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5 Minutes with Karen McCann McClelland and Nat Saltonstall: Masters of Innovation

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, summer and auxiliary program directors take on more diverse roles while looking for new ways to add value.

May 17, 2021

From the May/June 2021 Net Assets Magazine.


Interview by Cecily Garber

Feature image courtesy of Sidwell Friends School.

Karen McCann McClelland is the director of auxiliary programs at Sidwell Friends School with campuses in Bethesda, MD and Washington, DC, and a member of SPARC’s Advisory Board. 

Nat Saltonstall is the executive director of SPARC, the Summer Programs and Auxiliary Revenue Collaborative. SPARC supports independent schools in maximizing their auxiliary program potential by offering professional development experiences throughout the year, current best practices, benchmarking data and research, and specialized advisory services.

Karen McCann McClelland
Sidwell Friends School
Nat Saltonstall

Net Assets: Summer programs have different goals depending on the context and mission, such as serving current families, generating alternative revenue or widening the enrollment funnel. Have you seen a notable shift in those broad goals since the pandemic?

Karen McCann McClelland: When summer and auxiliary program directors transitioned into distance learning, many of us were faced with the reality of not being able to do our jobs in person, at least not without modifications. And with that shift, we were not going to be able to meet our primary goal — securing alternative revenue. The fees for activities no longer utilized, such as aftercare and the school shuttle, were refunded, but schools didn’t want to refund tuition dollars. Like teachers, we also had to find ways to add value for students in the virtual setting. For my team this meant hosting lunch bunches with lower school students, providing a virtual conference day of fun activities over Zoom and providing enrichment workshops.

There was also the belief shared among some school professionals that we were not fully serving our families and outward communities. To meet this need, Sidwell Friends School, like many peer schools, ran summer programs just for our community. We offered virtual programs that were open to the public, but we also created a new programming track for our lower, middle and upper school students.

As we go into summer, many schools are looking at budgets and acknowledging they need that additional revenue stream from summer and auxiliary programming. They also recognize that summer 2021 is not going to be normal, so there can be pressure to look for the quick revenue stream while also providing great programming. While auxiliary program directors are facing the reality that they will not meet pre-pandemic budget goals for this current fiscal year, this summer and next school year are looking more optimistic.

Net Assets: Can you describe that virtual program track you developed for your lower, middle and upper schools?

McClelland: We knew some parents wanted to keep distance learning going through summer 2020. While that was not possible, we were able to offer six weeks of free programming for our lower and middle school students, which consisted of different activity periods daily in math and language arts followed by an enrichment period.

The upper school students, many of whom had lost the opportunity to participate in summer internships or jobs or fulfill their service hours, participated in a program that trained them to lead these activity periods and mentor the lower and middle school students. We also created an afternoon section where the upper school students could connect with our community’s alumni and parents to learn about careers in medicine, STEM, law and public policy, arts and journalism.

Nat Saltonstall: Karen is sharing a great example of how summer program directors were forced by the pandemic to innovate and adjust. Those skills are always needed to be successful at the job, but they really had to be exercised going into last summer. One silver lining of the pandemic is that many auxiliary directors have discovered and developed their capacity for innovation, and more school leaders now recognize they have a tremendous resource in their summer program director to conceive innovative programs that serve the larger school.

Net Assets: We know summer program directors have always shown incredible innovation but how might that shift? What are some specific ways you might hope to see change?

Saltonstall: The pandemic has directly and indirectly pulled more directors of summer and auxiliary programs into overall school leadership discussions. The cancellation of many programs left some auxiliary directors with available time to devote to other responsibilities, right when schools were looking for a capable person to step up over the summer and lead the planning for the school reopening. My hope is that these directors are now seen in a new light for their unique capacity to lead a wider range of school initiatives.

I also hope to see more auxiliary program directors add value to larger school transformations with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It is one of those areas where some summer programs may be more evolved along the DEI spectrum than even the larger school. This is an example of how learning can sometimes happen in both directions — between summer communities and academic year communities — as long as the connection is intentional.

McClelland: There is a lot of pride among summer program directors who believe they have been doing a great job around issues of inclusion and equity for years in their sub-communities of the school. Many of us are proud of the DEI evident in our hiring practices with staff often more diverse than the participating students. Now that school leadership has seen how entrepreneurial and problem-solving summer directors can be — and now that many may have a seat at the table — they may want to continue in the role of furthering this important work.

Net Assets: Over the past year, we heard a lot about learning loss from the pivot to virtual learning. Will this create a different role for summer programs?

