In the business world, the words, “value proposition,” are frequently used to determine what attracts the market towards a given product or service. At one of our Coffee with the Headmaster events, our CFO discussed the paradoxical question, “Is an independent school a non-profit or a business?” The obvious answer is both. In his words, “The common way to see schools in the U.S. is as a non-profit organization. They act like a business, but have more noble and lofty goals beyond just profit. Independent schools must be a business, while not being one. This is the paradox, and a large part of a school's success will come from working between those two realities.”

So, what market forces are in play when a parent embarks on the journey of school choice? More specifically, what are the Vail Mountain School value propositions for a parent in the Vail Valley? Lastly, how has our recent growth in enrollment, and more specifically, our extraordinary increase in demand for our upper school spaces, provided opportunities to add value to our students’ education?

Independent School Management (ISM) is a company that addresses emerging trends and opportunities in the independent school arena and provides cutting-edge data and new research-based strategies for our schools. In a recent publication, ISM released longitudinal statistics that ascertained the factors that drive families to choose an independent school. 

Not surprisingly, a safe and caring community continues to be the top priority among independent school parents- a safe haven, both physically and emotionally, where today’s independent school has replaced the traditional neighborhood. Quality academics and character development round out the list of important factors for parents. The surveys also clearly indicated that students like to perform, whether on the stage, in the classroom, or on the playing fields. 

We were very intentional in our decision three years ago to grow the upper school. Prior to implementing our new strategies, VMS had several years of significant attrition between eighth and ninth grade, with many middle school students indicating that they felt that they had to leave VMS to find more opportunities for social interaction, competitive sports teams, and a performing arts programs that could produce “real” shows. It was with this in mind that we chose to grow our upper school. Additionally, greater enrollment would provide more academic choices and a variety of new opportunities for enrichment programs.

Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying, “Success breeds more success and top performers attract higher level performers.” This is certainly the case with our recent growth, and I believe that there is clear evidence of this momentum in all divisions of the school. Eighth grade attrition to ninth grade has dropped to almost zero in the past two years, numerous new curricular choices are in place for our upper school students, our performing arts programs have improved immeasurably, and the success of our sports teams is nothing short of amazing. Additionally, class sizes in the upper school have been lowered to an average of fifteen students per class. We have almost quadrupled our teacher professional development budget. We have implemented Professional Learning Communities among our lower school and middle school divisions. Our Annual Fund participation has almost doubled, and our 2014 Gala set an all time record for total net revenues.

As many of you may recall, VMS faculty and staff retention was problematic, with attrition rates frequently exceeding 20%-25%. I am happy to report that for the past two years, our attrition among our faculty and staff has dropped below 10%. There are many factors that contributed to this dramatic change, including better compensation packages, much improved medical benefits, a more robust retirement program, and free lunch and aftercare, to name a few.  

With considerably lower faculty and staff attrition, a rapidly increasing demand for a very limited amount of spaces for students, more competitive sports teams, high quality performing and visual arts programs, a rigorous college prep curriculum, and an ethos that engenders thoughtful character development; it is no wonder that Vail Mountain School is the school of choice for so many in the Vail Valley. 

The strength we have added to our value proposition has been made possible by increased enrollment and the resulting increase in revenue. We are at record enrollment and with new family inquiries up considerably this year, we are projected to continue to have wait pools in all of the divisions. Like a good business, we’ve worked hard to maximize utilization of available resources. Unlike a business, our profit is not measured in dollars, but rather by happy and engaged students, the satisfaction of our families, and the positive effect that our students will have on the world as global citizens.