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50 Years and Counting

Westminster School was founded fifty years ago as an alternative Montessori preschool and has gradually and purposefully evolved through the years.  The Lower School grew one grade at a time between 1970 and 1975.  The Middle School began in 1978 with sixth and seventh graders and graduated its first eighth grade class in 1980.  Thirty-three more have followed, and the School now has over 1700 alums world-wide.  From its beginning in 1963 with ten students and four teachers, the School has grown to over 550 students with a faculty and staff of 90, but it has never lost sight of its purpose—to teach kids to think well, work hard, and work well together.

Though Westminster has built wonderful facilities over the last decade, it has always been and still remains focused on its people.  Its students and their parents, its faculty and staff, and its Board of Trustees have followed one guiding principle:  “Do what’s right for kids.”  To make sure that Westminster’s purpose and guiding principle remain both viable and practical, the Board of Trustees decided in 2011 to begin a new cycle of strategic planning, concentrating on the goal of “educating the next generation of children to be confident, responsible, collaborative, and knowledgeable citizens.”  In October 2011 a Strategic Planning Steering Committee chaired by then Middle Division Director Sue Oldham was created and Susan Stone, who wrote the first book ever published by NAIS on strategic planning and who guided us through planning sessions in 1984, 1992, and 2002, was hired to lead us through this planning cycle.

Mrs. Stone met with the Steering Committee composed of trustees, faculty, administrators, and parents in October 2011 to outline the process.  Invitations were sent to parents, alums, faculty, staff, alum parents, and grandparents asking them to participate in seven listening groups which met on campus in November 2011.  Over 100 came. 

The Westminster community was then invited again to share its ideas through on-line listening groups in December 2011.  The ideas generated from these listening groups were collected and sent to the Strategic Planning Steering Committee.  The Committee reviewed the data with Susan Stone in February and March 2012 and invited 60 members of the School community to participate in a fifteen hour planning session led by Mrs. Stone on August 3 and 4.  The Steering Committee met again after the August planning session to review the data.  In December 2012 a draft of the plan was emailed to all members of the Steering Committee and to the Board of Trustees which then approved the “Westminster School Strategic Plan 2013” earlier this month.

I’m a history teacher and this is an historic year for Westminster School—our fiftieth birthday—so it seems appropriate that a brief review of where we’ve been should accompany our plan for where we’re going.  We’ve always taken strategic planning seriously at Westminster, for our previous planning sessions have led to major decisions which have impacted all of us and in the process made Westminster a better School. 

I remember the 1984 plan for settling one very important question:  “Where should we grow our campus?”  We looked at moving to more traditional campus sites, and I clearly recall touring a large abandoned college campus on the northeast corner of 63rd and Kelley.  We chose, however, to stay in the central city and slowly began the process of buying property, not by the acre as most schools do, but by the square foot, one house at a time. 

The 1984 plan did much more, however, than define our location. It stated unequivocally that “teachers are the strength of our School” and called for funds for professional development and for the creation of a faculty and staff endowment to boost salaries and benefits.  In 1984, for the first time, the School provided health insurance and retirement benefits to its faculty and staff.  To fund these added expenses, the plan directed the board and administration “to explore and expand sources of income other than tuition.”

As a result of this plan, we established a faculty and staff endowment which now has over $2.7 million and continues to supplement tuition to ensure that our faculty and staff salaries and benefits are at least as good as those enjoyed by teachers in our surrounding public schools. 

Other revenue sources were developed, and we held our first auction in 1984.  It continues to provide a huge financial gift to our School as well as a wonderful party for our patrons each year.  In 1986, we launched our first annual giving campaign which is still generously supported by many Westminster families—both current and alum—as well as by trustees, faculty and staff, and grandparents. 

In addition to facilities, faculty, and finances, this plan also made it clear that we should be open to take all kinds of students and develop them into “confident, well educated individuals” through a program featuring “small student/teacher ratios” and emphasizing “academic skills and creative expression.” The 1984 plan built on the vision of Westminster’s founders and feels as comfortable to us today as it did when it was written nearly thirty years ago.

My memory of the 1992 plan was that it focused on the School’s future administrative structure.  Charlotte Gibbens had led Westminster for 29 years and her approaching retirement made all of us nervous.  This strategic plan emphasized that our primary goal was to maintain the culture and values of Westminster School and urged the Board to fill Charlotte’s position internally.  The result was that I became Westminster’s second head of school and new directors were ultimately selected to lead the middle and lower divisions.

