Is your school measuring the mission?

In 1869, a Swiss chemist named Friedrich Miescher inadvertently discovered a microscopic substance that we now know as DNA. Some 85 years later, the duo of James Watson and Francis Crick were able to map the structure of DNA, the building block for life. As any high school biology student can tell you, the structure of our DNA forms our make-up – how each of us is uniquely created.

Christian schools have DNA as well. But, in most cases, this DNA hasn't been "mapped." Leaders might have an understanding of their school's unique make-up, but they haven’t always intentionally and deliberately documented the components, and they almost certainly haven't measured it on a consistent basis.

So, why is charting and measuring your organizational make-up so critical? If your unique make-up already exists whether you’ve mapped it or not, why does awareness even matter? 

In the case of human DNA, sheer knowledge of genetic make-up can literally save lives – for instance, an individual who discovers they have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer might choose to get tested more regularly. It’s no wonder companies like 23andMe have soared in popularity over the past decade as technology has created “windows” into genetic make-up.

Organizations, including schools, have predispositions as well – whether they realize it or not. But the beauty (and sometimes danger) of organizational DNA is that those predispositions can change over time.

The pandemic that's now (mostly) in our rear-view mirror created enrollment "booms" for many Christian schools, but also forced school leaders to wrestle with questions about potentially fundamental changes to their make-up:

  • Has our mission shifted with the influx of new students and families, some of whom would have never been at our school in normal circumstances?
  • Will these new families stay at our school, or are they just riding out the aftermath of the pandemic?
  • Should our priorities be different if our "make-up" looks a little different now?
  • Do our stakeholders sense our culture has changed? For that matter, has our culture changed?
  • How do we even answer ANY of these questions?

Replace the “feel test” with real data

School leaders often use the "feel test" to gauge missional traction – they tally anecdotal or subjective feedback from their key leaders, or they rely on narratives from a small group of "friendlies" – parents or other stakeholders with whom they've built relationships over time. At ParentPulse, we've identified four primary feedback personality types, and we call that type, "Sampling Samantha" – when you lean heavily on a small group of trusted confidantes, there are two primary problems: 1) you tend to bring self-confirming bias to the conversations, and 2) you're not dealing with a representative sample size.

It’s often the people on the fringes of an organization, those who are new, or those who aren’t as tightly connected who can provide some of the most enlightening feedback. As Tod Bolsinger says in “Canoeing the Mountains” (a great read for any ministry leader navigating change), “If we had only listened to the committed people, we would never have gotten to the heart of the issues."

So, what does that look like? In an unnerving time of change, how do we consistently collect and navigate the "heart of the issue" feedback from a representative group of stakeholders? How do we measure the mission?

Let's get practical...

Consider ditching the annual survey and use shorter and more consistent "pulse" surveys. Annual surveys show a single snapshot in time and can't possibly help you understand the trajectory over the course of a single school year. 

With apologies to non-golfers, let's look at an example from the PGA Tour. Let's say I provided you with the picture below and said this was the only piece of data you could use to determine how Tiger Woods fared in the 2008 U.S. Open.

Doesn't exactly inspire confidence, does it? A grimace on his face. Hobbled over in pain. Grabbing his knee. If restricted to just this picture, your logical conclusion would likely be that he either withdrew from injury or finished low on the leaderboard (or perhaps even missed the cut).

Now, imagine if this was the only picture – the only data – you could use to interpret his weekend at the Open.

Taken just a couple days later, it tells a completely different story, right? But your assumption here would likely be that Tiger breezed to the championship, blew away the field and marched on to the next week's tournament. What you wouldn't know is that he needed an 18-hole playoff to clinch the win, that he won despite playing with two stress fractures and a torn ACL, that he had surgery three days later and didn't play competitive golf for 8 months.

An annual survey is just that – a single snapshot in time that can yield unclear results. Depending on the time the survey is administered, things might look rosy, but some significant underlying concerns might go undetected. Or, conversely, the results might lead to grave concerns, without the realization that the foundation is still solid.

Missional shift or drift can occur very quickly in the life of a school – think about how rapidly school rhythms changed during COVID – so it’s important to use tools that help you continually map your DNA.

