Sunday, May 30, 2010

Time to Face the Ugly Truth

Imagine you’re an analyst hired by the C.E.O. of a 130-year old company to advise him on how to turn the company around in light of this alarming data:

• In 1960, the company had approximately 13,000 franchises around the country and a customer base of 5.2 million.
• By 2000, those numbers had fallen off precipitously: The company now has 8600 franchises and only 2.6 million customers.
• By 2010, it lost another 1600 franchises and an additional 20% of its customer base.

As best you can tell, there are three issues driving these numbers:

• In 1960, this company was one of the few privately held companies in its field. Over the last decades, a plethora of new privately supported ventures and new public initiatives have made the competition much tougher.
• Prior to 1960, the company was able to pull its best employees from a training center that didn’t charge the company for their training. Now the company must employ independent contractors who demand higher wages and who must be trained at company expense to attain the same skill set as the previous base.
• Each franchisee must invest heavily in buildings and infrastructure to deliver its product. Unfortunately, many of these franchises are now surrounded by customers unable to pay retail price because of changing demographics. The businesses are now too far away from the customers.

“What has the company done to address its dwindling market share?”, you ask.

“We’ve counseled our franchises to look for ways to raise capital to improve their buildings and hire better employees” says the company C.E.O, fidgeting. “We’ve also suggested to keep their prices low and give discount pricing to those who might need it so as to keep brand loyalty.”

“That doesn’t sound like a winning formula”, you remark. “How can you reasonably expect these franchises to raise revenue for capital improvements when they can’t collect full freight for goods and services? 

"Let me ask it differently” you say. “What has the company done to help the franchises?” “Well”, the C.E.O. says hesitatingly, we’ve created a national association of these franchises, and we have an annual convention to swap good ideas and conduct research that measures how we’re doing.

“It looks like your research says it's been a bad fifty years” you say. " Do we have a new business model? Have we tried to re-organize the way we do things? Or are we still pretty much delivering it the way we did fifty years ago?

“Uh… We've added some technology, but the business model is the same”.

It would be hard to imagine a company in the Fortune 500 operating this way. Several C.E.O's would have been fired long before this latest CEO hired you to be his analyst! His company is crumbling and yet he has no business plan, no plan for his franchises to re-structure, re-locate or try something new.

But this is exactly the state of Catholic K-12 education in this country. From our peak enrollments in the early 1960’s, we’ve lost more than 60% of our student population and closed 6,000 of our schools. In the last ten years alone, we’ve lost 1600 of those schools and 20% of our student population. (NCEA, Annual Statistical Report on Schools, 2009) It’s an absolute crisis—and yet, we seem resigned to allow Darwinian evolution to take its course.

I have three proposals for re-inventing ourselves:

1) First, abolish the pre-K-8 elementary school structure. Kids are beginning in our schools at the age of three or four, which means by the time they get to 6th grade, they’ve been there as long as 8th graders who used to begin in kindergarten. They’re itching for something new! Coupled with the fact that our K-12 or 7-12 competition leverages the athletic fields, libraries, science labs and prestige of their high schools to attract incoming 7th graders and our elementary schools simply can’t compete.

Instead, create Catholic middle schools in grades 7-8 or 6-8 and make Catholic elementary schools preK-5 or preK-6. Or if building a new middle school is too expensive, move the seventh and eighth graders into the high school and make it a 7-12 institution. Either of these options would make the Catholic school much more attractive to sixth and seventh graders, which is where most of the attrition occurs.

2) Build new schools in high growth areas, regardless of their effect on neighboring schools. In my diocese there are two mega-parishes on the north and south end of town without schools, surrounded by declining parishes with schools. As painful as it is to do so, the long-term health of Catholic education depends upon putting our schools in the right spot to attract the most families and then allowing God’s providence to take care of what transpires. Otherwise, in the name of protecting institutions, we end up ministering to fewer and fewer families in the aggregate, and our schools close, one at a time.

3) We must become more entrepreneurial. We must hire first tier business managers with market sense and savvy. We cannot expect over-taxed principals, most with no formal business training, to lead our schools in this way. If a school cannot afford such a person, schools should share resources and hire a talented person to help run 2-3 schools at a time. The pool of talent for this may be broader than we think if we look for successful businessmen looking for a second career who would be interested in serving the Church.

As an example of this entrepreneurial leadership, we should be giving out much more financial aid than we are. According to U.S. News and World Report, there are only 46 colleges in the United States that say they meet the “full financial needs of all their students.” I propose--radically-- that all Catholic schools do so. But wait, this isn’t touchy feely idealism! If we have seats that are empty, we’re much better off filling them with students who pay 50% tuition than keeping the seats empty and getting nothing. This is the same principle upon which airlines discount their seats for less traveled flights.

