Starting a School

religious-private-schools
Jonathan Kim/Getty Images

 Starting a school can be challenging. When a group of founders decides to open a school, they need to make sure that their decision is based on sound data and that they have a reasonable understanding of the costs and strategies needed to successfully open their school. In today’s complicated market, the need to work smarter and be ready for opening day is critical. There is never a second chance to make a first impression. With proper planning, founders can be prepared to start the school of their dreams and manage costs and project development effectively, establishing a school for generations to come. Here are our time-tested rules for starting a school.

Founding Partners

girls doing math
girls doing math. Photo © Julien

Create your vision and mission statement, guiding core values, and educational philosophy for your school. This will drive decision making and be your lighthouse. Identify the kind of school your market needs and will support as well as what you as parents want. Ask parents and community leaders for their opinions. Take your time when putting this together because it will guide everything you do, from the Head of School and staff you hire to the facilities you build. Even go out and visit other schools to analyze their programs and building. If possible, perform a feasibility study to support the process of identifying statistical demand, grade-by-grade, etc.

Steering Committee and Governance System

Boardroom. Photo © Nick Cowie

Form a small working committee of capable peers to do the initial work, including parents and highly regarded stakeholders with financial, legal, leadership, real estate, accounting, and building experience. It’s critical to ensure that each member is on the same page in reference to the vision, publicly and privately. Eventually these same members may become your board, so follow effective board governance process. Utilize the strategic plan you’ll develop later to set up supporting committees.

Incorporation and Tax Exemption

Brightwater School
Brightwater School. Photo © Brightwater School

File incorporation/society papers with appropriate Province or State agency. The lawyer on your Steering Committee will deal with this. Establishing incorporation will limit liability in the case of lawsuits, create a stable image, extend the life of the school beyond the founders, and provide an insurable entity. Your school will need to apply for federal 501(c) (3) tax-exempt status using IRS Form 1023. A 3rd party lawyer should be consulted. Submit as early in the process your tax exemption application with appropriate authorities to obtain your non-profit status. You can then begin to solicit tax-deductible donations.

Strategic Plan

Shawnigan Lake School
Photo © Shawnigan Lake School. Shawnigan Lake School

Develop your strategic plan at the start, culminating in the later development of your business and marketing plans. This will be your blueprint of how your school is going to start and operate over the next 5 years. Don’t try to do everything in the first 5 years unless you have been fortunate enough to find a donor to fund the entire project. This is your chance to lay out, step-by-step, the process for development of the school. You’ll determine the enrollment and financial projections, prioritize staffing, programs, and facilities, in a methodical, measurable way. You’ll also keep your Steering Committee on track and focused.

Budget and Financial Plan

Culver Academy
Culver Academy. Photo © Culver Academy

Develop your formation and 5-year budget based on the goals of the Strategic Plan and response to your Feasibility Study. The financial expert on your Steering Committee should take responsibility for this. As always project your assumptions conservatively. You should also map out the school’s accounting procedures: record keeping, check signing, disbursements, petty cash, bank accounts, record keeping, reconciling bank accounts, and audit committee.

Your overall budget % breakdown may look like this:

  • 65% Salaries and Benefits
  • 10% Admissions and Marketing
  • 5% Financial Aid (can be 8-11% for day)
  • 15% Everything Else
  • 5% for Financial Contingency

Fundraising

Applying
Raising Money. Flying Colours Ltd/Getty Images

You need to plan your fundraising campaign carefully. Develop your capital campaign and case statement methodically and then implement systematically. You should develop a Pre-Campaign Capacity Study to determine:

  • how much can be raised in your community
  • what are the priorities to give to
  • who will give to what
  • the Gift levels and chart
  • System and approach
  • Time lines
  • Campaign leadership team
  • Gift categories (e.g., naming of buildings)
  • Major donors and how much they can give.

Let your Development Committee lead this, and involve the marketing department. Experts say that you should raise at least 50% of the funds before you even announce the campaign. Your strategic plan is important at this stage as it provides potential donors concrete evidence of your vision and where the donor can fit it, and your financial priorities.

