Why CAIS Schools Matter More Than Ever

In the past week, I have met with three Boards, and in every case, I have been really struck by something.

Now I am often asked what makes a CAIS school different, and I point to co-curricular and academic programs that go above and beyond provincial requirements, exceptional facilities, and always, great teachers and great students. I am pretty convincing of the benefits of an independent school education – just ask my best friends who have switched their children to KES and STS! Or my niece who begged to go to TCS! – and I am even more passionate about the benefits of a CAIS school, since accreditation is the single most powerful whole school improvement process. CAIS membership should matter for two powerful reasons: there is no other way for boards to attain objective feedback on all aspects of their school, and there is no other way for leaders to demonstrate a commitment to continuous whole school improvement. It is that hunger to get better and better – to go from good to great and never slip from great to good – that really differentiates a CAIS school from others.

I could go on and on about the transformational effect of accreditation, PD and research. (And if you are tired of hearing it from me, watch the Head of Notre Dame explain the significance of CAIS membership).

But what struck me last Friday at Balmoral Hall, last Saturday at St. John’s-Ravenscourt, and Thursday at TFS, was not the typical advantages of typical CAIS schools. What struck me was the fact that these schools – again, like all CAIS schools – have exceptional people doing exceptional work as members of the Board. Three things stand out.

First, Board members are volunteers. We all feel that we don’t have enough time, and yet here they were – at BH on a Friday afternoon, at SJR on a Saturday morning (at 8:00am no less!) and at TFS on a Thursday – working away on behalf of the school. I don’t know which of those examples is more impressive – that people gave up work time or a Saturday? Think about it – of all the competition for time – especially volunteer time! – these folks choose to make their schools better. And now really think about this – the parents on those Boards give up their parental influence at the school the moment they step on the Board. So this is really selfless work on behalf of today’s children’s children.

The second thing to strike me was this – time and again, I am blown away by the quality of the people. Here is a fact: CAIS Board members are smart and passionate people. If you heard the quality of their questions and interaction, you might go so far as to say really smart and really passionate. This is important because Boards have the responsibility for approving and monitoring an increasingly important aspect of independent school education – strategy.

The landscape of education is rapidly changing, particularly with the proliferation of online and blended learning and the increasing challenge of changing demographics. Our CAIS schools must stay focused on providing something so special that families are willing to pay for it. This is no easy task, especially when the public education system is strong. So when Boards are at their best, their meetings focus on strategy and risk. And that strategy is more and more focused on issues of affordability and the school’s unique value proposition.

So here’s the third thing. How amazing that our schools have both the luxury to have strong traditions and the ability to be nimble. They are not bound by systems that require them to respond to public pressures. They have a diversity of viewpoints, working hard to set the bar high, striving to provide each family with an education that plays to the unique strengths of each school according to their individual vision, mission, and values.

A glimpse into the boardrooms of these three schools this week was a reminder that the future of our schools is in good hands. In fact, our CAIS schools are more relevant than ever because of the strength of the Boards.

Risk is good

Let me start by saying that I am not one to take a lot of risks. I don’t like down-hill skiing or driving over the speed limit; I walk the same loop with my dog and I even go the same direction; I did go bungee-jumping in New Zealand once, but only because I couldn’t stand the thought of my daughter feeling that Kevin and Jacob had the courage to jump but Mom could not. My point is that I am not one to stray from comfort and routine.

There have been two notable times when I have taken big risks in my life. Ten years ago, Kevin and I decided to leave Montreal, McGill and Lower Canada College because he was offered a Canada Research Chair position at Brock University. We had two small children. I had no job and no job prospect. It was an angst-filled, risky move. The other risk was two years ago, when we made the decision to let Jacob go away to boarding school. The thought of the tension surrounding that decision can still bring me to tears.