But like the 1984 plan, the 1992 plan did more than advise the board about hiring a new head of school.  It reaffirmed our desire for students “reflecting diverse economic, ethnic, social and academic backgrounds and abilities.” To aid in attracting diverse families, this plan called for the creation of an after school program and for an increase in financial aid.  This plan also called for new initiatives to reach out to alums including establishing this quarterly newsletter and hosting an alum reunion each fall.  Finally, it called on the board to continue the acquisition of property on 43rd and 44th Streets between Shartel and Lee and for the first time raised the question of “closing Lee.”

The 2002 plan focused on several areas.  It returned to the issue of facilities, stated unequivocally that we should “close Lee Avenue,” and called on the board to “initiate a single fundraising campaign to implement the master facilities plan.”  Those new facilities including a new middle school and administration building (2003-2004), a new lower school activities center and remodeled primary building (2004-2005), and a new lower school and primary studio (2011-2012) have secured, enlarged, and beautified our campus and enhanced opportunities for all Westminster students.  These buildings were all completed on time, under budget, and are fully paid for.

This 2002 plan also called on the board to “raise teacher salaries and increase benefits” and both of those goals have been reached.  We have surpassed the average teacher salary of our area public schools for all thirty steps and for all scales—bachelor, master, and doctorate—and we have increased benefits to provide more help to faculty and staff whose children attend Westminster School.  This plan called on the School “to maintain a student population that reflects and values diverse economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds as well as various learning styles…” and called on the board to increase the financial aid budget half a percent a year for ten years until it reached 12.25% of the operating budget—above the average for NAIS elementary schools.  We did all this through incredible generosity from the Westminster community.  And while our tuition has increased and remains significant, it is a comparative bargain.  Casady’s eighth grade tuition is 28% higher and Heritage Hall’s is 46% higher than ours.

And now we have the 2013 Strategic Plan which is included in this newsletter.  I hope you will take some time to review the document because I expect it will be as significant for our School as its predecessors have been.  There is, however, some terminology to keep in mind as you think about the plan.  A successful strategic plan begins with the mission or the purpose of the institution.  Once the purpose is clear, it moves to the strategies necessary to achieve that purpose.  As the strategies get fleshed out, it then focuses on the tactics that will be used to achieve each strategy. 

My favorite analogy for this process is the Civil Rights Movement.  Its purpose was to achieve racial equality for all Americans, but its strategies to achieve equality changed through the years.  First, the strategy was to eliminate government racial discrimination in public facilities like city buses, and boycotts were among the tactics used to do this.   After government discrimination was generally eliminated, the goal of the Civil Rights Movement—racial equality—remained the same, but a new strategy now sought to desegregate privately owned businesses like drug store lunch counters.  A sit-in became the favorite tactic to achieve that strategy.  Eventually, the Civil Rights Movement focused on still another strategy for racial equality.  This new strategy sought to gain the right to vote for African Americans, and a tactic used to gain that right was setting up Freedom Schools in the summer of 1964 throughout Mississippi.  Historians and sociologists can argue about the success of the strategies and tactics used by the Civil Rights Movement, but having grown up in a segregated America, I can see the powerful and important changes it brought to our country.  

The Civil Rights Movement utilized the strategic planning process beautifully to achieve its goals.  As I’ve thought more about our strategic plan for Westminster, however, I’ve turned more to the work of Jim Collins than Dr. King.  Collins has written about all kinds of organizations for over a decade, and I’m sure many of you are familiar with his work.  You may have read his books—Good to Great, Built to Last, How the Mighty Fall, Great by Choice—or heard him speak, but the messenger, like his message, is remarkably consistent.  Collins believes that good organizations succeed by staying focused on three things—their hedgehog, their people, and their culture.  What does Collins mean when he tells organizations to focus on their hedgehog?  It’s based on the fable of the cunning fox which tries and continually fails to catch the distinctly “uncunning” hedgehog.  Though the hedgehog should be no match for the fox, it does one thing very well.  It can roll into a ball and consequently is able to ward off the more talented and versatile fox.  Collins’ point is that if organizations were more like hedgehogs—that is, focusing on one thing and doing it well—they too would be more successful.  But how do organizations discover their inner hedgehog?  Collins says it’s found in the overlap of the answers to three questions:  What are we passionate about?  What can we do better than anyone else?  What do we have the resources to do?  Westminster has asked those questions repeatedly over the last fifty years and our answers haven’t changed very much—our hedgehog is still to get kids to work hard, think well and work well with others.  

