Perceptions of the Independent School Leaders in California on Current Challenges and the Leadership Skills to Meet Those Challenges

by Randy R. Bertin

School Strategy Plan

Independent School Six-Year Strategy Plan


Many independent schools define themselves as among the most innovative primary and secondary educational institutions in the nation. Leaders of independent schools must possess skills to meet a variety of problems. Using data collected through a web-based questionnaire, this article explores the perceptions and attitudes of independent school heads at primary, secondary, boarding, and day schools in California—11 independent schools of varying grade compositions. Five are day schools and seven are boarding schools that also have day students in attendance. The following skills were perceived as being the most important skills for effective leadership: (a) maintaining relationships among key constituencies, (b) areas of finance including sustainability and financial aid, and (c) enrollment of a diverse and appropriate student body. 97


The National Association of Independent Schools believes that a critical ingredient for school health is strong leadership. At most independent schools, there is no formal requirement or accreditation needed by those who lead them, nor is there a typical path that one may go through to take on the role of head of school. Heads of schools may be former teachers or administrators from diverse areas of school experiences and backgrounds, ranging from academic administration and student service areas to admissions and development. Others who are heads of schools have taken a path external from independent schools, coming from higher education or even the corporate world. Regardless of their paths to becoming head of school, they face similar challenges. This article discusses responses from heads of schools about their perception of leadership challenges for themselves and their schools as well as the skills needed for heads of schools to be successful.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) defines independent schools as follows: “Independent schools are non-profit private schools that are self-determining in mission and program. They are governed by independent boards and are funded primarily through tuition, charitable contributions, and endowment income” (NAIS, 2012b, ¶ 2). This independence in mission and program is overseen by local accrediting agencies. For example, independent schools in California are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and the

California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS).

Because of their autonomy and unique structures, the leadership skills that independent school heads possess are paramount for these institutions to be successful. Independent schools are by their nature “innovative,” as described by one of the top business thinkers in the world, Daniel Pink, because they meet his criteria of autonomy, mastery, and purpose (Pink, 2009). Independent schools have complete freedom and independence, both in their programmatic and financial decisions. These schools all have unique missions that identify both what they are and what they hope to become. They are pushed to improve by increased competition in this industry. The multifaceted task of leading these institutions dictates the following:

School heads are responsible for curriculum, instruction, and professional development to be sure, but that is just the beginning. They are also routinely involved in issues of finance, buildings and grounds, diversity, athletics, health and safety, financial aid, marketing, development, supervision, community outreach, legal matters, and human resources. (Hoerr, 2009, pp. 5-6)

Of further note, the independent school market faces an economy that is recovering at a slower rate than expected, and all the while, “the cost of education is increasing and families are evaluating their spending and saving priorities” (National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS, 2012a, p. 2). This could likely result in fewer families choosing to enroll their children in an independent school.

Heads of schools have many complex responsibilities and are ultimately responsible for the growth, change, innovation, and financial viability of the schools they lead. To this end, heads of schools’ perceptions and attitudes towards current leadership challenges, and possible strategies to solve these problems, are critical to continued growth in the area of education at independent schools in the United States. NAIS (2010) explains that the primary responsibility of the head of school is to “carry out the school’s stated mission” (¶ 2). While there are profoundly different ways to accomplish this goal, NAIS offers principles as guideposts “for all heads engaged in this rewarding, complex job” (NAIS, 2010, ¶ 2). A recent MetLife survey reported, “the top leadership challenge reported by [78% of] principals and [86% of] teachers was managing the budget and resources to meet their schools’ needs” (Torres, 2013, ¶ 2). This is further supported with findings from a 2001 government study in England that was cited in the NAIS Trendbook for 2012-2013, stating that “strong heads seem to adopt similar, well-balanced leadership styles and strategies that correlate with well-motivated students and staff” (NAIS, 2012a, ¶ 148). These principles allow for many heads to be fiscal leaders as well as academic, cultural, and change-leaders as well.