Start by working with your leadership team to deconstruct your mission, vision and core values and identify 3-5 questions that can help you assess stakeholder buy-in and alignment. 

For example, one Christian school we work with has three long-standing core values – Christ, Quality and Community.

They selected these three Likert-style rating questions from our ParentPulse library (you can download a list of the six things most frequently measured by our Christian schools) to choose as "recurring" questions on a pulse survey that goes out to their parents – and here’s the key – every 90 days:

"The experience at this school has strengthened my child's Christian faith" (This question measures the "Christ" value component.)

"The overall experience provided by the school is well worth the cost of tuition" (This question measures the "Quality" value component.)

"The school community feels like a second family" (This question measures the "Community" value component.)

Parents' responses to these questions provide a "report card" on their core values, and since parents weigh in several times each year, the school can quickly track trends or changes. Better yet, if the parents provide open-ended comments during the process, you’ll benefit from even richer context, and that can help transition to the next step…

Administer one or two focus groups to further investigate one or two key findings from your survey results – digest the quantitative data and look for themes in the qualitative data (comments). A good survey platform will allow you to create “tags” for comments as they come in so you can easily group and categorize them.

Bring in a group of parents (we suggest no more than seven) and kick off the discussion with a single “framing” question. For example, if your data suggested a number of parents are concerned about priorities seemingly changing overnight in the aftermath of COVID and a changing student body, you might pose this question:

What should our top priority be right now – and why?

Your job is not to chime in with your own opinion, to debate or to get defensive. It’s simply to listen, to probe and to search for greater understanding. (For that reason, it’s often best to bring in an outsider or professional moderator to facilitate a focus group.)

Use the data to proactively shape your DNA

Remember – organizational make-up can be modified. Many schools fall into the trap of thinking their mission, vision and values (and resulting priorities), are carved into stone. During times of change, use the data you’ve captured to revisit your mission vision and values and to make sure your priorities are strategically aligned.

Find a framework, sit down with your team, and examine your core elements. (You can download our framework and process for free here.) Think of this process as 23andMe for Christian schools – but without the saliva sample.

Once you've confirmed (or perhaps altered) your missional DNA, it's critical to continually educate your key stakeholders – students, staff, parents, donors and alumni. 

Create a "one pager" – a narrative that succinctly lists (and describes) your mission, vision, values and unique value proposition. Post this narrative on your web site, highlight it at your back to school night or at a town hall, and include it with materials you pass on to prospective families. Better yet, when you interview prospective families, walk through the document so they understand "who" you are and ask for their feedback. (This can also be a great way to filter out families who might not be the best fit.)

Feature a "value of the month” and engage in dialogue with your key stakeholders. At my former business, we had seven core values (side note – I've since concluded that seven is too many, and five or fewer is better), and we'd spend time over lunch one day a month highlighting a single value. There wasn't a formal structure to the conversation – it simply provided opportunities for team members to talk about what the core value meant to them, and how they saw it being embodied and embraced in our culture. Inevitably, we came away inspired – or sometimes, convicted.

Use your one-pager as a "decision filter." Schools don't have to be (and can't be) all things to all families. When you're allocating resources, assessing conflicting opinions on priorities or even determining whom to hire, use the one-page narrative as a checklist. Which decision, which priority, which potential team member is most aligned with your mission, vision and values? 

At the end of the day, as Bolsinger iterates, "most real change is not about change. It’s about identifying what cultural DNA is worth conserving, is precious and essential, and that indeed makes it worth suffering the losses so that you can find a way to bring the best of your tradition and history and values into the future.” 

Put simply, if you don’t measure and map your make-up, you can’t tap into your make-up.

Ryan Ermeling is the founder and president of ParentPulse, the first parent survey platform built specifically for Christian schools. He also provides strategic planning services for schools through his Seven Marches consultancy.

A graduate of Concordia University Irvine (where he now serves as Vice Chair on the Board of Regents), Ryan previously founded Stretch Internet, which grew into the largest video streaming provider in the collegiate athletics space before being acquired by Battery Ventures in 2018.

Ryan and his wife, Lyndsay, a musician and Christian educator, have three daughters and live in Gilbert, Arizona.

Ryan can be e-mailed at [email protected] or reached on LinkedIn.

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