Starting a private school is a lengthy and complicated process. Fortunately for you, plenty of folks have done the same thing you are thinking of doing. You will find much inspiration and practical advice from their examples.
In fact, you will find it extremely useful browsing the history section of any established private school's website. Some of these stories will inspire you. Others will remind you that starting a school takes lots of time, money and support. Here is a timeline for the tasks involved with starting your own private school.
Today's Private School Climate
Below, important information is outlined to guide you through the process, however, it's important to note that in today's economic climate, many private schools are struggling. The Atlantic reports that private k12 schools saw an almost 13% decline over the course of a decade (2000-2010). Why is this? The National Association of Independent Schools reports that the growth forecast for 2015-2020 is declining, with fewer school-aged children between the ages of 0-17. Fewer children mean fewer students to enroll.
The cost of private school, and especially boarding school, is also concerning. In fact, The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) published a strategic plan for 2013-2017, in which it pledged to increase efforts to "help schools identify and recruit qualified families in North America." This pledge led to the creation of the North American Boarding Initiative to address the declining enrollment in private boarding schools. This passage is taken from their website:
For various economic, demographic, political, and cultural reasons, the sector has faced serious enrollment challenges during distinct periods in its distinguished history, surviving the Great Depression, the specter of two World Wars, and the social turbulence of the 60's and 70's, among other disjunctions. Always, boarding schools have adapted: ending discriminatory policies and admitting students of different races and religions; adding day students; becoming coeducational; expanding philanthropy; investing aggressively in financial aid; modernizing curriculum, facilities, and student life; and recruiting internationally.
Again, we face a serious enrollment challenge. Domestic boarding enrollment has declined gradually, yet consistently, for more than a dozen years. It's a trend that shows no sign of reversing itself. Moreover, multiple surveys have confirmed that a lion's share of boarding school leaders identify domestic boarding as their most pressing strategic challenge. As a community of schools, it is time once again to take decisive action.
In today's day and age, it does warrant careful consideration and planning to determine if creating another private school in this already struggling market is appropriate. This assessment will vary greatly on a number of factors, including the strength of area schools, the number of and quality of competitor schools, geographic area, and needs of the community, among others.
For example, a rural town in the midwest without strong public school options may benefit from a private school. However, in an area like New England, which is already home to more than 150 independent schools, starting a new institution might not be quite as successful.
Identify Your Niche
36-24 months before opening: Determine what kind of school the local market needs. (K-8, 9-12, day, boarding, Montessori, etc.) Ask parents and teachers for their opinions. If you can afford it, hire a marketing company to do a survey. It will help you focus your efforts and ensure that you're making a sound business decision. Once you determine what kind of school you will be opening, then decide how many grades will actually open the school. Your long-range plans may call for a K-12 school, but it makes more sense to start small and grow solidly. Establish the primary division, then add the upper grades over time as your resources permit.
Form a Committee
24 months: Form a small committee of talented supporters to begin the preliminary work. Include parents with financial, legal, management and building experience. Ask for and get a commitment of time and financial support from each member. This important planning work which will demand much time and energy. These people can become the core of your first board of directors. Co-opt additional paid talent, if you can afford it, to guide you through the various challenges, indeed, roadblocks, which will inevitably confront you.
18 months: File incorporation papers with your Secretary of State. The lawyer on your committee should be able to handle this for you. There are costs associated with the filing, but he should donate his legal services to the cause. This is a critical step in your long-term fundraising. People will give money much more readily to a legal entity or institution as opposed to a person. If you have already decided to establish your own proprietary school, you will be on your own when it comes to raising money.
Develop a Business Plan
18 months: Develop a business plan. This should be a blueprint of how the school is going to operate over its first five years. Always be conservative in your projections. Do not try to do everything in the first five years unless you have been lucky enough to find a donor to fund the program in its entirety.
Develop a Budget
18 months: Develop a budget for 5 years. This is the detailed look at income and expenses. The financial person on your committee should be responsible for developing this critical document. As always project your assumptions conservatively and factor in some wriggle room should things go wrong. You need to develop two budgets: an operating budget and a capital budget. For example, a swimming pool or an arts facility would fall under the capital side, while planning for social security expenses would be an operating budget expense. Seek expert advice.