Background of the Researcher

In the summer of 2011, this researcher became the head of an independent school and began a progression towards learning as much as possible from the experiences of other heads of schools. Data-mining their experiences of the job affirmed the motto of this head’s current school, “Aun Aprendo,” or, “I am still learning.” The objective of this paper is to discuss leadership strategies with heads of schools in California, with the hope of finding common threads to support other heads of schools that are also looking to learn from the experience and wisdom of independent school leaders. A second objective is to determine the most common leadership challenges by examining the data provided by fellow heads of schools.

Additionally, it is the opinion of this researcher that heads of schools are global leaders as their communities, especially those leading boarding schools, are very diverse and made of students from around the world. For example, at this researcher’s school, the student body represents 18 countries and 11 states. This adds another dimension of potential challenges to the leaders, as they must relate to individuals from many different backgrounds.

Purpose of the Study

One of the primary objectives of this research was to understand the perceptions of leaderships skills needed to meet the challenges of independent school heads in California. Although this research is preliminary in nature, the researcher hoped that it would produce useful findings to assist him in the direction of further research. The samples collected in this paper are small in size and scope. The findings support broad conclusions about these perceptions as a whole; however, the researcher is confident that they will provide a starting point, directing further research in the future.


This paper involved gathering preliminary data by employing a qualitative web-based survey utilizing the online service Survey Monkey to solicit qualitative responses from heads of schools. The heads of schools were called directly and asked to participate in this gathering of data. The survey was sent via direct email to the participants and they were instructed that they had three weeks to complete the 10-question, qualitative survey. Two emails were sent out at the end of each week during that three-week period, reminding the potential respondents to complete the survey. These reminders were also sent directly from the online survey service, Survey Monkey.


Of the 11 heads of schools at independent schools in California who agreed to participate in this study, 8 completed the survey and three shared no responses. The respondent heads of schools were drawn from different school types across California schools of varying grade compositions: one K-8, three K-12, two 6-12, one 7-12, and four 9-12. Because challenges are believed to be similar at all independent schools, participants represented different school structures and philosophical orientations.

Survey Questions

All participants received the same questions. The aim of the queries was to discern the perceptions of the independent school leaders regarding the challenges they face during the day-to-day operation of their schools, and to gain insight into possible solutions to meet those challenges. The following are the survey questions:

  1. What do you see as the top three challenges for independent schools in the next 1- 3 years?
  2. What do you see as the top three challenges for independent schools in the next 5- 10 years?
  3. How have the demographics of independent school students changed over the last five years? How do you anticipate this to change in the future, if at all?
  4. In your opinion, in the last three years, have most independent schools added programs/systems/infrastructure that promote environmental sustainability? Do you anticipate this trend (if yes) to continue in the future? Why or why not?
  5. Do successful independent schools have programs that focus on being members of the global community? If yes, how do these programs add to their success?
  6. How does the curriculum at independent schools, as compared to public schools, prepare students to be successful in the future?
  7. What is the most important skill needed for an independent school head? Why?
  8. How does the independent school head’s relationship with his/her board of trustees contribute to his/her success?
  9. How does the independent school head’s relationship with his/her faculty/staff contribute to his/her success?
  10. How does an independent school head’s relationship with the parents at his/her school contribute to his/her success?


Analysis on the qualitative data was done using open coding and axial coding. Open coding is used to “open up the data to all potentials and possibilities contained within them” (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 160). Axial coding was used to, “show the relationships between two or more concepts” (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 183). Eight concepts were pinpointed, which centered around three main topics.


Open coding and axial coding revealed the three main topics as: relationships, finance, and enrollment. Table 1 shows the number of times that these topics occurred in the eight respondents’ answers.

Table 1
Main Topics and Subtopics That Emerged From Survey Data

Concepts and main topicsNumber of respondents who reported a concept
Faculty and staff6
Long-term vision7
Financial aid5
Endowment growth and management4
Mission-appropriate students6

Relationships. The relationships concept of independent school leadership included parents, trustees, and faculty and staff.

Parents. All respondents identified a number of reasons why the relationship between the head of school and parents is critical. These reasons are primarily associated in dealing with “problem parents,” trust, communication, and working in partnership. Every head of school from time to time is confronted by an unhappy parent and must be willing to problem solve. This can be either satisfying or frustrating, depending on the personality one is dealing with. One respondent commented:

Enjoying the company of parents can go a long way towards making your job more fun and your parent relationships more positive. And more importantly, when they see that you take pride in and devote energy to educating and promoting their kids, then all seems to go well. Parents, like all constituents, project their own psychology on to teachers and heads.

