's Macbeth, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Your school may be known for high-achieving students and alumni. Can your school also authentically claim a moral imperative to serve others? To be engaged in the community? To create open-hearted, self-confident independent thinkers, who will be the caretakers of the world and environment, concerned about social justice? Can you claim that your students will graduate with the skills to lead a collaborative team, showing respect for others who come from a variety of religious, secular, socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds?
While instilling responsibility, does your faculty ensure that there is some fun built into the process? Most importantly, can you prove your claims through the quantitative and qualitative testimony of those you have served? Will community influencers who refer families vouch for your multidimensional approach?
Yes, there are still parents who care that their child goes to a “brand name” high school or college. That’s success in their book. They may be investing in your school to get them into the “best” college as they define it, usually meaning Ivy League. But if that’s who the world thinks you exclusively seek to serve, you’ll leave a significant number of bright students and their families on the table.
To counter that “pressure cooker” perception, talk about what success means at your school. How do you define success in the world your students will inherit? Take a stand on it. Communicate it. Educate your constituents.
Get out in front of this. Don’t give anyone quarter to judge you simply on a one-dimensional criterion of academics and test scores, or a tunnel-vision obsession with brand name outcomes. Then you’ll start to attract many who may have never considered you approachable before. Academic achievement without purpose -- without WHY -- is a Pyrrhic victory.
If you can create and sustain an authentic brand and reputation that combines challenging academics, strong support, and a moral imperative to serve others and make a difference in the world, you’ll leap ahead of the pack.
If you can make the educational journey fun to boot, you’ll be golden.