Location and Facilities

Girard College
Girard College, Philadelphia. Photo © Girard College

Find your interim or permanent school facility and either purchase or lease or develop your building plans if you’re building your own facility from scratch. The Building Committee will lead this assignment. Check requirements of building zoning, class size, fire - building codes, and teacher-student ratios, etc. You should also take into account your mission-vision-philosophy and the learning resources. You may also want to invest in sustainable development in order to build a green school.

Rental space for the classroom can be obtained from unused schools, churches, park buildings, community centers, apartment complexes, and estates. When renting, consider the availability of additional space for expansion, and obtaining a lease with at least one year's notice for cancellation, with opportunity for alteration of the building and some protection against major capital expenses and a long-term arrangement with specified rent levels.

Staffing

Teacher Standing by a Map of the USA in a Classroom
Teacher. Digital Vision/Getty Images

Through a search process defined by a detailed position profile based on your mission-vision, select your Head of School and other senior staff. Conduct your search as widely as possible. Don’t just hire someone you know.

Write job descriptions, personnel files, benefits, and pay scales for your staff and faculty and administration. Your Head will drive the enrollment campaign and marketing, and the initial decisions for resources and staffing. When hiring staff, make sure they understand the mission and how much work it takes to start a school. It’s invaluable to attract great faculty; in the end, it’s the staff that will make or breaks the school. To attract great staff you need to ensure that you have a competitive compensation package.

Prior to operating the school, you should at least have a Head of School and receptionist hired to begin marketing and admissions. Depending on your start-up capital, you may also want to hire a Business Manager, Director of Admissions, Director of Development, Director of Marketing and Department Heads.

Marketing and Recruiting

First Impressions
First Impressions. Christopher Robbins/Getty Images

You’ll need to market for students, that’s your lifeblood. Members of the Marketing Committee and Head need to develop a Marketing Plan to promote the school. This includes everything from social media and SEO to how you'll interact with the local community. You’ll need to develop your message based on your mission-vision. You’ll need to design your own brochure, communication material, web site, and set up a mailing list to keep interested parents and donors in touch with progress.

Aside from hiring staff who embrace your vision from the start, you need to look to your new staff to help develop the educational programs and culture of the school. Involving faculty in the process will create a feeling of commitment to the school’s success. This includes the design of the curriculum, code of conduct, discipline, dress code, ceremonies, traditions, honor system, reporting, co-curricular programs, timetable, etc. Simply put…inclusion leads to ownership, a team-oriented, collegial faculty, and trust.

Your Head of School and senior staff will put together the critical internal elements of a successful school: insurance, educational and extra-curricular programs, uniforms, timetable, handbooks, contracts, student management systems, reporting, policy, traditions, etc. Do not leave the important things until the last minute. Set your structure on day one. At this point, you should also begin the process of having your school accredited by a national association.

Opening Day

Students
Students. Elyse Lewin/Getty Images

Now it’s opening day. Welcome your new parents and students and begin your traditions. Start off with a something memorable, bringing in dignitaries, or having a family BBQ. Start to set up memberships in national, provincial, and state private school associations. Once your school is up and running, you’ll face NEW challenges every day. You’ll discover gaps in your strategic plan and your operations and the systems (e.g., admissions, marketing, finance, human resources, educational, student, parent). Every new school will not have everything right…but you need to keep an eye on where you’re now and where you want to be, and continue to evolve your plan and your to do list. If you’re the founder or the CEO, don’t fall into the trap of doing it all yourself. Make sure you’ve put together a solid team that you can delegate to, so you can keep an eye on the ‘big picture.’

About the Author

Doug Halladay is the President of Halladay Education Group Inc., a firm experienced in starting and leading private +20 school formation projects in the US, Canada, and Internationally. In his free resource, 13 Steps to Starting Your Own School, he provides tips and advice on how you can set the foundation to start your own school. To receive your free copy of this resource or order his 15-part mini eCourse on How To Start a School, email him at info@halladayeducationgroup.com

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski

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Halladay, Doug. "Starting a School." ThoughtCo, Oct. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/starting-a-school-2774038. Halladay, Doug. (2017, October 26). Starting a School. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/starting-a-school-2774038 Halladay, Doug. "Starting a School." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/starting-a-school-2774038 (accessed November 19, 2017).