In January 2017 ACSI embarked on a research project with our team at Magneti, a marketing and consumer research agency based in Colorado Springs.
During the project’s first phase, we conducted a series of online focus groups designed to surface new insights into the Christian school movement. Over the course of a week, 108 participants engaged with us (and one another) for several hours. In phase two, we followed this qualitative work with a survey designed to validate and measure the insights we gained from the focus groups. More than 4,450 Christian school leaders and educators completed the survey, enabling us to report results with a plus or minus 1.4 percent margin of error.
While our focus was specific to ACSI, our findings yielded several broader insights regarding Christian schools and early education programs, the shifting educational landscape, and the resulting needs of schools. Many of those insights may seem intuitive when you read them, but my hope is that this short summary will highlight their importance.
Looking across the segmented groups, we observed clearly that schools with 400 or fewer students think and behave according to different priorities and constraints than schools with more than 400 students. This was most evident in schools’ concerns regarding sustainability, as this table of primary concerns by school size shows.
While schools of all sizes shared a concern in the area of sustainability, schools with 1 to 200 students were most concerned about issues around financial solvency, teacher retention, and enrollment. We heard leaders from these schools ask questions like, “Am I going to have enough enrollment to stay open next year?”
Schools with 201 to 400 students had financial concerns that centered around funding school growth, from building projects to new programs; for example, one school leader from a medium-sized school asked, “How can we fund and market our growth?”
Schools with over 400 students perceived financial pressures around the affordability of student tuition, balanced with providing good teacher salaries, strong programs, and robust professional development. Leaders of larger schools consistently asked questions like, “Will our rising tuition cost remain affordable to our current student body?” While these differences may seem generally intuitive, these specific breakpoints ought to inform future conversations around sustainability in Christian schools.
Despite the differences in perspectives on sustainability, the one area in which there was consensus—regardless of school size—was the importance of continued growth. Growth was understood to mean enrollment numbers, but also meaningful growth toward sustainability and excellence. As one school leader explained, “Growth [is] something that all schools need, whether it be growth in enrollment or developing programs.” Another stated that all schools need to work toward school improvement, “in order that we might grow to full potential.” For the Christian school, “Meaningful change is growth.”
Across all segments, participants described the incredibly high value of connecting with peers. Participants from schools with fewer than 400 students tended to value the opportunity to share the journey and not feel so isolated, while participants from schools with more than 400 students valued the ability to share solutions with one another rather than “reinventing the wheel” for any new challenge.
Participants particularly valued peer connections with professionals working in similar-sized schools. Prior to realizing that they were grouped with similar-sized school representatives, focus group participants in almost every group apologized frequently for introducing topics that may not have been as relevant for schools of a different size. Participants in those focus groups became more relaxed and vulnerable, however, when they realized that the others in the group represented schools about the same size as theirs.
As one participant explained, “It’s just nice to see that we really are in the same boat.” Another noted that in speaking with leaders from schools of a similar size, “These connections provide insight, advantages, and encouragement as we work together investing in the lives of our students. We all face some of the same struggles and challenges, and it is good to have those connections to get help when we need it.”
Across all segments of schools, leaders indicated that with trends in education constantly changing, staying connected with thought leadership—on best and innovative practices in Christian education—is a key way to avoid losing relevance as a school. In terms of differences across school segments, school leaders at schools with more than 400 students were seeking thought leadership in implementing technology and adapting to 21st century learners. Additionally, several believed Christian schools should lead the way in educational excellence. As one leader explained, “I do not want our school to be ‘behind the curve.’ I believe that Christian schools ought to be on the cutting edge and setting the standard for excellence.”
These findings regarding size segmentation of Christian schools, the importance of school growth, the value of peer connections, and an emphasis on thought leadership have implications for the Christian school movement. They should encourage Christian school leaders to seek out connections with leaders from similarly sized schools for insights on addressing sustainability concerns as well as growing and improving their schools.
The research also suggests ways that Christian school organizations, including ACSI, can strengthen and improve their work and offerings to better serve Christian schools and early education programs. [Editor’s note: Learn how ACSI is responding to these research findings.] By working together, Christian schools and the organizations that support them can use these insights as a catalyst for strengthening the Christian school movement.
How can you respond to this post?
- Share these insights from research with your leadership team, and discuss whether and/or how they resonate with your school’s experience, based on your enrollment size.
- Consider how insights from this research can encourage you in your goals this year. For example:
- How can you connect with peers from schools of the same size for mutual support and sharing of ideas regarding sustainability?
- How are your school’s current programs and practices being informed by thought leadership and research, on best and innovative practice?
About the Author:
Ben Robb is the director of strategic engagement at Magneti. Ben’s background is in nonprofit development. He has worked in marketing and communications roles for nonprofits as large as Compassion International and as small (but amazing!) as Springs Rescue Mission, where he served as development director until June 2016. He has won national and regional awards for his video and print work and raised millions of dollars through direct response campaigns. Ben studied literature and professional writing at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and writes short fiction in his free time (when he’s not running or fishing or cooking or camping with his wife and kids).