At FaithSearch Partners, we are often asked by potential clients, “What makes your firm different than other search firms?” The simple answer is that, at FaithSearch Partners, we manage searches for Christian organizations to secure leaders who can address both immediate issues and the organization’s future success. Our comprehensive search process and Christian values allow school boards to focus on their mission during a critical leadership transition.
One example is our search for North Tampa Christian Academy (NTCA) and their selection of Orton Varona as President. NTCA is a K-12 Christian school located in Wesley Chapel, Florida (a suburb of Tampa, Florida). This greenfield institution is a $24M investment with a unique partnership between a church denomination and regional healthcare system. The new Academy’s contemporary curriculum is based on project-based learning, competency-based grading, and real-world teaching. Partly as a result of the selection of Varona as President, the school was able to open on time, with a full complement of faculty and with proforma enrollment projects met.
FaithSearch Partners placed Orton Varona, and we recently were able to connect with Varona to ask him about the Academy’s success and trajectory.
Question: Close to the time that NTCA was about to open in 2018, there weren’t enough students enrolled to meet the proforma. Also, the construction wasn’t finished. How were you able to bring up the enrollment numbers and finish construction on time?
Varona: “I think enrollment across the board boils down to effort. There are two pieces to enrollment that make it work. One – it’s very much a numbers game, like sales. There is an algorithm to it. The more people you talk to, the more relationships you engage, the better ratios you’re going to have from a recruiting perspective. Two – it is market-driven. To be successful, you need to understand the market and the customer base. You need to know what their needs are and meet them.
I think many schools have trouble because they feel like they have a ‘product’ and the market, parents and students, will adjust to the product. Well, it doesn’t work that way. The most established brands in the world all listen to the market. It does not matter if it is Prada or Apple! Everyone should listen to the market if they are going to be successful. In other words, what are parents and students looking for in an Academy?
I think schools often believe that they are not market driven. They tend to think they are professor driven. They believe that their community is clamoring to learn the special knowledge that only their staff has. But I don’t think that is always true. In reality there are thousands of teachers and professors around the country with similar knowledge. So it has to be something else. It can be difficult for leaders inside of educational organizations to understand that.
When I showed up at NTCA, I wanted immediate change. I asked the leadership to do more than simply visiting sponsor churches, trying to guilt parents into sending their kids to “their” school. I wanted to make sure that we answered every phone call from a parent. I wanted us to work on improving our presence on social media right way and have active marketing streams, whether that is print or television. We needed to market and then be prepared to receive from our marketing efforts.
I came into the picture about nine weeks before opening day. The school was only at about 60 percent of the projected enrollment that was needed per our proforma. There had been a consultant before me that helped put in some structure. But there were still a few gaps in the overall enrollment process. I called a few recruiter friends, and we were able to make it to the enrollment number we needed. God definitely led that! But we did need a strategy in place as well. You have to be willing to listen to what the market is saying and respond to that. We were able to identify what the market was interested in and got the message out that we were able to provide what they are interested in.”
Question: You have continued to advance enrollment the last two years. Do you expect the numbers to keep growing?
Varona: “We have been growing quite a bit. We grew more than 20 percent from year one to year two. In this third year, pre-COVID, we expected to do the same. But COVID really shook the fabric of all private school education. Many schools have enrollment down between 30 to 50 percent. Fortunately, at North Tampa our enrollment went up! We are up about four percent. We somehow were able to grow in this midst of COVID pandemic, so we feel blessed. I think we were able to do this by being able to adjust quickly and deploy a plan.”
“One of the most challenging things for me has been finding the right people with the right background and the correct attitude that can deliver an innovative market-centric product.”
Question: It almost seems like overnight you had to build up this school with new faculty hires, a new curriculum design and create a unique learning culture. What was the most challenging part of that for you?
Varona: “One of the most challenging things for me has been finding the right people with the right background and the correct attitude that can deliver an innovative market-centric product. There is no shortage of teachers. But there is a shortage of teachers who can innovate, be open-minded and minister to a broad section of the faith community.
We have chosen to be market-centric because the product is already incredibly well defined. Education is a very regulated business. We can be innovative in how we present knowledge. But we are regulated on the knowledge we present. At the core, we are still very much a Christian school. We embrace our historical curriculum, but we choose to have a different mindset in presenting the materials. Sometimes it is difficult for leaders and faculty to step outside of the institutional box where they learned how to teach.
When I arrived at NTCA, 90 percent of the staff had already been hired. If you’re observant, you can identify quickly who has the ability to thrive in this innovative environment and who will not. You have to be honest and let individuals know when it is not going to work out. We have had turnover. In the first year, we started with 35 percent turnover and the second year that went down to 20 percent. Right now, we are settling in with an outstanding team, and our group has performed very well so far.”
Question: You have more business experience than many educational leaders. You must have brought many new ideas that are foreign to most academic settings. Was there some pushback with some of your forward thinking?
Varona: “This isn’t the first school that I have worked with. I have heard my share of people saying that I have too much of a business approach, not enough grace or that I don’t care about teachers. Of course I care about the teachers! But I also recognize that it is an adjustment for faculty to understand my different mindset when it comes to education.
