School & District Management

Principals Test Entrepreneurial Ideas in K-12

By Michele Molnar & Michelle R. Davis — July 31, 2014 6 min read
Tony Sinanis, the principal at Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, N.Y., is a strong believer in administrators marketing the identities of their schools. He's asked students to help him tell his school's story through social media and other platforms.
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Negotiating lucrative partnerships with companies and organizations. Creating a brand and aggressively marketing it. Breaking with traditional operating methods. Taking risks.

These are some of the strategies used by entrepreneurs operating in the business world—and, increasingly, they’re the kinds of approaches being used by K-12 principals to manage and run their schools.

Faced with a rapidly changing set of challenges, including tight budgets, new technologies, and competition for students, some school leaders are incorporating entrepreneurial practices into their operations. In many cases, their efforts are being supported by college faculty, consultants, and authors offering strategies for bringing business and organizational concepts to school leadership.

“Principals have to be willing to think outside of the traditional institutional box and take a risk,” said Henry M. Smith, an assistant professor at the school of education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, who is also the lead faculty member in the school’s online program in entrepreneurial leadership in education. “They need to think about nontraditional solutions to transforming education.”

New Structures Needed

The K-12 education system isn’t necessarily set up to foster this type of thinking, Mr. Smith noted. In the private sector, entrepreneurs can make decisions and raise and spend money as they see fit. It’s not that simple for principals, who have to answer to superintendents, school boards, and parents, he said.

However, in the right environment entrepreneurial strategies can be successful for principals, schools, and students, said Jimmy S. Casas, the principal of Bettendorf High School in the 4,400-student Bettendorf Community school system, in Iowa.

The business world looks at K-12 systems and “keeps telling us we’re not producing the right type of product,” Mr. Casas said. He took that as a challenge: “Why can’t we be the business? Why don’t we create that kind of environment in our schools?”

Tony P. Sinanis, the principal at Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, N.Y., shown outside his office, encourages students to promote the school through social media and other means, to help the school market its identity.

Since 2002, Mr. Casas’ high school has spearheaded the development of seven “academies” that connect high school seniors with “real-world” careers, in fields including health care, logistics, and education. The academies are a partnership between his district and Scott Community College, local businesses, and the 4,300-student Pleasant Valley school district, also in Bettendorf.

Part of Mr. Casas’ motivation was to respond to ever-increasing competition from a high school in the Pleasant Valley district, which can lure students, and draw per-pupil funding, away from Bettendorf High.

The challenge is, “How do we brand ourselves, so when people research us, they think, ‘That’s the kind of school I want to be in,’” he said.

Competition at a Cost?

Principals’ interest in branding and marketing their schools, and in some cases even their own personas, has grown over time. Doing so can mean creating an online presence, increasing transparency about school operations and performance, and communicating in new and varied ways with the community.

Branding is a defining issue for Tony P. Sinanis, the principal at the Cantiague Elementary School in the 3,000-student Jericho, N.Y., school district. The co-author of a forthcoming book on the subject of marketing identities for schools, Mr. Sinanis enlists his students to help tell the school’s story through a video newsletter, and by posting pictures on social media platforms.

“Whatever you think of McDonald’s, when you see the golden arches you have a reaction to that,” said Mr. Sinanis. “But the logo itself is just part of the brand. Behind it is the story.”

Mr. Sinanis gets some resistance about his enthusiasm for marketing. “It’s seen as bragging, or a business thing,” he said. His response is, “If I don’t tell our story, someone else will.”

Others, however, are wary of bringing an entrepreneurial angle to school leadership.

Modeling schools after competitive business environments promotes the idea of “winners and losers, and avoiding being a loser at all costs,” said Alex Molnar, director of the commercialism in education research unit at the National Education Policy Center, a think tank at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The center has argued that efforts to bring private-sector principles and management into K-12 are often viewed uncritically.

“For a principal,” Mr. Molnar said, “it doesn’t seem like the word ‘entrepreneurial’ is a very good fit.”

School leaders who embrace the entrepreneur’s role and promote that work on their campuses need to be prepared to deal with the blowback that results from public outreach, said Dwight L. Carter, the principal at New Albany High School in the 3,600-student New Albany-Plain Local district in New Albany, Ohio.

After taking an intensive course on digital media and technology several years ago, Mr. Carter realized he needed to communicate more openly with his community. At the time, he was the principal of Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio, and he began tweeting and blogging news to promote the school, which was reliant on voters to approve school tax levies every few years.

That meant Mr. Carter also had to get used to absorbing criticism in a public manner.

“I sat on my first blog post for a week. It was scary waiting to see what the response would be,” he said. “But I had to be willing to take a risk.”

Cultural Shift

Taking those kinds of risks makes many school officials uneasy, said Robert N. Farrace, a spokesman for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“It has to be in an environment where that is supported and encouraged,” Mr. Farrace said. Without that foundation, principals can lose their jobs, or community and district support, he added.

Drawing parallels between risk-taking in schools and risk-taking in business is problematic for Mr. Molnar. He defines bold, forward-thinking action by school principals differently—such as by publicly questioning the focus on standardized testing in K-12, or challenging the implementation of the common-core standards—in effect in 43 states and the District of Columbia—in cases where administrators are convinced those academic guidelines have “no relation to the students [they] teach.”

Whatever their goals for their schools, principals have considerable power to bring change to their institutions’ academic and organizational focus, said Peter M. Senge, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who teaches business leaders how to create organizations that evolve to get the results they want. Those strategies can be applied to schools, he argues in the book, Schools That Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education, which he co-authored.

Just as an entrepreneur shapes the culture of a business, “the principal shapes the school’s culture,” Mr. Senge said. “It’s important for teachers to be able to collaborate and take risks.” About the only sure thing in trying something new, he added, is that “it won’t work the way it was intended.”

For Sheila M. Harrity, the principal of the Worcester Technical High School in the 24,500-student Worcester, Mass., district, promoting entrepreneurial thinking is connected to allowing students to explore careers.

Ms. Harrity’s vocational school features a full-service branch of the Worcester Credit Union, where business and finance students are trained. There’s a Redken day spa that employs students and serves the public. The Harr Toyota service center (named for a local dealership) features a 16-bay garage where students work on cars. There’s a Konika Minolta printing center, and the Tufts University veterinary clinic.

Ms. Harrity was able to open the facilities on campus by setting up a 501(c)(3) fund and essentially selling naming rights to many of the businesses partnering with her school. Not that it’s always been easy. Her plans to open the veterinary clinic, to be staffed by students and a Tufts veterinarian serving low-income pet owners, were slowed when a district official worried that students might get scratched or bitten in the process.

“We’ve been handing students welding torches for decades,” Ms. Harrity said. “People with forward-thinking ideas do not let obstacles or being nervous about taking a risk get in our way.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 2014 edition of Education Week as Entrepreneurial Models Shape Principals’ Work

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