How to Start a Private School

Steps and Tips

Suffield Academy, Suffield, Connecticut, USA

Daderot / Wikimedia Commons

Starting a private school is a lengthy and complicated process. Fortunately, many people have done it before you, and there is much inspiration and practical advice in their examples.

In fact, browsing the history section of any established private school's website can prove extremely useful. Some of these stories will inspire you. Others will remind you that starting a school takes lots of time, money, and support. Below is a timeline for the tasks involved in starting your own private school.

Today's Private School Climate

Before embarking on the journey of starting your own private school, it's important to note the economic climate in the private school sector.

A 2019 report by Bellwether Education Partners, a national educational nonprofit, noted that in previous decades, thousands of Catholic schools closed and many other private schools had lower enrollment. They reported this was caused by the increasing tuition fees that many middle- and lower-income families weren't anymore able to afford.

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:

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.

As of 2019, the statistical data provided by the Independent School Facts report for TABS displays that the actual numbers of enrollees over the previous five years have either been steady or growing slowly. Similarly, new and new private schools have been created, which probably also accounts for this growth.

At the same time, the National Association of Independent Schools remarks that even though about 40% of private schools lost enrollees between 2006 and 2014, schools in areas with economic growth, like New York City or the Western states, kept growing.

Considerations

In today's day and age, it does warrant careful consideration and planning to determine if creating another private school in the current 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, or depending on the location, a private school might not generate enough interest there. However, in an area like New England, which is already home to more than 150 independent schools, starting a new institution might or might not be quite as successful. 

1. 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 area parents and teachers for their opinions, and 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, decide with how many grades you will actually start. Your long-range plans may call for a K-12 school, but it makes more sense to start small and grow solidly. Typically, you would establish the primary division, and add the upper grades over time as your resources permit.

2. Form a Committee

24 Months Before Opening

Form a small committee of talented supporters to begin the preliminary work. Include parents or other prominent members of your community who have financial, legal, management, and building experience. Ask for and get a commitment of time and financial support from each member.

You are undertaking important planning work which will demand much time and energy, and 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, which will inevitably confront you.

3. Find a Home

20 Months Before Opening

Locate a facility to house the school or develop building plans if you will be creating your own facility from scratch. Only be aware that building your school will be immensely more expensive and time-consuming than working with an already existing building. Your architect and contractor committee members should spearhead this assignment.

At the same time, 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. Instead, investigate modular buildings which will be greener as well.

4. Incorporate

18 Months Before Opening

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 being on the committee, your lawyer would ideally donate their 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.

5. Develop a Business Plan

18 Months Before Opening

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 and don't try to do everything in these first years unless you have been lucky enough to find a donor to fund the program in its entirety. Make sure your plan is solid as this is what will further attract donors to your cause.

6. Develop a Budget

18 Months Before Opening

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.

7. Tax-Exempt Status

16 Months Before Opening

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, though it is recommended that you pay local taxes whenever or wherever possible, as a gesture of goodwill.

8. Choose Key Staff Members

16 Months Before Opening

Identify your Head of School and your Business Manager. To do that, conduct your search as widely as possible. Write job descriptions for these and all your other 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. It will be up to you to provide them with the stability and focus of a steady job to get your school open; they will need to provide their expertise to ensure an opening on time.

9. Solicit Contributions

14 Months Before Opening

Secure your initial funding—donors and subscriptions. 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. On the other hand, 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.

10. Identify Your Faculty Requirements

14 Months Before Opening

It is critical to attract skilled faculty. Do so by agreeing to competitive compensation. Sell your future employees 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.

11. Spread the Word

14 Months Before Opening

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 that has to be done consistently, appropriately, and effectively. If you can afford it, hire an expert to get this important job done.

12. Open for Business

9 Months Before Opening

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.

13. Orient and Train Your Faculty

1 Month Before Opening

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, so that your school can take off with the right atmosphere.

14. Opening Day

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 One.

The formal opening ceremony 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. In this way, a feeling of community will be apparent, and the public impression which your new school will make will be a positive one. Be sure to invite local, regional, and state leaders.

Stay Informed

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 One so that your school is visible. That will ensure plenty of applications for vacant positions in the following academic year.

Tips

  1. Be conservative in your projections of revenues and expenses even if you have a way to pay for everything.
  2. Make sure real estate agents are aware of the new school, as families moving into the community always ask about schools. Arrange open houses and gatherings to promote your new school.
  3. Submit your school's website to online databases where parents and teachers can become aware of its existence.
  4. Always plan your facilities with growth and expansion in mind, and be sure to keep them green as well—a sustainable school will last many years.

Sources