In both cases, I got lucky. Now I could write a blog that ties up change into a neat package full of optimism that everything works out in the end. But that’s not life, and that’s certainly not true of change. But I will say this – when I see leaders engaged in some sort of change process, when I see them looking at choices and taking a risk, I feel a real empathy for what they’re going through, especially as I think about times when I have been there. And then very quickly, I find myself with a deep feeling of admiration. Because even if they don’t succeed? They took a chance, and that is the kind of leadership that our schools need most these days. When I survey the educational landscape, I feel a sense of urgency that our leaders must be innovative for our schools to thrive in the future.

Here are the most recent examples of that need:

  • I watched Stanford’s Design School’s Radical Ideas for Reinventing College and was struck by the four models for the future of university. What could our four new models be?
  • I met with the students at Miss Porter’s who were the first to experience their new Signature Program called Intermission. One option last year was to complete the Internal Evaluation Report’s Student Experience Standard. What Signature Programs should CAIS schools develop? And how can CAIS be more intentional about including the student experience in the accreditation process? (By the way, the girls failed the school on that standard… when I asked the Head and students if anyone noted the irony in this, everyone laughed… No one said change was easy…but they were loving the process…)
  • I read the OESIS Report, where they found “the independent school market starting to approach a tipping point regarding the use of technology to improve learning opportunities.” How far are CAIS schools going in their use of blended and online learning?

There are big uncertainties facing our independent schools, and I hope we approach them cautiously but also courageously. I believe the biggest risk is to do nothing, and that’s the only risk I hope no one will choose.

Perspective is everything

At last week’s Heads and Chairs Conference, we tried an experiment. We hired a painter who brought a large mostly blank canvas to our opening reception. He helped our group create a Tom Thomson replica of “The Canoe” by asking us to paint one small square per person. I think almost everyone claimed “But I’m not an artist” (the subject of another blog); and everyone faced the same public surveillance, as their peers stood around and judged (and congratulations to Drew Stephens who stood up to particular scrutiny!).

I’m including a picture of our final masterpiece below, and I am the first to admit – when you look at it up close, it leaves something to be desired. I am a bit sensitive about mocking the hand that feeds me, but one could go so far as to say…well… it’s a disaster: the paint colours don’t match square to square; lines don’t line up and at least one square is upside-down (or maybe Drew got it right?)

But the next day, as it was displayed in the front lobby of The Rosseau, it caught my eye. It actually looked pretty good! And I noticed that I wasn’t the only one to take a picture of it. And now, one week after the conference, I find myself still thinking about it.

For starters, creating the painting was a fun process. There was laughter and messiness and you had to check your ego at the door, especially in this crowd. Moreover, there’s a good story to the painting. We used the painting as a fundraiser for Camp Oochigeas – Alex Robertson gave a compelling description of the camp, and no one will forget our auctioneer, Hal Hannaford, who was at his best (and when Steven Page is your opening act, you better be good).

But someone commented that this painting is a bit of a metaphor for the work of CAIS, and I can’t stop thinking about that. Two images come to mind:

Last week, in the middle of the CAIS Conference, when unpredictable things happen – like our moderator had to cancel and Tom and Tam Matthews’ reservations were mixed up – I was not thinking fondly about our conference. But now that a week has past, and now that I am focusing not on the myriad bits but the full picture, I can see that we had some valuable learning together on strategy and the future of education.

This month, we are digging deep into our 12 National Standards, and focus groups are meeting to give feedback on the revisions to our Accreditation Guidelines. We have been researching our standards and procedures for over two years now, and pouring over evaluations and international best practice, and now we are gathering diverse groups to give us feedback on the ideal accreditation process. Believe me, when done well, this process should be messy! But I trust that out of all these perspectives there will eventually be some synergy. And I believe that come springtime, the Standards Council and Board will be able to paint a new picture of improved Accreditation Guidelines that not only support continuous whole school improvement but can be a catalyst for change in our schools.

So I encourage you to look closely at The CAIS Canoe. I predict you will smile at the imperfections.

And then I hope you take a step back and look again. And this time, I hope you will see there’s something beautiful in this collaborative creation. I predict that perspective might make you smile again.