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Independent School Mission Statements and Missions

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In a few past posts here I've touched on the role of mission statements in guiding each independent school along its paths toward doing whatever it purports to do. Remembering that an independent school is by definition a self-governing institution operating outside the formal "control" of a higher body (say, a diocese or a religious province or even another non-profit entity), the need for some kind of pole star or driving impetus is critical if the school is to have any coherence in its purposes, its programs, and its culture.

Although the formal acknowledgment of mission in a concise statement is a product of the last half century, accrediting bodies were quick to focus on the mission statement as the central element of the school accrediting process. For many years this process was largely a close study, first by the school and then by a visiting team, of how and how fully a school was enacting or implementing or carrying out its mission, supplemented by some questions around basic operational issues like financial sustainability, compliance, and safety.

This process led to a kind of enshrinement of the mission statement creation process, in which schools struggled to capture in a paragraph or so the essence of their being and purpose. Schools could agonize over the process, with committees, consultants, and resident wordsmiths racking up hours (billable, from the consultants' perspective) as they struggled to get a mission statement that was "just so." Cheerleading from the business world, whose boom mission years were those following the publication of mission-lover Jim Collins's Good to Great (and its step-child, Good to Great and the Social Sectors), turned mission-writing into an art form, somewhere between haiku and sonnet.

As an art form, the mission statement had its dangers. As short-form poetry gave birth to the dirty limerick, mission statements became highly susceptible to both parody and banality. My favorite parody at the moment comes from Maria Semple's brilliant dissection of independent school parent culture, Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Little, Bown, 2012), in which the mission of the "Galer Street School" is this:

Galer Street School is a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.

As one character notes, this is a school that doesn't just think outside the box--its leaders "think outside the dictionary." Alas, dropped into a compendium of real mission statements, Galer Street's might not immediately stand out as bogus.

In a part of my life I get to talk to schools and school people about things to do with telling their own story, and my work usually begins by looking at a school's mission statement. Some are quite compelling: specific, realistic, and concise without being reductive. Others, however, stray into territory marked out in this generic statement aggregated by Lauren Hasten for a 2009 article for Independent School magazine:

Our school provides a supportive community while encouraging individuality, nurtures the spirit while challenging the intellect, and inspires a lifelong love of learning while teaching respect, responsibility, compassion, and an appreciation of diversity.

Like many real statements, this one leaves no cliché unturned and is almost unassailably true for so many schools--independent, public, religious, charter, and possibly even "home"--as to be virtually useless as a way to understand what a school using it might actually be like.

The essence of a mission statement is of course to communicate a school's mission, but in reality looking at mission in the broadest sense is a much more useful way for schools and outsiders to evaluate the degree to which a school is doing what is claims to be doing. "Mission" finds expression in such areas as
* values and vision statements
* strategic thinking, priorities, and directions
* rules and policies for students, employees, and families
* the structure of the academic and extracurricular programs
* expressions of "moral culture," including programs in "character" and "life-skills" education
* systems of rewards and recognition

A challenge for any school, of course, is to both know and understand its mission beyond just the simple mission statement. The greater and most essential challenge, however, is to live and communicate that mission fully--to make, if you will, the Venn diagram of a school's "mission" and "experience" a perfect circle. For most schools in any sector, however, the diagram will represent some areas of non-overlap; these are the areas the school must work on.

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Independently developed and individually expressed missions are at the core of the independent school milieu, and with this freedom comes, as I have tried to stress in this space, a responsibility to enact to our missions in ways that represent some positive social good that offsets, or compensates for, the other privileges regarding taxation and regulation that have been granted to independent schools. One might say this responsibility begins at the top, at the school governance level, but it extends right through the administration, faculty, staff and even to students and parents. This is a tremendous obligation, but there are plenty of schools that understand and work hard to live up to it, both in the work they do on their campuses and in their posture in the community. They understand that a school's mission is more than just a bunch of lovely words.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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