Idyllwild Arts: Reimagine

Published : Tuesday, September 19, 2017 | 1:10 PM

“Millennials like me—though I’m actually an Xennial: born between 1977 and 1983—have different perspectives and values from previous generations. We often don’t see the value of independent schools.”

Kawai Lai’s hair-splitting aside hinted at her research-driven approach to promoting innovation among independent schools like Idyllwild Arts Academy. Her presentation last month to faculty and staff at the Academy’s “Education Summit” on the future of independent schools was full of uncomfortable truths, but also of hope.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Dallas, Kawai’s mechanical engineering B.S. and UC Berkeley M.B.A. seem appropriate for a career different from the one she has with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). Yet she’s passionate about working in the NAIS “Innovation Kitchen”, which is helping independent schools attack some stern challenges. She visits schools around the country to assure them that they don’t need to remain passive as the world changes and old business models for schools become untenable.

Millennials are roughly twenty to forty years old. They make up the generation of parents on whom independent schools will depend for the next couple decades.

“They’re sold on college education,” Kawai says, “but expect their children to be saddled with huge college debts. So they’re reluctant to pile on private-school debts, especially since public schools have been focused on improving college-preparation.”

Her ominous data from studies of independent-school decline are countered by other studies.

“Our Innovation Kitchen helps schools reimagine themselves. Maybe school X can reimagine a successful future by borrowing what school Y is already doing. Visiting schools is valuable because there are plenty of inspiring success stories to share.”

Does the Academy need to reimagine itself?

She won’t claim expert knowledge about us.

“But you’re ready if you decide that you do: artists are natural innovators!”


Idyllwild Arts, 52500 Temecula Road, Idyllwild, CA 92549-0038, (951) 659-2171 or visit





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