27. Marketing Towards a Vision: Growing Your New Independent School
Aubrey and Tara are joined with Karyn Ewart, a trained clinical psychologist and successful independent school starter who shares her journey of opening Sycamore School in Arlington, VA. With 20+ years of experience working in the educational system as head clinical director and head of school in both public and private schools, Karyn recognized a need for a different kind of education- one that prioritizes socio-emotional wellbeing alongside academic learning. In this episode, Karyn shares her journey from the early beginnings of Sycamore School and how it all came to be.
About Karyn Ewart:
Karyn Ewart is a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked in public and private schools for over 20 years. Five years ago, she opened an independent private school called The Sycamore School in Arlington, Virginia, that embraces a mastery-based learning model.
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Aubrey: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Aubrey Bursch.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Karyn Ewart. Karyn is a licensed clinical psychologist who’s worked in public and private schools for over 20 years. Five years ago, she opened an independent private school called the Sycamore school in Arlington Virginia.
That embraces a mastery-based learning model. Hi, Karyn! I’m so excited you’re here. Thanks for joining us today.
Karyn: Thank you for having me!
Aubrey: Karen, welcome welcome! I’m so excited to chat with you today. I’d love to know more, can you tell us more about yourself, maybe your background and the origins of the Sycamore school?
Karyn: Certainly, my background is that I’m trained as a clinical psychologist, but I’ve worked in schools my whole career and after serving roles in public and private schools as a head clinical director, head of school, I was seeing some things, both in my students, in my own kids’ schooling and in our community that I felt like needed to be addressed. And one of those things was incorporating socio-emotional learning alongside academic learning. And I also saw that a lot of kiddos were not getting the type of education that they needed. And so I had worked largely in private school settings that were specifically for students with special needs. And so I wanted to more, the specificity of that private school model with the inclusiveness of a larger school model and create what I think is a good model for everybody that incorporates individualized instruction, self-paced learning and socio-emotional learning. So learning from what I’ve seen in our school and in other schools and then coming up with what I think is an ideal school for most learners.
Tara: Yeah, it’s been fascinating because full disclosure, I’ve been with you on this journey since you started it and including what to call it and everything. And I’m just, it’s so amazing to see what you’ve done over five years. And so I wanted to ask, looking back, what the biggest challenges were that you may not even have known were going to be challenges? And how did you even know what you needed to do, like, how did you even know all the things that you had to do to start a school? That seems overwhelming.
Karyn: Sure. So, I knew how to run an existing school. It was really the business side of things that I had to learn. So I had to pick, what kind of business model, were we going to be a nonprofit, were we going to be an LLC? So I really had to do a crash course in the business side of things and I had to learn how to fundraise. And I really tapped into my friend community and talking to my friends who were small business owners and really learning. What do you do to start a business? My brother-in-law has his own veterinary practice, a good friend of mine, he has several of his own businesses. So I just tapped into several friends and really relied on their knowledge and expertise. Learned really quickly what I needed to do. And it’s you have to just go at, through at one hurdle at a time. And I just had a really deep commitment to what I was doing and I just, for whatever, had an unwavering belief that it was gonna work out. So I think some level of positive thinking definitely helped me. Just taking it one step at a time and accessing all the resources in our community to help me do that.
Tara: Yeah, you did a fabulous job with all of that. Looking back, what was the hardest part of that? The business process. And it’s, I want to point out that it’s, it, I’m grateful that you shared that because we talk about marketing as, as it relates to schools and that’s a business thing, right? So sometimes people who work in schools, run schools, it’s, It’s hard to think of it as a business because the school doesn’t necessarily in our minds equate to business, but you’re absolutely right. It is. So going back anyway to what was the hardest part of that process? Can you think of a specific thing and if not, that’s fine.
Karyn: It was, it was, I initially had a partner that I was working with and I have to say it was probably at a certain point we really needed one person to take the helm. And I ended up doing that, but I have to say, in starting a business, you just, you have to make hard decisions. And when it’s you and somebody else it’s even harder. So I’m grateful to the partner that I started with, but I’m also grateful that they realized, while the concept of the school was really cool. The reality of all the work that was involved was not what they wanted to do. And were really honest and gracefully bowed out and allowed me to move forward. So that was really hard. But ultimately I’m really grateful because I had a year working as a partner where we could really establish the framework for the school from an educational standpoint. And then I was able to take off and spearhead the business side and make those decisions in order to move forward. But it’s hard, you know, compromising with somebody, where’s the school gonna be, what is going to be the name of the school, the logo? How much do you put into marketing and other things? I mean, there’s so many decisions you have to make, and while it’s hard to have it all on your shoulders, I actually think it’s also easier than having to navigate all those decisions with another person.
