Do you remember why you started your school?
What was the compelling purpose or the unavoidable calling that led you to this work? What did you envision when you started talking about it? When you assembled your team? When you pitched the idea to other educators?
Do you remember yet?
You might remember this vividly. You might have it front-and-center in your mind.
Or maybe too much time has elapsed. Perhaps your school evolved, and your current vision for your school is a much sharper beacon. Maybe a pandemic and a drastic shift in educational format reshaped your vision. Perhaps external factors such as gentrification in the community your school serves forced adjustments or internal factors forced your school to refocus and adapt.
Maybe the current direction of your school, and your school’s current offerings, no longer reflect the original Why.
Often Your Why is Captured in Your Mission Statement
When you drafted your charter, you wrote your school’s mission statement. Many organizations, from small businesses to non-profits, engage in such an exercise at their inception. For some, it’s a profoundly heartfelt ritual. For others, it’s a necessary exercise to appease the gods of bureaucracy. Some see this moment as a time of deep reflection, while some may see it as one more checkbox in their journey.
Some leaders post the mission statement in a prominent place and discuss it with their staff regularly. Other leaders may put it in their charter, and seldom if ever, think about it again. Some leaders give it to their marketing person to put up on their website, then get busy grooving along, and get busy with the mundane details, the weight of responsibility, the logistics, and the day-to-day.
Your Why Matters
Your mission statement matters. One key reason is that it informs the public about your school’s focus. It tells parents and other stakeholders what to expect as they choose to send their children to your school. More importantly, it helps parents and other stakeholders decide if they want to send the students to your school, if your school is the right fit, or if your school is an effort they want to support.
But another key reason is that it informs you and your team about your school’s focus. It guides your actions and tells you what you want your school to become.
Time and Changes
This can be a little bit tricky for charter schools because what happens is here you are. You’ve started this great school. You’ve made this great application, and students are pouring in. The staff is really excited to be here working at a charter school with that mission. Parents are excited. Students may or may not be excited because they may or may not even understand it. But the families understand the mission.
Then suddenly, you start noticing that your recruiting might trickle down a little bit or that some of your founding families aren’t as satisfied with the school as they were in the beginning.
I often recommend that schools go back and look at their mission statement and make sure they still provide the same mission. And, if you’re not using the mission as your guide, you can decide whether you want to recommit to that mission or want to pivot away and create a new mission.
Recommit or Pivot?
There are internal and external reasons for a pivot. One external challenge is gentrification. Suppose a school opens in an underprivileged area. They have a mission to serve a particular demographic. Then investments in real estate, new businesses, a new shopping center, or some new development begin to change public sentiment and perception. A different demographic begins to move into the neighborhood, prices go up, and the original population is displaced.
Often schools in gentrifying neighborhoods have written a mission, for example, that says that they will serve a specific population of students. And then they find that because of gentrification, their target students are no longer in that area. At that point, school leaders need to decide if they recommit to the mission, move the school to an adjacent neighborhood closer to their intended demographic, or work on somehow attracting the students located outside their immediate community.
Internal challenges also provide opportunities to pivot.
Several years ago, I became aware of a school where a specific foreign language was a crucial part of its mission and reason for the formation of the school. For the first few years of the school’s existence, it provided a specific foreign language program, and that program made the school attractive to their community.
Then, the school experienced solid testing results, and it was doing a great job with its curriculum. Parents outside its immediate community noticed and enrollment grew. But the language program became less critical to the school’s new population, and so the school gradually decreased its focus on that language. Unfortunately, many of the founding families were disappointed and angered by that shift. The school had to decide if it would recommit to that foreign language program or pivot to something different.
Sadly, for that school, it didn’t do either. They just left the mission statement as it was, with the promise of a language they no longer delivered. Over a few years, the school lost enrollment, went out of business, and became yet another example of why a school’s mission is so critical to the curriculum it leverages and the community it serves.
Altruism and Practicality
There’s another aspect to this. In trying to decide whether you should pivot to a new mission or recommit to your existing mission statement, you should regularly consider the extent to which the mission serves the entire community and yourself.
For example, your mission might be incredibly generous, but it may not serve the population you need to serve. There needs to be some balance to your mission statement to fulfill both the pragmatic and altruistic sides. You must consider the business piece of it because there may be a reason that you need to be in a specific area to serve your mission, but other students might be coming along with those students. Depending on your circumstances, there may be other balances to strike, different tradeoffs to consider. Tradeoffs between the part of your mission that guides your heart and the part of your mission that allows your school to be strong and flourish.
Creating a mission statement, just like determining your why is not always a simple one-direction line. You have to take in all of the competing thoughts and ideas and develop a genuinely powerful, well-rounded mission statement that fully reflects your Why.