McClelland: Parents are concerned about that learning loss but also feel very strongly — particularly those with elementary-age children — that they need to be back with friends and peers. They need the social, emotional learning and less screen time. At the high school level, we continue to offer review science and English classes and credit math classes. Sidwell Friends will also offer a series of week-long courses as part of our inaugural Summer Equity and Justice Institute to provide high school students an opportunity to come together to learn skills and tools to help them work on social justice causes and look at the interconnectedness of critical issues facing our world today — a chance to engage in serving the common good as we emerge from the pandemic.

Throughout all of this, hopefully we do not lose sight that these kids really need to be kids. In some cases, after almost 18 months, they are going to need to relearn what it is like to be with other kids.

Throughout all of this, hopefully we do not lose sight that these kids really need to be kids. In some cases, after almost 18 months, they are going to need to relearn what it is like to be with other kids.

Saltonstall: One long-term trend in summer programming we saw prior to the pandemic was the evolution of shorter summer sessions. Now, with pandemic safety measures in mind, summer program directors are reevaluating that structure. Looking ahead to this summer, some are creating longer sessions to try to create stable groups, which is good for both COVID risk mitigation and the social development of children in stable communities. I hope that lengthened summer camp sessions might see a resurgence beyond 2021 — it’s good for youth development and for business.

Net Assets: As the traditional goals for generating revenue have been forced to shift, do you think there will be less emphasis on the fiscal side of summer camps?

Saltonstall: In the short term, I think most schools, big or small, are going to be looking at a lower than usual margin this summer, due in part to reduced enrollment paired with increased staffing costs and supply expenses related to COVID. It is important to acknowledge that and not be tempted to change those margins by compromising safety guidelines. The negative impact of dilution is real, even in independent schools where everyone does a little bit of everything.

Thinking ahead, I believe many schools are in the process of reaffirming their commitment to developing non-tuition revenue. Summer camps and programs will continue to be where tremendous potential exists for most schools to make a meaningful long-term impact on their financial sustainability. But while I see the emphasis on generating net auxiliary income, I also believe many schools are paying equal attention to additional strategic objectives that can be achieved through their auxiliary programming such as supporting admissions efforts and extending the larger brand of the school to new audiences.

McClelland: I do think there needs to be clear communication and evaluation after this year. What is in the budget, what do I need, and what are my expectations going forward?

There is probably as much demand for our programs this summer, and the supply is less. I think some schools will lower capacity. Other schools might have more expenses with staffing and cleaning costs, but have already made infrastructure changes to accommodate safe practices. I think a lot of schools have evaluated their pricing for this summer in order to make up a little revenue. They are not getting as many kids, but they are increasing their prices.

Net Assets: Do you see virtual auxiliary programming continuing post-pandemic?

Saltonstall: There are new tools and resources that have quickly grown out of this need to be a virtual society that are good to have in the back pocket for certain circumstances. That said, most summer programming thrives with an in-person community, especially for elementary school ages. I’ve heard from many schools that have chosen not to develop virtual programming, even as a backup plan for this summer, because they are seeing very weak demand from families and are instead opting for smaller, modified in-person options if allowed by their local and state regulations.

The virtual environment allowed us to broaden our student body — we had students on the West Coast and in other countries join our virtual programming last summer.

Some schools have developed incredible virtual learning platforms over the past year that could be the foundation for long-term auxiliary opportunities. However, I would be cautious about going all in on a long-term virtual opportunity unless you have demonstrable proof of success that can be separated from the immediate crisis brought on by the pandemic.

McClelland: The virtual environment allowed us to broaden our student body — we had students on the West Coast and in other countries join our virtual programming last summer. We will offer a few virtual components this summer because there is some demand and we’ve been getting some pressure from faculty. But overall, increased demand for virtual programming is just not the trend we are seeing.

Net Access: What are some lessons learned from the past year in terms of auxiliary directors and their role in extracurricular programming?

Saltonstall: For many schools, it’s a significant commitment to finally invest in a full-time director of summer or auxiliary programs. Consequently, what often happens is that everything gets thrown into the auxiliary program director job bucket. While this is understandable, I’m concerned about the summer and auxiliary program directors who have been the reopening coordinator, and now fulfill many new responsibilities for their schools.

One attribute of good leadership is recognizing when someone is stretched so thin, they are not necessarily doing any one thing well. The negative impact of dilution is real, even in independent schools where everyone does a little bit of everything. I encourage schools to now consider removing some of those added responsibilities from the director of summer programs, because the job of preparing for this summer is significant.

An additional outcome of the pandemic crisis has been an increase in departmental collaboration. The more integrated a director of summer programs is in the larger school decision-making and strategic planning, the better off the school community will be. I believe many have benefited from this forced integration and collaboration and hopefully this trend will continue in a more formalized, structured way.

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