Trustees. Besides relationships with parents, seven out of the eight respondents identified positive trustee relationships, as a vital component of what an independent school leader needs as a fundamental part of his or her job. Trustees are the collective “boss” of the head of school and, often times, evaluate and make recommendations for goals that the head should work on. The majority of these comments centered on the relationship between the head of school and the board chair. One response was as follows:

It is vastly important. Most heads get fired because they blow it in a board meeting. When one sees head tenures in the 4- or 5- or 6-year range, it might seem solid, but that is an unhealthy pattern. In the first 5 years a school head is only changing the window dressing, only making superficial changes. It takes time to change and improve the teacher culture of a faculty. It takes years to really strengthen the financial position of a school.

Another response related to the board as a whole and the board’s role was the following: “It is critical…without the support and/or guidance of the board, the head and the school will encounter rough waters that could be fatal!”

Faculty and staff. The faculty and staff have the day-to-day experience of being at the school, just as the students and the head of school. The faculty works closely with the students and is delivering the education that each school works so hard to promote. Many respondents’ comments centered on trust and gaining the support of the faculty and staff, identified as a critical leadership skill for heads of schools. One head of school responded:

How the head gets a vote of confidence of the staff over time is essential. What a school needs in a leader depends and varies a great deal. It is important that there is a professional and clear working relationship and the boundaries of administrative authority and faculty responsibility are clear. There is a difference. Faculty members need to know the rules, the boundaries, and the expectations. There needs to be a respectful working relationship and understanding of the different roles and the different jobs.


The financial aspects of independent school leadership included long-term vision and sustainability, financial aid, endowment growth, and endowment management.

Long-term vision and sustainability. Most organizations will typically be introspective, with goals and a strategy for where they would like to be going as a business. Typically, individual public schools do not have this kind of strategic vision; however, independent schools are innovative, as most have living strategic plans and visions that grow with the school and its community. They have purpose. It is the job of the head of school to communicate that vision and purpose, as one respondent commented:

You have to be able to see your community not only for what it is, but for what it could be. Then you have to be able to put the people and planning in place to help it get there. Ultimately, our schools need leaders who are as forward-thinking and ambitious as their students. It takes a lot of resolve to advance an educational institution, so a combination of passion, perspective, and productive patience is absolutely necessary.

Another respondent listed this as the top skill needed by an independent school head:

The most important skill is to be able to develop and maintain a strong vision for what a great high school education can do for teens and then communicate that vision effectively to diverse constituents: students, parents, alumni, neighbors, donors, and trustees.

Financial aid. Financial aid could fall under enrollment; however, this is often one of the largest expenses that an independent school has and, therefore, it has been included in the main topic of finance in this article. As the cost of independent schools increases, and growth in the economy remains slow, financial aid is becoming increasingly important to the head of school. One respondent had a comment about the middle class: “Due to the consolidation of wealth, rich families can easily afford $30,000 tuitions, then some families qualify for financial aid and get close to a 100% grant, so the group feeling the squeeze is the middle class.” Another head had a similar comment: “People either have money or no money. A $10,000 financial aid award will not help most families. Average grants will increase with tuition.”

Endowment growth and management. According to the NAIS, the average endowment for independent schools in the Western United States in 2005-2006 was approximately $8 million, compared to the average in New England that same year (the most recent year for which these data are available) of $35 million (Bassett, 2013). This could be attributed to the fact that schools in New England tend to be older; however more research is needed to find out why this is the case. One head of school had a cautionary comment to make regarding the importance of endowments at independent schools: “A sustainable financial model over time, with salaries, benefits, tuition, and financial aid is impossible to sustain if a school is not building an endowment. Schools carrying debt service have an additional burden.”


Enrollment data focused mainly around the issues of diversity and the ability to recruit appropriate students. One head, who was asked about the top three challenges for independent schools over the next 3 years, responded:

“1. Enrollment 2. Enrollment 3. Enrollment. I am not sure about all independent schools, but the financing of a small liberal arts college may be the canary in the coal mine for boarding schools. Schools that do not have a clear mission or enrollment segment need to figure that out….quick.