Find a Home
20 months: Locate a facility to house the school or develop building plans if you will be creating your own facility from scratch. Your architect and contractor committee members should spearhead this assignment. Think carefully before you leap at acquiring that wonderful old mansion or vacant office space. Schools require good locations for many reasons, not the least of which is safety. Older buildings can be money pits. Investigate modular buildings which will be greener as well.
16 months: Apply for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. Again, your lawyer can handle this application. Submit it as early in the process as you can so that you can begin to solicit tax-deductible contributions. People and businesses will definitely look at your fundraising efforts much more favorably if you are a recognized tax-exempt organization.
Tax-exempt status might also help with local taxes as well, though I do recommend your paying local taxes whenever or wherever possible, as a gesture of goodwill.
Choose Key Staff Members
16 months: Identify your Head of School and your Business Manager. Conduct your search as widely as possible. Write job descriptions for these and all your staff and faculty positions. You will be looking for self-starters who enjoy building something from scratch. Once IRS approvals are in place, hire the head and the business manager. They need the stability and focus of a steady job to get your school open. You need their expertise to ensure an opening on time.
14 months: Secure your initial funding - donors and subscriptions. You will need to plan your campaign carefully so that you can build momentum, yet are able to keep pace with actual funding needs. Appoint a dynamic leader from your planning group to ensure the success of these initial efforts. Bake sales and car washes are not going to yield the large amount of capital which you will need. Well-planned appeals to foundations and local philanthropists will pay off. If you can afford it, hire a professional to help you write proposals and identify donors.
Identify Your Faculty Requirements
14 months: It is critical to attract skilled faculty. Do so by agreeing to competitive compensation. Sell them on the vision of your new school. The chance to shape something is always appealing. While it is still over a year until you open, line up as many faculty members as you can. Do not leave this important job until the last minute. An agency such as Carney, Sandoe & Associates will be helpful at this stage in finding and vetting teachers for you.
Spread the Word
14 months: Advertise for students. Promote the new school through service club presentations and other community groups. Design a website and set up a mailing list to keep interested parents and donors in touch with your progress. Marketing your school is something which has to be done consistently, appropriately and effectively. If you can afford it, hire an expert to get this important job done.
Open for Business
9 months: Open the school office and begin admissions interviews and tours of your facilities. January before a fall opening is the latest you can do this. Ordering instructional materials, planning curricula and devising a master timetable are just some of the tasks your professionals will have to attend to.
Orient and Train Your Faculty
1 month: Have faculty in place to get the school ready for opening. The first year at a new school requires endless meetings and planning sessions for the academic staff. Get your teachers on the job no later than August 1 in order to be prepared for opening day. Depending on how lucky you are at attracting qualified teachers, you may have your hands full with this aspect of the project. Take the time needed to sell your new teachers on the school's vision. They need to buy into it, or else their negative attitudes could create a host of problems.
Make this a soft opening at which you welcome your students and any interested parents at a brief assembly. Then off to classes. Teaching is what your school will be known for. It needs to begin promptly on Day 1. The formal opening ceremonies should be a festive occasion. Schedule it for a few weeks after the soft opening. Faculty and students will have sorted themselves out by then. A feeling of community will be apparent. The public impression which your new school will make will be a positive one. Invite local, regional and state leaders.
Join national and state private school associations. You will find incomparable resources. The networking opportunities for you and your staff are virtually limitless. Plan on attending association conferences in year 1 so that your school is visible. That will ensure plenty of applications for vacant positions in the following academic year.
- Be conservative in your projections of revenues and expenses even if you have an angel who is paying for everything.
- Make sure real estate agents are aware of the new school. Families moving into the community always ask about schools. Arrange open houses and gatherings to promote your new school.
- Submit your school's website to sites like this one so that parents' and teachers can become aware of its existence.
- Always plan your facilities with growth and expansion in mind. Be sure to keep them green as well. A sustainable school will last many years. One which is planned without any consideration of sustainability will fail eventually.