When Bryan Fleming began his master’s program, he came across some research that led him to his future as an admission and enrollment management professional—a future that began with a singular burning question. By Sally Benford
Bryan Fleming has always loved music and, when he was younger, he expected to turn his passion for music into a lifelong career—one that he could build on throughout the years. He started as a music teacher in the Albuquerque Public Schools after graduating from University of New Mexico with a degree in Music Education and a minor in Trombone performance. He taught music for several years at Albuquerque Academy, a coeducational day school, before moving to Hopkins, Minnesota, where he accepted a director of bands position at a junior high school. During those years in Albuquerque and Hopkins, Fleming envisioned his future self as a college band conductor. But in 1999, when he attended an education conference on differentiated learning models, everything changed. He calls it his “pivotal moment.”
It was during that conference that Fleming had an epiphany. He began to ask the question: “Why is it that kids who display giftedness in non-traditional ways aren’t being selected for gifted and talented programs in schools?” That “epiphany” question became the subject of his master’s thesis and shifted his professional journey from a position as a junior high band director in Hopkins, Minnesota, to a career in admission and enrollment.
Fleming earned his master’s degree in Education Administration with an emphasis in gifted and talented education from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, and during that time, he knew he needed to make a change. To do that, he contacted a mentor of his from Albuquerque Academy—Bob Bovinette, a then-board member for Carney Sandoe and Associates. Bovinette suggested that Fleming update his resume and attend an upcoming job fair in Washington, D.C. The advice was serendipitous. While Fleming was at the event—halfway across the country—he met a hiring manager from Blake School in Minneapolis, where he was living then. Initially, the school offered him a position as dean of students, but he turned the job down, feeling it wasn’t perfectly in line with his new mission. But a week later, the school contacted him to interview for a role in admissions. He says that it was a milestone moment that forever changed his life.
Fleming pursued the position because it aligned with his deep desire to affect systemic change and answer this burning question: “What can we do to make sure we are maintaining an open mind and looking for student talent that is not always exhibited in traditional ways?"
"A question I asked during the job interview with Head of School, John Gulla, was: 'Is Blake Blake because of what it does in the classroom, or because of who it accepts during the admission process?' I think it’s still an appropriate question for all independent schools to ask,” Fleming says.
All in all, he spent 14 years at Blake, the last three as the school’s Director of Admission. During that time, Fleming is most proud of leading a task force in partnership with the University of Minnesota Psychology Department to conduct a three-year study on Blake’s admission screening protocols and process.
“What we learned is that the [admission] protocols we were using at the school were very reliable and predictable. We also learned that we couldn’t rely simply on the data. So, we also took steps to observe admission candidates in authentic assessments in reading and math, and we gave them a chance to respond to new information. We then norm-referenced those results against current students at Blake, and that allowed us to broaden the funnel,” says Fleming.
The primary metric the study sought to achieve was the ability to increase the number of kids of color and, more importantly, the ability to increase the number of kids who learned differently, and who had not been exposed to a Blake curriculum—students who cut across race, socio-economics, class and learning style. Fleming says they achieved great results. He believes it’s important for schools continue to study and shift their admission processes to ensure equity and access.
“What I have seen in the independent school world is a nexus of elitism, and a lack of access and affordability. I know schools are struggling to avoid pricing themselves out of the market, as well as to remain culturally relevant,” Fleming says.
While at Blake, he made it a point to ask his team why students should want to attend Blake. Invariably, they would recite a list of the school’s features, but those weren’t the answers he was looking for. He wanted to hear about benefits and value.
“We need to think about the benefits that accrue for kids—not the features that schools offer. For example, instead of talking about low student-to-faculty ratios, curriculum and expanded programs, we need to think intentionally about how a student might establish the self-confidence and agency to navigate a diverse world because they attended a particular school,” Fleming explains.
He says that families want to be able to see who their child will become in college and in life after college. What kinds of thinkers will they be, what interests will they have, and what sorts of real-world problems might they identify and help solve?
In 2013, Fleming joined AISAP’s Board of Directors (and he continues as a board member today). The following year, he left Blake to start his own company, Fleming Education Group. These days, he and his team work with families and companies on School Advising Services in the family law arena, Learning Specialist and Tutoring Referrals and VIP School Solutions. He says he’s still in the business of serving families, which is in alignment with his core values: “Maximizing promise and potential in organizations and people, particularly children.” Fleming is also Director of Enrollment Management for Minneapolis Public Schools, a complex urban school district in the Twin Cities. His wide experience in private and public-school systems offers insight into the issues that admission and enrollment management professionals face.
Fleming believes that independent schools need to set aside time to have reflective and courageous conversations. If a school states that it values diversity, he hopes leadership asks itself “why” they believe so strongly in inclusion and diversity, and he believes those conversations need to start with Boards of Trustees. He also says that admission professionals must have the courage to speak truth to leadership.
“The admission professionals have to be courageous enough to look both externally and internally. What does the broader community think of the school? What is that community saying about the school? How do we recognize talent and embrace its various forms? And what do students of color and students who learn differently say and feel about their lived experiences at the school?” he explains.
Those questions are all variations of that important burning question from all those years ago that changed Fleming’s life. He’s still working on the answers.