Aubrey: I appreciate you sharing that so much because it’s those difficult decisions. I’ve been in talks with several people who are starting a school or they’ve started a school, they’re in year one, right? And it is those difficult decisions that sometimes you can’t even, you don’t know that they’re coming and when they come and then you have to make the hard decision. So I appreciate you saying that. I’m curious, because a couple of the schools that I’ve talked to are like in that infancy period of beginning or thinking about beginning. And they’re thinking about marketing, like how do you market a new school? Cause you don’t really have that word of mouth already going. So how do you market a new school? How did you spread the word about it and how did you like increase enrollment? I’d love to hear that, from your perspective, how that worked for the Sycamore school.
Karyn: Certainly. I really utilize my community and I’m fortunate. I’m a lifelong Arlingtonian. And so I’ve lived in the community for a long time and I, I really reached out I, I literally held information sessions out of my home. I posted things, you know, the fliers at that local ice cream shop. And we held also information sessions in the local library. I came up with what are some things that parents would want to know? And we still have this, we have a winter speaker series. And so I started offering a free speaker series at the local library and it was, like, you know, Come get some parenting tips and learn more about the Sycamore school or, come learn about managing a kid with ADHD and learn more about the Sycamore school. So it was, to pair something that parents are worried about or interested in learning more and also learning about the school. And then just word of mouth. Shooting emails to every friend, colleague, neighbor that, you know, just letting them know this is happening. If you know anybody who maybe is interested in coming to an info session I reached out to every school counselor and every school in the area and just said we’re opening up. This is who we are. And so it’s just reaching out to anybody you can think of- tutoring places, clinicians, and just letting them know. And I fortunately, I’ve worked within schools. And so I knew some educational advocates. I knew clinicians. And I think because people knew me and I’d been in the system that lends credibility as well. But it was a lot of, I guess through a digital platform, knocking on doors and really spreading the word. And word of mouth still has been our most powerful marketing strategy. Like current parents sharing with their neighbors and their colleagues about the school is one of the most powerful devices there is. Because people believe in people, and so when a person shares with you, their experience or shares with you that they really, they value the school. That means a lot more than seeing a flyer than anything else. That being said from day one, I put money into marketing. So from day one, whether it was Tara with a website, whether it was Arlington strategy with a marketing, I knew. That we had to market this. And so I, I said that, and I still maintain that you have to put aside money for marketing. I’m amazed at other schools that don’t. So that’s been a priority from day one.
Tara: Yeah. And you’ve done a good job with it. And all the things that you described by the way are also marketing, Pounding the pavement that you did and those information sessions, what a brilliant way, what a grassroots way to spread the word about the school and offer value back to the community too. So it really, I know that the buzz grew over time and it grew exponentially and now, Sycamore school is a well-known school in the area. And your enrollment has grown, right? How has that trajectory gone in terms of where you started and where you are and where you’re going?
Karyn: Yes. I mean our very first year, so we’re on our fifth year. Our very first year we started with 14 students and ended the year with 25 and every year it’s grown. And so we’re just shy of 60 students. And our goal is to be between a hundred, 140. And we serve students fifth through 12th grade. So I’m looking at 60 in middle schools, 40 in high school, something like that. But it’s really, another one of my principles is that I’m not one to say, we have 10 slots in the seventh grade, or we have five slots in the ninth grade. I’m more about, I take students that I feel like we can meet their needs and they would thrive with us and they would be a good fit. And so we have these cohorts that are flexible. So this year we have 15 eighth graders. So we have two of our cohorts have seventh and eighth graders. Next year, they’ll look different. Our high school is expanding so next year we’ll definitely have two high school cohorts and three to four middle schools. So we can contract and expand depending on the students that we have. And it’s not this rigid, sixth, seventh, eighth grade. So I think that helps too with the newer and growing school.
Tara: Yeah. I like to carry that into the pandemic because we’ve seen independent schools have grown as a result of the pandemic in many places because parents wanted their kids in person or in smaller environments are the things that you offer. Talk a little bit about how the pandemics affected your enrollment.
