How Phila. Catholic Schools are Embracing Continuous Improvement on Their Journey Towards Preeminence

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on December 19, 2016

Building a culture of continuous improvement within an organization is usually associated with for-profit businesses. The desire to achieve competitive advantage and become the preferred provider of products or services versus the competition is what drives a company’s continuous improvement imperative.

Nonprofit organizations, including private and religion-based elementary, middle and high schools, also face competition — for financial support from individuals and foundations in support of their mission. Donors have many choices for their charitable dollars.

Schools also compete to attract students. Parents and students have many choices when selecting a school, including high-performing tuition-free public schools that accept only the brightest students within a school district.

All schools should adopt the principles of continuous improvement and be on a journey to become the preferred educator of students. Their goal should be to achieve preeminence in their market. This will attract donors as well as students. It is also the right thing to do to deliver a great education to their students.

Those schools that do not pursue continuous improvement will fall behind those schools that do.

Faith in the Future is an organization that oversees the operation of the 17 Catholic high schools and four schools of special education within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It is led by CEO Casey Carter, who has brought a business focus to the operation of these schools.

At a recent board meeting of Faith in the Future, I listened to Chris Mominey, COO and secretary of education of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, speak of his organization’s focus on continuous improvement and how the Archdiocese differentiates its schools from other schools in the Philadelphia region.

The Philadelphia market for private school education is a competitive one, with many school choices available. At Faith in the Future, data and analytics drive an understanding of the marketplace, as well as an understanding of the factors considered by students and their parents when choosing a high school. This understanding drives strategy and decision-making to achieve enrollment, educational and operational goals.

Parents want their students to receive an academically rigorous education to prepare them for college or gainful employment. Those schools that are not perceived to deliver an academically rigorous education will not attract as many students. They will also lose students to those schools that are recognized for their academics.

Each high school within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is in the process of establishing boards of directors to help the school’s administration develop objectives and strategies regarding recruitment of students, programing and fundraising, as well as the development of a culture of continuous improvement within the staff and faculty of the school.

The directors at each school are being trained on the roles of a board member, which are governance, oversight and strategic input. In addition, the role of the board is to encourage the process of change, with the goal for each school to proceed on a journey to be the best in the world at what it does.

In schools, as in any other organization, continuous improvement can only take place when employees feel a sense of ownership and empowerment over that part of the enterprise in which they work. They must know what they are being held accountable for, and know the areas over which they have decision-making authority. It is the job of the leadership of that organization to create an ownership environment.

Employees must feel safe and secure when making suggestions to their bosses for improvements in areas above their level of decision-making authority. Bosses must welcome this input from their subordinates.

The Archdiocese is on the right track. A process of continuous improvement will not only help differentiate Archdiocese schools from their competitors, but it will give all employees a sense of pride and accomplishment, and will further differentiate their schools and help them achieve preeminence in their market.

Stan Silverman is the former president and CEO of PQ Corp. He also is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and is vice chairman of the board of trustees of Drexel University. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

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