Mission-appropriate students. Although no definition is given by the respondents, this researcher would define mission-appropriate students as those who can help the school grow and thrive according to its mission, rather than students who are accepted with the intention of adding programs to meet the needs and interests of those students. Heads of schools are certainly feeling the need to maintain a group of students who are committed to the school that they are leading, which in turn is a commitment to the vision. Four of the eight respondents commented on the ability to attract mission-appropriate students. One example is as follows: “Most second and third tier schools are struggling for mission-appropriate students.”

Diversity. Diversity is important to many independent school heads. Diversity among students, faculty, and even programming can help to attract an even more diverse student body. Some schools are doing a great job at diversification, as one head commented: “The diversity of our community—racially, ethnically, and socio-economically—continues to improve. “Another head commented on having a diverse group of students and its impact on the school community: “Yes. The diversity that global students and programs bring to our schools only increases their real-world readiness.”


It was this researcher’s intent to show the perceptions of these individuals’ crucial leadership skills. The researcher hopes to inform others who may become heads of schools, and also to give rise to further research. The goal of this paper, through preliminary data gathering, was to see if there were commonalities regarding the leadership strategies used by heads of schools in California to determine how these strategies affected the three areas perceived to be most significant: relationships, finance, and enrollment. The hypothesis was that these strategies would be similar regardless of what grades these heads managed in the K-12 realm. Certainly, a head of school has a multi-faceted job and has tremendous impact on the organization that he or she is managing.

Because the economy in the United States is in a slow recovery, it is not surprising that many of the heads listed economic issues as a top priority, and enrollment as another. Although the two issues are related and intertwined in schools, for the purposes of this study, perceptions identified under admissions were issues of being able to identify students who were aligned with particular schools or who would increase the diversity of the community. Therefore, financial aid is listed under the finance section, as it is typically one of schools’ largest expenses.

Relationships between heads and the various constituents with whom he or she interacts was a significant part of the survey and one that almost every head of school talked about as being of extreme importance. Perhaps a good follow-up study could make an investigation into this area as a focus, with a larger sample representing schools across the United States.


This study was a preliminary data gathering, and therefore was limited in both the number of participants and the geographical area in which the heads of schools work. Because of this, generalizations cannot be made about these perceptions as they relate to the perceptions of all independent school heads in the United States; however, it does offer a suggestive pattern of perceptions and behaviors that could be hypothesized in future studies. Future research should include a larger sample, as this was a preliminary collection of data.


In summary, the perceptions of independent schools heads in Southern California, when asked about leadership skills that are important to their jobs and solving problems that may arise, focused on three areas. One area was relationships with trustees, parents, and faculty and staff. A second was finance, in areas of long-term sustainability and vision, financial aid, and endowment management and growth. The third was enrollment challenges in the two areas: diversity and mission-appropriate students.

The findings are limited because of the small size of the sample; however, the heads of schools provide interesting anecdotes about the perceptions they have regarding leadership skills and how these skills apply to the day-to-day challenges each head faces. Often these skills and strategies are applied by heads of schools who are leading diverse and global communities. More research will need to be done to include a larger sample from independent school heads from across the United States. Additionally, the results of this preliminary data gathering could point future researchers to narrow their focuses and investigate one of the three main topics identified in this paper: relationships, finance, and enrollment.


Bassett, P. F. (2013, July 1). Benchmarks for endowment. Retrieved from the National Association of Independent Schools website: Benchmarks-for-Endowment.aspx

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hoerr, T. (2009). School leadership for the future. Washington, DC: National Association of Independent School.

National Association of Independent Schools. (2010, September). NAIS principles of good practice. Retrieved from /Articles/Pages/Principles-of-Good-Practice.aspx

National Association of Independent Schools. (2012a). Trendbook 2012-2013. Washington, DC: NAIS.

National Association of Independent Schools. (2012b, September 13). What are independent schools? Retrieved from

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Torres, A. (2013). Leadership challenges at public and independent schools. Independent School, 73(1), 16-20.

Dr. Randy Bertin is Head of School at Besant Hill School, an independent boarding school in Ojai, California.