Karyn: Yes, it’s, it’s funny. I think, I mean, we’ve had the steady growth and it feels like with the pandemic, it continued to be a steady growth. So it’s, it’s certainly if anything, it’s positively impacted the school, but I did see a huge spike. We’ve had a steady, increased interest every year. What’s interesting to me is I think in the midst of the pandemic people almost sheltered in place, like they just kind of went with what they knew and now is when we’re seeing more mid-year transfers and stuff, which is really interesting to me. So now it’s when people are going back into school that they’re realizing, Ooh, this is not working well for us. It’s like people want it to stick with what they had and wait it out and hope that it did. And now is when people are like, it’s not working. So it’s almost like a delayed piece that is, is interesting. And I think it’s a couple of things and actually I just wrote a blog on it about what we’re seeing in terms that’s impacting kids as a result of the pandemic and one, we all know the mental health aspect of it. We, the instance of anxiety in kids is skyrocketed. And there are so many kids who just aren’t in school right now. They’re literally at home and their parents don’t know what to do. And So mental health issues have skyrocketed, school avoidance has skyrocketed and our mental health clinicians are inundated. They all have wait lists. There are these school refusal programs that are popping up, but I’m thinking if a kid can’t attend school, how are you going to get them to the school refusal program? I’m not really sure how that works, but it’s and then we’ll see to the loss of learning. So you see kiddos that I mean, however people did it. Most kids did not learn the way they learn in person remotely. There are some kids who do, there’s a minority of kids who love virtual and thrived in virtual, but most kids just didn’t get a lot out of it. And so once we move forward, the kids go back and school it’s like in a mainstream setting, they just hit the ground running and it’s okay, we’re moving on. And there’s remediation that needs to happen, because there’s, these kids have skills they haven’t played. And you see it at all levels. Like you see first and second graders that don’t get basic how to follow directions, to high schoolers who I really didn’t master this math. So me being elevated to the next math level is not really working for me. And so that’s where I feel like the mastery based learning concept is so beautiful because. We assess where you are in your learning. We fill in the gaps and you move forward at your own pace. So it’s just, you are where you are and then you move forward. And I just feel like that’s a model that we need to embrace for all of our kids. Because kids don’t learn at the same rate. And even within one kid will get a math concept quite quickly. Another one they’ll have to spend more time on it. And so the model really works toward how learning works.
Aubrey: Thank you so much for sharing. I think that concept can be so helpful to children, especially now. Always yes, but especially now, as we’re seeing so many of the trends you mentioned and the remediation that needs to happen because people are just it’s all been disjointed up until this point, in terms of the learning and what’s happening and everything like that. And the social emotional piece is huge. So I appreciate you bringing that up. In addition, you’re not the only school, especially the small schools that are seeing that influx of students mid-year. It’s very interesting. That kind of delay, like you said, like it was a delay and then now people are saying, that really wasn’t what we wanted. And now we’ve discovered that, it’s, we want something a little different for our child or our student or child needs something a little different. So thank you for bringing that up because I know you’re not alone in that. So I’m curious, now that your school is quite established and you’re seeing that steady enrollment moving forward, how are you engaging your parents in the marketing effort? Do you have like parent marketing committees? Are you doing referral programs? I’m curious because your school is small, but growing steadily.
Karyn: That’s a very good question. It’s been largely informal. I’ve done things like we’ve had, this year we had what were called open houses. So we had a fall one and a winter one, and we’ll have a spring one, and those were really effective. We used to have monthly in-person information sessions where people could visit the school, get a tour, I would talk to them, students would talk to them. With, with COVID still being present I just didn’t want a lot of people going through the school while kids were there. So we created these open houses, they’re on a weekend. And I asked for parents, students, and staff volunteers to staff them. So prospective families could come in. Get a tour of the school and chat with current parents and students, and that’s been really effective. And sometimes our kids are our brightest stars, so they give tours and describe the school and parents see who the students are that are here and how they’re interacting with them. And that’s a huge selling point. And kids organically will just talk about their experience and why they love being here. And so that’s obviously a huge selling point. And with parents, I’m trying to think of other things we do with parents. We’ll do things like, I actually just recently asked some of my parents to write what it’s been like to be a Sycamore school parent. So doing blogs, but from the parents’ perspective. And we’re always looking at different creative ways on how to involve them. So it’s it’s an ongoing process. And even it’s been suggested that like I have parents offer virtual information sessions each month and it’s been suggested, have a parent join the session. I have students who join and that’s super effective too. And the people who attend, always say the students are the highlight of the session. So it’s bringing other parties in. So that parents get a variety of perspectives around the school.
