SAIS 2023 Annual Conference: Key Takeaways from Atlanta

By Jessica Browning, MBA

The SAIS annual conference is one of our favorites of the year.

Valuable sessions, thought-provoking conversations, and crispy bacon. What could be better? Here are a few of our takeaways from this year’s 2023 Annual Conference.

The Value of Mattering

Perhaps the conference’s most compelling content came from author Jennifer Wallace.

Her keynote “Mattering: The Key to Protecting Mental Health and Well Being” suggested that schools are a place where students learn not to be better than others but to be better for others. She cited research that students in high-achieving schools are two to six times more likely to suffer anxiety. “We’re facing a mattering deficit,” she said, with nearly one-third of all adolescents feeling they don’t matter.

Schools can help students feel they matter, Wallace offered, by first making sure teachers and faculty feel they matter. “The more we feel valued, the more we make others feel valued.” She told the story of Oprah Winfrey, who traces her success back to one of her elementary school teachers who gave her the responsibility of watering the classroom plants. Through that responsibility, Oprah was made to feel her class depended on her.

Other ways to increase feelings of mattering is to pay attention to students. Listen with warmth and empathy. Work on interdependence and let go of the hyper-individualism we often cultivate. And focus on more than academics. “If we’re only focused on getting our students into Harvard, we’re setting them up for disappointment,” Wallace explained. “Let’s reimagine ambition for our children.”

Challenges Ahead

Among the trends former SAIS President Debra Wilson addressed in her talk, “Challenges Ahead,” workforce issues topped the list.

Teacher dissatisfaction continues to decline, as does the number of Americans choosing teaching as a career. Teacher salaries at independent schools are not keeping pace with inflation nor with the salaries of public-school teachers. A four-day school week was floated as an idea to address some of the workforce challenges.

Polarization was the second issue. “It’s not going to get easier,” said Wilson, thanks to next year’s election. She encouraged boards and school administrators to present a united front to share the weight of the issues. A parent code of conduct was mentioned as a partial solution, but only if the document is shared and enforced.

Mental health, diversity and belonging, and college readiness were among the other challenges she shared. She suggested that independent schools are uniquely positioned to foster a sense of purpose in students.

Collaboration is Key to Student Retention

“Marketing doesn’t stop when a student is enrolled.”

This quote came during a session led by Kraig Doremus from the Swift School and Colin Wyenberg and Lorrie Jackson of Finalsite. Schools should make sure students feel like they belong throughout their entire time at a school. Collaboration across marketing/communications, admissions, development, and alumni departments is key to student retention. 

Too often a school’s website is focused on new families when it should also be geared towards already enrolled families. Schools need to reinforce to their current parents that they made the right decision sending their child to the school.

Schools Can't Afford Not to Innovate

Michael Horn, author of From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child, urged conference-goers to think differently.

Summer break, for example, doesn’t work for most families. Could schools modify their calendars to support a family’s holistic needs?

He cautioned that barriers to switching schools are much lower today than five years ago. Parents are more short-term focused and want to fix problems like bullying immediately, often by looking for a different school. 

“We can’t afford not to innovate in our schools,” Horn said. Too often, traditional organizational models trap school administrators and teachers in place and muddle a school’s value proposition. “You see a new idea and if it doesn’t fit the process, you twist and change it to make it fit.”

Fundraising Stability

Independent schools are still riding a wave of post-pandemic goodwill.

Giving USA cited median annual giving per student in the last school year was $3,788—up from $1,629 in 2019-2020. Participation rates have inched up slightly—from 65.9 percent in 2019-2020 to 68.1 percent in 2022-2023. This indicates that schools are making their case, which has resulted in higher gift amounts from a relatively static donor pool. 

Schools must continue to stress their value preposition to families. The underlying message, “with more, we can do more for your child or grandchild,” is a powerful one. If you haven’t already developed your end-of-year appeal, here are some tips to keep in mind.

About the Author

Jessica Browning, Winkler Group Principal and Executive Vice President, has helped lead nonprofit organizations for more than 25 years. An award-winning case statement writer, Jessica is a specialist in donor communications and a former member of the Giving USA Editorial Review Board. Jessica received a B.A. from Duke University as well as an M.A. and M.B.A. from the College of William & Mary. Connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.

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