People can get into a mindset that I make decisions too clinically. But to be successful about the difficult things like finances and delivery of curriculum, you have to be. Our students and their families deserve that. Some people think you just need to pray your way through it. Hey, I get it! I am all about prayer! I am a faith-based and Christian leader. I agree with that. But it also has to be mixed with logical decisions and planning as well.
When you lead and manage people, genuinely care those people, and communicate it is easier to maneuver and make good decisions. Ultimately everyone understands where you are coming from. Even during challenging periods, you can demonstrate a level of grace. Sometimes the environment and the faculty are not right for each other. When that happens, the only caring thing to do is to work together to find a place that is better for the individual. The focus should be on loving the individual and helping them find whatever the next step is for them.
Some people don’t want to hear about this. But that’s the honest approach one must take in order to nurture a successful organization. Those are hard conversations. But I would much rather have a difficult, honest conversation. It can be hard for grace ordinated leaders to understand that the actual grace is having that conversation. It is selfish to avoid conflict for the wrong reasons.”
Question: Establishing this new school must have taken a lot of fundraising and promotion. How did you get the media’s attention and the philanthropy to back it up?
Varona: “At North Tampa, we are fortunate. We have partners that most schools don’t have. We have a major corporate sponsor, so we were able to leverage some of their marketing relationships. But we still had to go out there and ask for it and get it. We wanted to create a marketable story. We pitched it to news stations and were picked up from a number of them.
It sounds easy, but it is more complicated than that. You have to tell them what you are doing differently and why it is impactful for the community. We focused on how we love the community and how our innovative product of learning was different and how it would serve the community in the best possible way.
At North Tampa, we decided to cast a messaging net as broadly as possible. We have focused on marketing that we are the best in education, most innovative and have Christian values. That piqued interest. Most of the world can agree that the base of Christian values is a good thing and is widely accepted.”
“We have focused on marketing that we are the best in education,
most innovative and have Christian values. That piqued interest.”
Question: Looking towards the future, how do you define the change and growth that needs to happen?
Varona: “In the context of NTCA, COVID has changed the market drastically in the last six months. In my opinion, it has been the most incredible season of innovation needed in this century. Moving forward, schools will either be a part of that change or will lag and be left behind. It is believed that the amount of innovation in the last six months would have taken 5 to 10 years regularly. And if that’s true, which I believe it is, then schools and organizations that were already behind the curve are now up to 10 years further behind. I think we will see a lot of those organizations disappear.
Locally we worked to be bold and make sure we are in that wave of people moving forward. For example, when everyone was debating over whether they should do virtual learning versus in school learning versus home school learning, we said, ‘We aren’t interested in just the COVID solution. We are interested in what education should be.’ Now we have the opportunity to listen. If anything is wrong with education, let’s fix it now.
Since we are market-centric, we decided to create a solution that focuses on the families. Schools for the last 100 years have forced families to meet the school established schedules. Families have had to plan their vacations, change their work schedules, and revolve their life around the school’s plans. We couldn’t identify another pillar in society that has that kind of power. Everything else the consumer decides.
So, how do we give the control back to the parents? Every parent and family wants and needs something different. Because of COVID, the answers are now very individualized. We want to create a system that gives choice back to the families. That is when we launched the Titan Teacher Network. It is a multi-channel teacher educational platform that is classroom driven and has three avenues of access. There is on-campus live, online live, and if they aren’t available on a scheduled basis, all the sessions are recorded for on-demand.
So far, it has had a high learning curve, but the consumers, our parents, have embraced it like crazy. It takes away the guilt from the parents and children that need to visit family in the middle of the school year or a parent who has a sick day. We have also seen as much success in our students that have decided to attend in person as those who participate in online live. We saw the change and growth that needed to happen, and now I think that change and growth will outlast COVID.”
Question: Sometimes when we push for change and growth, there can be conflict in our work. How do you overcome those disagreements with a Christian heart?
Varona: “In the workplace, it is easier for me to have those kinds of disagreements because of the Christian mission of the Academy. The mission is the guiding factor for my professional life because the organization should have a well-defined mission.
At NTCA we have worked hard to define the mission, communicate it, and tie all our conversations back to it. Conversations become easier when everyone is well aware of what we stand for and our goals.
“Our mission at NTCA is ‘Leadership through Christian Innovation.’”
Our mission at NTCA is ‘Leadership through Christian Innovation.’ We also have core values that we clearly communicate throughout the institution. Then you can have a real conversation about whether the mission is being upheld or not. In those hard times, you can ask the questions of yourself and others that bring focus on the importance of the mission relative to each individual.
With the focus on the mission, it is easy to gather around a shared understanding. The hard part of any business is when the mission is not well defined, then it becomes personal. Then it can become ‘you don’t like me’ or ‘I’m not part of your group.’ That’s why communicating standards, a mission, and core goals is very important to me.”
The story at North Tampa Christian Academy is one of hundreds of stories that could be told at Christian schools. Through a well-defined search process, FaithSearch Partners was able to help NTCA find a Christian leader with the right experience and business and academic background. Because of Varona’s leadership, along with that of the school’s board, faculty and parents, NTCA has been successful in accomplishing and maintaining their vision and goals.
For more information about how FaithSearch can help manage your organization’s leadership transition needs, please contact Ivan Bartolome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article written by Heidi Howard, Research Manager & Marketing Associate of FaithSearch Partners