Interview with Carl Parke, Head of School at LaGrange Academy

How did you get involved in this roundtable for small schools at SAIS?

This is my fifth year as head of school and first headship. A few years ago, I spoke with Paula Gillespie, Head of Oak Mountain Academy, about how SAIS programming is often targeted for mid-size to large independent schools. They talk about growing endowment, and feature marketing firms that do robust $30,000 surveys, but small schools usually can’t take advantage of those things. We felt like a voice for small schools was missing, and offered to host a roundtable for heads of small schools. This will be the fourth year of Paula and I leading this roundtable. We solicit input from our peers and guide the conversation while keeping it open for input around the room. 

Typically the format is 30 minutes of planned discussion with 30 minutes exchanging ideas with the group. In previous years we’ve discussed outsourcing for CPA type CFO’s and other solutions for schools with smaller budgets. Some topics I anticipate coming up this year are salary scales and teacher evaluation models, which can go hand in hand. 

Why are salary scales a relevant topic this year?

The way that most private schools come up with their pay scale is by looking at the public school pay scale. Though some of the bigger schools in Atlanta may be able to match or exceed the public schools, many smaller rural schools shoot for a high percentage. Most public school pay scales are calculated by looking at the number of years that the teacher has taught and their degree level. I anticipate the roundtable discussing how to get this same laddered system set, while leaving room for variation. I’m sure that everyone can relate to the situation where the teacher who has the greatest impact has only received a Bachelor’s degree. Along those same lines, those teachers with advanced degrees may not be the most effective. Why would we pay someone on a metric that has little bearing on their teaching ability?
Our strategy is to have overlapping bands of salary based on the number of years teachers have taught. So for example, if a teacher has not been teaching long, she might receive between $35,000 and $45,000 per year, while a teacher who has taught for slightly longer would receive between $42,000 and $52,000. This gives us some room for variation if a new teacher proves themselves to be more effective than a more seasoned colleague. Right now we’re working on an evaluative tool focused on professional development and ability in the classroom that is the driver for moving between bands.

What else do you anticipate coming up in conversation?

Another topic that will probably come up is how to make sure small schools are fully enrolled. At my school, we have issues with families returning enrollment contracts in a timely manner. If we send out 230 contracts in February, we may only have 100 returned to us on the due date of March 1st. This means that I have to hire teachers and staff without knowing how many students will be attending school in the fall. If your school have a waiting list for every grade you’re less likely to have this problem, but small schools often don’t have those.

A few schools do an opt out approach. When they accept a new student, they let parents know that they are committing to them for four years. Every February they remind families that they need to let the school know if the student will not be returning, flipping the problem on it’s head. Instead of an opt in, they can cut down on the amount of work and uncertainty involved by using an opt out system.