I can think of other examples for exploration along these lines: Have we considered leasing buses to transport kids to our school to drive up enrollments? How about out-sourcing cafeteria service? What about purchasing textbooks on line? Does our spirit store deliver product in an efficient way, thereby helping us brand the school? Is our webpage sharp, up to date and an essential part of our marketing plan? Have we considered signing bonuses to draw talent into our school despite meager annual salaries? Have we negotiated with empty convents or rectories to provide low-cost housing to young employees?

“The definition of insanity, ” someone said, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” We must face the ugly truth and begin to act sanely.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thanks, JPII!

Aaron graduated from JPII on Sunday, the third of my children to have graduated from the school at which I am principal. As it is for most parents, it’s bittersweet for my wife and me: We are bursting with pride for our son, but we also know our relationship has forever changed and that he’s leaving soon.

Aaron will enroll at Notre Dame this August. He’ll leave behind a lot of the laughter which has animated our family since he was two years old and learned he could make his older brother and sister laugh by performing silly stunts and saying funny things. That wit is perhaps his best trait and has served him well in making new friends at JPII.

The transition wasn’t easy. He was most unhappy when I told him after his sophomore year that we were moving up to Nashville so I could be headmaster. He had lived his entire life in Montgomery and was quite comfortable with the friends he had known, many since kindergarten. “I’d rather digest pine cones” was his opening line to the “Why do you want to come to JPII?” essay required of all incoming students, until his mother made him march upstairs and rewrite the whole thing. “They’re probably going to accept him anyway,” I had told her. “I know, but I want him to go there with the right attitude,” she had said back. He came down the stairs thirty minutes later, sulky. “The reason I want to go to JPII, “ he wrote with obvious sarcasm, “is that it’s the best school in the country. With a degree from JPII, I can go anywhere and do anything.” His mother looked at me, undecided. “He’s probably going to be accepted, “ I reiterated. We decided to let it go.

Fast forward two years. What a blessing JPII has been for our son! He’s always been good at music, having received his first drum set at the age of ten. He can play the guitar and piano as well. At JPII he’s found kids who are equally talented and passionate and spent many hours in our basement recording music with them. Though a back injury has slowed down his high school athletic career, he was able to play football his entire senior year and was named team captain by his peers. He used his experience in Mock Trial and Youth in Government in Alabama to help promote the program at JPII and even became the youth governor for Tennessee this year. He connected with literature while taking A.P. English from Mr. Stephenson and was able to expand his gifts in writing and interpretation without feeling awkward or effeminate. Betty Mayberry so challenged my son in A.P. Calculus that he arrived to school obscenely early for tutorials twice/week, just to make it through, and is a better student and person for it. He sang in Mrs. Ebelhar’s choir and played in Mr. Suska’s jazz ensemble. He even was able to take a year of Latin! As part of his Christian Service, he worked in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients.

This extraordinary, well rounded experience, I believe, was instrumental in helping Aaron get into Notre Dame. As a “double domer” from ND myself, with two older children already there, I’m both excited for him and deeply grateful to his coaches, teachers and classmates.

Thank you, JPII.

Sunday, May 02, 2010


The destructive power of water has been awesome and frightful to behold these last few days. I tried to get into JPII on Sunday afternoon, but Caldwell Drive was underwater, making passage into the school impossible, as seen here:

Our lacrosse, baseball, softball and soccer fields were completely submerged, as you can see here:

When the waters recede from our playing fields, it's going to be one ugly, muddy mess.

Only the roofs could be seen of our neighbor’s homes alongside Vietnam Vets (look carefully in the middle right of the video below):

Please pray for our neighbors, as they likely lost everything.

God has a way of reminding us he’s still in charge. It’s easy for us to forget that. When it gets too hot outside, we have air-conditioning. If it’s too cold, heating. We have erected towering skyscrapers, conquered the airways, landed men on the moon and sent unmanned spacecrafts to Mars and beyond. These achievements reflect our intelligence and ingenuity, but they also tempt us to believe we sole masters of our fate, able to control all that is around us.

The most poignant story for modern man in the Old Testament may be the Tower of Babel. “Come, let us build ourselves a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves”, they said. Upset by their pride, God gave them different languages, confusing them, causing them to discontinue their empire building.

I don’t mean to say that all successful people are unduly proud. But success can seduce us, if we’re not careful, into believing we are no longer in need of God’s grace and assistance. If there are “no atheists in the foxholes”, as the saying goes, then the opposite is also true: there are too few believers among the affluent and successful.

Most of us have been merely inconvenienced by this weekend’s flooding. Let’s pray for all those who have truly been hurt by it. For all of us, however, may unexpected weekends like this one remind us that we are not the Creator, but the created.