The People-Centered School

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have all learned a lot about dealing with challenges. Hopefully we have also learned a lot about ourselves, those around us, and the organizations we are a part of and lead. In working with private and Christian schools across the country, I’ve seen many schools successfully deal with the challenges presented by a global pandemic. In every case, they quickly pivoted in order to effectively support student learning, faculty care, parent transparency, and school community engagement. But they did something else even more important. What helped Christian schools succeed throughout COVID-19 is the same thing that will keep them strong long after the pandemic is over: keeping people, rather than programs or policies, at the center of their focus.

Successful Schools Keep Students At the Center

On Friday, March 13, 2020, the governor of Michigan, my state, announced the closure of all K–12 schools in response to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. Shortly afterward, one head of school reviewed her “to-do” list with me. My jaw dropped. The school had one weekend to figure out how to make the shift to 100 percent online learning. But this head of school knew they could do it. She encouraged her faculty with these words: “If we remember to ask ‘What will be best for the student?’ I believe we will get through this and help continue their learning uninterrupted.” Over the weekend, every teacher did what they needed to do to pivot as they took learning online. 

In this particular school’s case, asking what students needed uncovered, among other things, a previously unrecognized need for computers at home. That meant immediately delivering laptops to some households so that children could participate in virtual classes on the coming Monday. With this need addressed, students were better set up to succeed in an unfamiliar educational model. Keeping students at the center of the focus means entering into a space of curiosity as we seek to understand their unique context and needs. 

Successful Schools Care For Their Faculty’s Needs

One of the things that COVID-19 displaced was our sense of well-being. How can we feel safe when something we can’t see might land us, our students, or our loved ones in the hospital? Safety has always been important to schools. But during the pandemic, school safety was harder to define because it meant something different to almost everyone. There were tangible needs, such as the construction of plexiglass barriers, protocols for mask-wearing, and hand-washing stations. But there were intangible needs as well: the need to feel safe, the need for reassurance, the need for good leadership in the midst of significant fear and anxiety. At every school, faculty and staff were, and are still, under significant strain from the demands of the pandemic. Being a people-centered school means understanding and caring for employees’ tangible and intangible needs.

As the 2020 graduation approached and the realities of hybrid learning were taking shape, a head of school from the Pacific Northwest shared with me the challenges of responding to the needs of her school’s faculty. One teacher in particular was burdened by the constant changes coming from the governor’s office, the daily questions and emails from parents, and his own anxieties about the safety of returning to the classroom. On what otherwise would have been a glorious spring day, this teacher sat in the office of the head of school, nearing a breaking point. The head of school asked gently, “What grace and space can I give you that would be helpful right now?” The teacher’s answer turned out to be a fairly simple request: a day away to hike in a nearby national forest and collect his thoughts by reconnecting with nature. It was an important but easy request to grant. At a people-centered school, when we put faculty in the center of our focus, we invite them to say what help looks like to them, rather than assuming that we have all the answers.

Successful Schools Are Transparent with Parents

Just outside Houston is a school led by a fifteen-year veteran superintendent. Under her leadership the school has grown in enrollment, successfully added grade levels, and built a student body that is unified and thriving. It’s one of the best-run schools I’ve ever seen. Then came COVID. And so did the calls with questions from worried parents. They were anxious about a host of issues: the safety of their children, what the COVID testing and quarantine procedures would be, when school would reopen, how to prevent learning loss, and so on. On top of those anxieties, something happened that the superintendent didn’t anticipate: a large employer in the community closed its doors for the foreseeable future. 

Suddenly the school had many more parents requesting financial aid. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Lon L. Swartzentruber lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife, Sandy. He has more than twenty-five years of professional experience in strategic planning, organizational governance, and transformation. He is the CEO of Design Group International, a community of seventeen process consultants scattered across the country who work with Christian and private schools, universities and colleges, charitable foundations, nonprofit organizations, for-profit businesses, family-owned companies, churches, and denominations. Process consulting practices the behaviors of listening, helping, and learning alongside their clients in support of helping organizations and their leaders transform for a vibrant future.