Private schools are always defending their value proposition.
That’s how Lisa Paris, project executive with Fox Management Consulting (Fox MC) at the Fox School of Business, describes the business challenge facing Al Fatih Academy, a Muslim faith-based grade school in northern Virginia.
Parents face many decisions when it comes to educating their children, Paris says. Private school tuition costs are an added expense for a family already paying for public school education through their tax dollars. It’s a challenge many private schools encounter.
It would have been easy for Fox MC’s consulting team to look at the academy’s competition in the educational space from the perspective of other faith-based schools. But that wasn’t the best approach.
“The academy’s real competition for volume and growth are the high-performing public school districts in the surrounding area,” Paris says. “In order to compete and be successful in this space, the Fox MC team needed to take a deep look into the organization—the teaching caliber, the learning experience and how the academy can not only match, but try to exceed, the performance and rigors of a high-performing public school.”
There was one more important lens for those involved with the project—the nonprofit’s core mission.
“Al Fatih is a kindergarten through eighth-grade school focused on understanding and integrating a sense of identity and self for Muslim American children,” says Awais Sheikh, a current Fox School graduate student who became a client representing Al Fatih. “It’s about how we can integrate both the students’ faith as well as their place in American society into the learning environment.”
The school has been in existence for over 20 years and is known in the community as a pillar for providing a unique educational experience for Muslim Americans in the area. However, changes in the community landscape over those 20 years as well as challenges brought on by the pandemic caused the board to explore key strategic issues for ongoing sustainability.
The Al Fatih Academy Board of Directors decided to collaborate with Fox MC to supplement its own exploration of the current landscape and assessment of the way forward.
The team of students, faculty and industry experts who make up the core of the MBA capstone course got to work to support Al Fatih in its efforts.
First up for the team was strengthening Al Fatih’s infrastructure. Attracting and retaining teachers and staff to provide the high-quality education that the academy sought to deliver was challenging on several levels.
“Al Fatih was having a retention issue that was tied into some of the COVID-19 challenges that many schools had,” says team member Ashley Freeth, MBA ’21. “But there was also a financial challenge in that Al Fatih was not able to pay faculty and staff as much as some of the schools in their market, especially those near the Washington, D.C., area.
“They were at a crossroads on how to grow sustainably while also staying true to their mission and their families.”
The Fox MC team delivered a three-phase series of recommendations to keep and retain the current teachers and staff through incentives, development of a comprehensive talent management strategy and securing funds to raise compensation.
“It was important to not only retain the good talent they had but help them position themselves to attract new talent,” Paris says. “This approach delivers a high-quality academic experience that leads to a high-quality student output. It then becomes measurable and will be used to promote the school.”
Building its market share through a new branding and awareness campaign was the second strategic recommendation.
“Essentially this portion was a marketing strategy,” Paris says. “A lot of it was centered around communication. How do they articulate their brand through the lens of a faith-based education versus a public school education? They are giving the American Muslim community an opportunity to continue their culture, sustain their faith and educate generations of faith followers. That is an important message.”
The third strategic recommendation provided pathways to strengthen primary revenue streams and establish financial sustainability for Al Fatih.
“Strategies to optimize tuition and fundraising were developed,” Paris says. “This created cushions for the investments that would be made to support the other strategies and the plan for the future.”
While Al Fatih had discussed opportunities and initiatives for the future, the consulting team wanted to leave the nonprofit with a solid, sustainable financial plan that would eventually lead to that wish list.
“Getting a solid business plan in order was the foundation of what the school really needed first,” Freeth says. “We wanted to get a solid funding strategy in place for their current model before they could think about how to expand or some of the other things they eventually want to do.”
The academy’s board of directors established a team to work with the student group throughout the project. The board’s team included Afeefa Syeed, who provided the historical perspective and philosophy that she and (fellow co-founder) Pervin Divleli had in mind when they started the school.
After hearing the analysis from the students, the Al Fatih team called the final briefing “required reading” for all current and new board members. The team believes the work done by Fox will help set the stage for key strategic decisions going forward.
There is still much work ahead for Al Fatih as it continues its mission.
“I think that by having the Fox group come in, we were able to really look at the short-term as well as the long-term goals for Al Fatih,” Sheikh says. “Just having an independent entity with talented experts really helped provide the board with an unbiased perspective on what we should be looking at not just over the next six months, but also over the next year or two or three and into the future.”
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