Tara: Yeah. Being able to put a name and a face to the school is, it’s always helpful, as you said, word of mouth is helpful, but having that direct relationship and seeing it, envisioning your child in a school, when you see other kids there that seem like your child or that appeal to you is great. So good job with that. I’m going to ask you a little bit about mindfulness because the podcast has the name mindfulness in it. And we talk about because Aubrey and I both love the concept of mindfulness and applying it to our work and our and our personal lives. So I want ask you a little bit about that combination and what mindfulness means to you and how you’ve applied it to your job, running the school, and combining that with your own personal life. And I know, since you have a business, as a business owner we don’t ever leave. There never isn’t a never ending list of things to do. And you can’t tell your boss that you need the day off. You have to tell yourself that you need the day off. So talk a little bit about how you feel about mindfulness, what you think about it and how it applies to them.
Karyn: So I feel like mindfulness is being fully present in the moment and whatever you’re doing. So I’m speaking to you now and I’m fully present, I’m not thinking about what I have to do later today, or my grocery list or a kid at school. I’m focused on the moment and having a conversation with you and that takes practice. And so, and kindness. Self-kindness so I have to, if I catch myself wandering or if I catch myself, distracted by something, reminding myself to come back and be present. And so it’s, and it’s something that is woven into our schools. So we have a movement of mindfulness class and we have mindfulness strategies that we use with our students. And so it’s that idea of being self-aware. And so when you find yourself drifting off tasks, if you find yourself not participating to be able to bring yourself back and be fully present. And that’s why we have two full-time counselors too, because sometimes kiddos are anxious or angry or tired or hungry, and they can’t be present in the class. So it’s recognizing that in ourselves and saying, Hey, I need to get some support or I need to solve that problem so I can focus on my learning. So I think it’s a really foundational concept and it’s a life skill and everybody- what’s interesting is I brought in a lot of, I brought in several speakers to work on, incorporating mindfulness across the curriculum with my staff. And in every case it’s actually been more about each staff member cultivating their own mindfulness practice because you can’t teach somebody else something if you’re not doing it yourself first. And the teachers actually love it because so much of the time they’re not attending to themselves. They’re attending to their kids if they’re attending what they need to get done. And so giving staff permission to self care is super important. And so that, going into how I use it is I have learned in terms of, instead of having strict work and home boundaries, being able to integrate that. It’s okay if I need to take a day off school to go see my daughter at college, it’s okay if I need to do doctor’s appointments during the school day, because I know that there’s so many times I’m at home and I’m doing work. And so it’s figuring out, when do I need to be present at work? And when can I attend to other things, even though I’m at the school. And so it’s saying that’s okay. That’s okay. You’re not, it’s- I remember talking with staff about. We’re talking about staff community and getting to know people and they’re like, oh, but when I’m on the clock, I feel like I have to do work. And I’m like, getting to know each other is essential. So allowing themselves to cultivate relationships with other staff, to take a moment to talk to people, that’s just important, as important as your lesson plans, because it’s part of establishing a positive community. And it’s getting rid of that- I think there’s so much resentment sometimes with people like, oh, I have to take work home. And that’s so horrible. And I’ve actually learned to really enjoy it. I sometimes, you know, at home I can focus better. I can do it on my own terms. I don’t have to rush. And so it’s just, I’ve gotten rid of that resentment. And instead it’s it’s freeing to be able to do my, work at home. Now. I have teenage and adult kids. I don’t have, I don’t have toddlers to take care of. So that’s a luxury I have, is that I do have time at home that I can dedicate to work, but I’ve actually found it quite freeing to be able to, to meld them together instead of having strict boundaries.
Tara: Yeah, I get that. And that’s good leadership that you’re, that you are displaying in your school too, is leading by example with that too. I think there’s this, there’s a buzz phrase- I get to, instead of, I have to, right? I get to take work home because, in times past you, maybe couldn’t because you didn’t have all of the resources that you have at your fingertips on your computer when you’re at home. So there is some of that. Yeah. I appreciate your sharing that.
Aubrey: And I appreciate the mindfulness as a life skill. As I have one of my children who does have anxiety, I think that’s a life skill that I would like him to be able to develop. And it’s so important and it impacts every kind of aspect of our life and being present is so challenging sometimes. So the more we practice it, the better. So I appreciate you bringing that to light and also redefining, what works for you and giving yourself permission to do that. So often we think things have to be a certain way, but if we just say, what’s the way that works for us best and not holding onto the other expectations of others is really important. So thank you very much for bringing to the forefront today. I’d like to switch gears a bit and ask you some questions that we ask all our guests. So what are the most important things you do to grow personally and professionally?
