Purnell School: What does it look like when a school changes its mission?

Purnell School, like a lot of private boarding and day schools, found that it needed to ask itself a good number of questions during, and after, the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Suddenly, parents weren’t as free in their considerations about paying tuition.

Admission officers everywhere found themselves working extraordinarily hard to fill schools and found, in their work with parents, a pressing need to be clear and articulate about who they [the school] are; what, and how, they do things; and, why the school is worth the expense.

It was no longer enough to say we’re [school name]. Value came, strongly, into play.

But the questions, that Purnell, and other schools, found they needed to ask extend far beyond tuition, admission, and value.

Feeling Good at Purnell from Jensen Design Studio on Vimeo.

The questions that boarding schools like Purnell found themselves facing were, and are, extraordinarily foundational.

Who are we? Whom do we serve? How do we serve? And, can we practice better/more effectively?

Confronting these questions pushed Purnell, and other independent boarding and day schools, to not just ask, but to be able to articulate who they are; what they do; how they do it; why its valuable.

In short, Purnell needed to be able to answer all these questions. And, they needed to be able to communicate them to the larger school community and potential new community members.

You can imagine the amount of change that results from these considerations.

Purnell School Changes Its Mission
Here’s a quick story about how Purnell, head of school, Jeff Beedy sees the mission change that’s he’s leading at Purnell.

In talking with Beedy, one of the first things that he touched upon is how extraordinarily conservative schools are. Their missions are often still tied to their founders and, in times of institutional stress, schools (like individuals) often find themselves retreating to a conservative, parochial past.

It’s safe there [in the past]; isn’t it?

Purnell’s Beedy makes that case that- no, it’s not safer in the past because you’re not ready for the future.

Purnell’s founding was progressive- rooted in the early understanding of learning differences as an early progressive, learning differences school for girls. Beedy plans to move Purnell into the future by rooting change in Purnell’s past.

Although these ideas were, and are, present in the school; as Beedy explained, they had become a muddled story.

“Let’s actually be progressive,” Beedy told me.

Beedy is moving the school actually to be progressive and, academically, to extend the learning differences/learning differently envelope to include everyone.

Beedy channeling Harvard’s Howard Gardner sees that everyone learns differently including international students. Beedy studied with Gardner earning both his Ed.M (1984) and his Ed.D (1988) at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

So what does Purnell’s new mission look like?

-Building an academic structure that is flexible and nimble. Maybe that doesn’t mean be 9-5 daily; nine months of the year?
-Shaping a school life that is complete- more than just about academics.
-Rooting power in dialog and ideas.
-Cultivating girls who understand what they need in order to succeed and can advocate for it.
-Letting students participate in, and shape, their environments.
-Listen to, and encourage students to share their voices and stories.
-Budgeting for being full at 80 students. Yes, balancing the budget is out in the daylight. A healthy, well managed budget is a key to the future.

What strikes me about Beedy’s plan for Purnell is that it requires providing the girls with structures and experiences but, then, to an extent, turning them loose to practice, to experiment; to, maybe, not get it right the first time; but, to trust the students in their quest for growth and the tools and lessons that school has given them.

As Beedy told me “we’re trying to run deep with kids.”

Everything in the school needs to align. “Power needs to be in intelligence and dialog. Sometimes the adults own it. Sometimes, the kids own it,” explained Beedy.

As Beedy sees it, the future lies in understanding differences and being nimble enough to successfully negotiate them.

Beedy admits that change at Purnell might come more easily than at other schools. Purnell’s progressive past gives the school a level of historic institutional flexibility; learning differently is nothing new at Purnell.

The school has a beautiful 90-acre campus; no institutional debt; and, is within driving distance of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C.

Will Purnell’s growth be perfectly smooth. Like all each of us and our organizations, probably not. Even Beedy concedes that he struggles with changing some traditions.

“Traditions, uniforms, scheduling changes, I’m struggling with those,” Beedy added.

But, the market can treat even a storied, well intentioned, solid, girls boarding school ruthlessly when the world changes.

Beedy wants Purnell and its students to do more than survive today. His goal for Purnell is to thrive in the future.

Perhaps, like Purnell seeks to instill in its girls, adaptation, and self-advocacy, may be two of the greatest qualities necessary for a successful boarding school.

  • Gail Mardfin

    Keep the fun traditions and get rid of the uniforms! Clothing is a primary means of self-expression.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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