Once our purpose, our hedgehog, is clear, we have to define the strategies we will use to achieve it.  The first and most important strategy we use to get kids to work hard, think well, and work well with others is to help them develop a growth mindset.  What is a growth mindset?   People with a growth mindset believe that talent and intelligence can be developed through hard work and perseverance.  Sure, we all start with different gifts, but it is our effort and dedication that will determine whether our gifts grow or diminish.  In a fixed mindset, people believe that the intelligence and talent we are given at birth don’t change.  Since our abilities are fixed, these people don’t see the need to work very hard; instead, they focus their energy on convincing others (and themselves) that they are indeed smart.  It’s all about appearances.  So a fixed mindset often leads to obfuscations or worse, lying and cheating, while a growth mindset leads to engagement, collaboration, hard work, perseverance, resilience…and success.  Our new strategic plan speaks directly to our purpose and this strategy to help achieve it.  Westminster should “provide a safe, thoughtful, and purposeful environment where students of all backgrounds are asked to think well, work hard, and work well with others.” [Goal I]  It should also “provide innovative and challenging programs that are consistent with the development of a growth mindset.” [Goal III]   

So what tactics will we use to achieve our strategy of developing a growth mindset?  Our strategic plan gives guidance there as well.  First, we guard and preserve our mission and culture.  The first morning of the planning session, people began talking about the “Westminster Way.”   No one seemed to be able to define what it was, but it didn’t really matter because everyone seemed to understand it.  It’s been that way since I first came to this School 36 years ago.

In fact, when ISAS did our accreditation visit in 1986, a member of the visiting committee used a German word to describe the Westminster Way—“gemeinschaft.”  Loosely translated, I’m told it means a sense of community, but I’m also told it’s a very intangible concept.  Though we may not be able to define the Westminster Way 27 years later, we still know what it is….and we’ve still got “gemeinschaft.”  So tactically, we have to make sure we maintain our core values to preserve the Westminster Way.  This in turn will help our students develop a growth mindset and help Westminster achieve its purpose, its hedgehog, of developing kids who work hard, think well, and work well with others.  

I’ve always believed that whenever possible you should strive analytically to move down the level of abstraction, so what are these values that underlie the Westminster Way?  Three of the most important are inclusion, individuality, and kindness, and I cannot think of a better concrete example of the Westminster Way than the middle school talent show.  It was February 22.  To set the stage for you, there were 17 acts, singers, dancers, musicians, fifth through eighth graders performing individually or with a group before a packed middle school audience of 300+.  I can assure you that I would never have gotten on that stage to perform, not now, and certainly not when I was 12. 

True, I didn’t have much talent, but quite honestly not every performer was exceptionally talented that night.  But what I can say about each and every one of them is that they were confident and courageous enough to try….and that’s the Westminster Way.  That’s also the growth mindset in action.  And how did the Westminster Way kick in to help the performers?   The performers had planned clearly what they were going to do, had worked hard to prepare it, and had collaborated with others to be ready…and the audience was just terrific.  They were supportive and enthusiastic.  Our kids clapped their hands or swayed their arms appropriately to boost each performer’s energy and confidence.  No one who took the stage that night could have felt anything but validation and admiration.  They took the risk, they accepted the challenge, they did their best….and that’s the Westminster Way in action.  They left the stage to rousing applause and high fives from their friends and classmates.  That’s the Westminster Way as well….and it’s based on our core values.  Inclusion—anyone could sign up.  Individuality—you get to choose what you want to do.  Kindness—it’s about support and appreciation for a job well done, not competition about who did it the best.  Tactically, those values are endemic to the Westminster Way, and the Westminster Way is what enables us to develop such strong growth mindsets in our students.  

There are other strategies in the 2013 Strategic Plan to help Westminster achieve its hedgehog of developing kids who work hard, think well, and work well with others.  Strategically, we have to have the right teachers if we expect to achieve our goal.  And tactically, we have to compensate, train, and support them well if we hope to have, as Collins likes to say, “the right people in the right places on the bus.”  Moreover, our hedgehog requires that we have the resources to implement our passion, so strategically we have to “ensure [the School’s] financial security.” [Goal V]  This will tactically be achieved by balancing the annual budget and maintaining adequate reserves.  All in all I think you’ll agree that this 2013 Westminster Strategic Plan was well conceived, well written, and well designed to lead us through the next decade.

As I look back at the 2013 strategic planning workshop, there was a lot of concern about the “Westminster Way” and how it can be protected as the leadership of the School retires.  I believe that everyone present in that two day meeting last August felt that Westminster was a successful institution.  I know that their concern and commitment are integral to ensuring that it remains so.  This is where it is good to return to Collins.  His theory suggests that disciplined organizations that work hard to understand their hedgehog, get the right people into the rights seats on the bus, and remain faithful to their culture have done their work well.  Collins also makes it clear that very few organizations are able to do all three of these tasks successfully, but for those which do, the result will be an organization that, first, delivers superior performance relative to its mission, second, makes a distinctive impact in its community, and third, endures, even thrives, beyond any leader

Jim Collins and our new strategic plan give me a lot of comfort.  I don’t know what the future holds for Westminster’s leaders, but I am convinced the future of Westminster School has never been brighter.