Karyn: Being curious. I think is important and being open-minded. So I tend to have strong opinions about things and I have a pretty strong personality. So again, part of being mindful is stopping myself and instead asking more questions and recognizing that most of us, when we’re presented with a new idea or something different than what we were thinking, our knee jerk reaction is to be like, no. And instead to suspend that and instead to just think about it.
Karyn: And so there’s been so many times when an idea has been presented to me or somebody’s come up with something. And my knee-jerk reaction is no, but if I sit with it, I start to soften and think about it and then I might end up embracing it. So that’s something I feel like I have to learn again with myself. Like I, example, is I asked staff how administration could be more supportive and what we could do to support them. And they came up with all these great ideas. And my initial reaction was to argue with them. So I’ve asked them for these ideas and then I want to argue about it. And I realized what I was doing. And I was like let’s you just described to me this we’re going to give it a week. And then by the time that week was passed, we came back and I was like, I can do this and I can do this and I can do this and I can do this. And the staff were like, whoa, you listened to us. I was like, yes, I did. But it took me a week. So it’s things like that.
Tara: Yeah. That’s interesting. I think about that too. Cause I also, I apply that to defensiveness. So even if you ask, you’re going to take a suggestion as something like, Ooh, I’m not doing that. So you’re defensive. So your natural reaction is to, to defend yourself. And I do that as well. And it is hard. Sometimes you have to eat your words, right? And go back and be like, actually I didn’t mean to say no.
Karyn: Exactly. And I’ve learned that too, to be able, I say that with kids, but I also see that with fellow staff to be able to say, I made a mistake, or I really shouldn’t have said anything. I asked you guys to give me feedback. So I’m learning how to hear you, so it’s being transparent about. When you make a mistake and that can be again, staff or kids can be really appreciative to that and actually respect you more for sharing that vulnerability.
Tara: Yeah. I love that. Okay. Speaking of vulnerability we’re going to take a cue from Brene Brown and do some rapid fire questions. So if you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be?
Karyn: There are a lot, but I really liked the book, the Hate You Give, which was also a movie. I’ve read that a couple of summers ago and I just find it a really powerful and necessary book. I also would say the Book Thief, those two.
Aubrey: Thank you. I’m excited to add them to our reading list. Okay. Next one. What is one app you couldn’t live without?
Karyn: Well In this era, Zoom, if you call Zoom an app. Yeah, I would say Zoom is number one. Also for very different reasons. And again, I guess it’s an app, Spotify. I listen to all my music and have been able to compile it and sort it. And my kids share music. So I feel like if that ever goes away, I’ve lost my whole music history. And to me, music is again, mindfulness. That’s one of the ways I find joy is listening to music.
Tara: Yeah. I love Spotify too. Okay. Next question. What are you reading right now?
Karyn: I just had it with me, this, I just finished reading it. I’m going to plug. So it’s Felix Ever After, and it’s a young adult book about a teen who’s transgender. And it’s a wonderful read. My daughter read it first. I had it at home. I have all these books at home and whenever my daughter comes home, I’m like read these. I think they’re good. And she read it. She was like, mom, you got to read it. So I just finished it and it’s awesome. And really just. I think speaks to a lot of issues that, that sometimes we don’t fully understand, but need to understand about what our teens are going through so.
Aubrey: Yeah. Thank you for sharing. What is one great piece of advice you’d like to leave us with?
Karyn: I think at least once in your life. Go for it, take a risk, do something out of your comfort zone. Go for it. So like for me, I never, in a million years, would’ve thought I would’ve started a school. And the first couple of times it was suggested to me, I was like, no way, that’s a ton of work. But, it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. So I think that we have to give ourselves permission and the freedom to do something that feels risky or feels out of your comfort zone. And I think a lot of times the benefits are exponential, so go for it.
Tara: Great advice, great advice. And it’s been a joy to be your friend as you’ve gone through this process. And I really just admire you so much for all you’ve accomplished so far and can’t wait to see where you go from here, Karyn. Thanks for joining us on the podcast. Where can people find you online?
Karyn: So I would say the easiest is to go to the SycamoreSchool.org. So if you look up the Sycamore school in Arlington, Virginia that’s our website, it gives my contact information and it gives a lot of cool info about the school and a lot of cool blog posts. So for parents or people who are just interested in a lot of the different things we go through as parents, there’s a lot of neat blogs there.
Tara: Great. Thank you. Thanks again, Karyn, we really appreciate you being here.
Karyn: My pleasure.
Tara: Okay. Bye-bye.