Defining Success at Catlin Gabel

Last year, as a new head of school, I asked the school community how we define success. I was heartened to hear that people at Catlin Gabel understand we must use a variety of measures to answer that question. Assessing the success of our school requires us to think in three dimensions. The first is student achievement and well-being; the second is institutional performance; and the third is the causal relationship between inputs and outcomes across the first two dimensions.

Every year we collect and analyze a wealth of academic, operational, and financial data to help us measure our success. Recently I had the opportunity to attend a conference of the Independent Schools Data Exchange (INDEX), a consortium of 35 selective PS-12 schools similar to Catlin Gabel in size and structure. Over two days, with school heads and CFOs, I pored over our institutional numbers to better understand how we currently allocate our time and resources, and how we compare to other schools across many categories. Knowing our current priorities is essential, especially as we consider opportunities in a year of strategic planning. The following are noteworthy findings regarding our data. Relative to the 35 schools in the INDEX group, Catlin Gabel School is:

  • High in teachers per student (smaller classes)
  • High in SAT and ACT averages
  • High in professional development expense
  • High in student diversity
  • High in technology expense
  • High in admission applications, selectivity, and yield of accepted students enrolling
  • Mid-range in % of A’s and B’s earned by Upper School students
  • Mid-range in employee benefits and compensation
  • Mid-range in endowment $ per student and annual fund parent participation
  • Mid-range in need-based aid
  • Mid-range in gross revenue
  • Low in % of students taking AP exams
  • Low in attrition of current families
  • Low in operating expense per student
  • Low in # of sports offered

It is evident that we are prioritizing student-teacher relationships and teacher expertise, and, by one narrow measure, student performance seems to be positively affected. We are in the middle in compensation levels and community philanthropy, which may become a challenge given our ambition to attract and retain the best professional talent. A comparatively lower emphasis on AP exams reflects our philosophy, and disciplined spending is a positive institutional indicator. Other data findings are more complex and require investigation. For example, Catlin Gabel’s tuition is above average compared to INDEX schools when measured in nominal cost; when it is adjusted for the cost of living in Portland it is well below average. We offer fewer sports than most other schools, but student participation is higher than in most.

Over the course of the two-day conference, it was clear to me that Catlin Gabel is in an enviable position, even in that company of high-quality schools, and that our data align well with our mission priorities. I am proud of the commitments we have made and see more clearly the opportunities that lie ahead. The morning I arrived back on our beautiful campus, I watched as several lower school children raced through the Fir Grove to be the first to class. In my role as head, I appreciate the importance of institutional data and thinking broadly about who we are and where we are going. At the same time, it’s important working with children that we don’t become too enamored with numbers or let other schools’ data define our choices. It’s the student who is the unit of consideration, and here at Catlin Gabel we never forget that. 

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