Director of Enrollment Management
All Saints’ Episcopal School (Fort Worth, TX)
As we all prepare for the most critical time of the admission season, it is a great opportunity to evaluate current retention practices and to remind ourselves of the importance of “cultivating affirmation” with our families as to why they chose to join our school. We should never take any family’s commitment to our schools for granted, especially given the current economic landscape that has adversely affected the ability of many to afford the cost of attendance at an independent school. This, coupled with the saturation of the marketplace in terms of educational options, makes it critically important to continue to illustrate a value added component to what we are offering. In short, we are better positioned if we investigate all opportunities that will serve as “affirmation” for families regarding why they choose our school in the first place.
Moreover, as you work with families through the re-enrollment period, do consider the negative impact a disgruntled family has on the culture of your school—it is often significant. Therefore, facilitating connections between those families and the school will yield better results than simply writing them off. Moreover, creating a culture of awareness will foster a greater level of communication, thus putting your team in a position to be more proactive with your retention practices.
With that being said, consider the following as the foundation for your retention program:
1. Build Networks
Parents—You can never have too many ambassadors! Your parent ambassador program should extend beyond volunteerism and outreach to prospective families. Inspire this group to be your “soldiers” on the ground and arm them with the information and resources they need to identify potential attrition risks.
Faculty—Find time (both scheduled and not) to engage your faculty in conversations about retention. Schedule “Coffee & Conversation” events designed to elicit feedback regarding their classroom experiences as well as establishing a working relationship with the admission team.
Students—Student lunches are a fantastic way to solicit feedback from both new and returning students about their experience as well as learn about potential attrition risks—you will be surprised to learn how much the students know and are willing to share!
Alumni—They are your “outcomes.” Who can speak to the power of your program better than this group?
2. Coordinate “Student Celebration”
Independent schools do a fantastic job of communicating with families. However, consider the impact a note to a family (describing something the student has done that ultimately makes the school a better place) from a teacher who does not teach their son or daughter can have (and not only when something good or bad has occurred academically). Coordinating a school wide effort during the re-enrollment period can be time consuming, but the results can be significant for the culture of the school.
3. Schedule Parent Socials
Find opportunities to gather your parents together without an agenda. Creating opportunities for families to join in celebration of your school, as well as an opportunity to simply “socialize,” can pay dividends long-term. Determine what resources (time & money) you can allocate for these events, but “thank” your families for entrusting you with the education of their child(ren).
4. Offer a “Sneak Peek” or “Look Ahead” Event
Plan an event that invites all current families to “pull back the curtain” and experience all the exciting things going on at your school. This is not a “staged” event like an open house. It is a coordinated day that gives families the freedom to spend as much—or as little—time on campus visiting as many—or as few—classes as they would like. This event showcases the dynamic and inspiring faculty as well as the innovative programs being offered. Most of all, it sends a great message to the community.
For example, by encouraging a family of a first grader to experience what the Middle School math class is doing you are facilitating a “looking ahead” mindset as well as providing the ability for your families to speak first-hand about the school, thus enhancing your word-of-mouth marketing effort.
5. State of School
Much like the purpose of the State of the Union, a State of the School should be a time each year to formally “update” our constituents on the current and future happenings at the school. A letter can work, but a morning or evening event can have a positive impact, especially if attention to detail is paid. Above all, this event should provide those in attendance with information and an outlook for the school they could not receive elsewhere.
6. Retention Task Force (RTF)
Whether you have a RTF for each division or just one for the entire school, invite faculty members to participate in the retention process and use the RTF as an opportunity to gather feedback about students as well as discuss strategies that can be implemented. The RTF should also be used as a vehicle for information sharing. You will immediately find that this group will disseminate what is discussed (when appropriate) in a manner that can be critically important when those “retention moments” surface.
7. Transition Grade(s) Event(s)
Whether you do a “step-up” day, hold information coffees, or offer a “preview night,” an opportunity to showcase what’s ahead for the families in the transition grades is an important retention tool. Simply put, every current family should be afforded the opportunity to experience what the next step in the journey entails . Above all, they should leave the event knowing they cannot find the same educational experience elsewhere.
8. Celebrate Birthdays
Ensuring each and every student gets a signed birthday card will undoubtedly take some coordination. Having said this, the message it sends about “community” to your current families is a powerful one. Additionally, this is the greatest opportunity to recognize each and every student.
9. Solicit Feedback
An annual survey, a series of focus groups, and informal conversation are great ways to keep your current families plugged in while also illustrating that their feedback is not only necessary, but encouraged. Beyond the actual feedback you receive (because measuring satisfaction is critical), these forms of outreach always help perpetuate a close-knit community.
As your team builds your retention program, the following should be considered:
- Though the ultimate goal is to retain each and every mission appropriate family, the focus of your retention program should be to “save” one family who would have otherwise become an attrition statistic had the program not strengthened their connection to the school. Start small and build some momentum.
- The relevance of your school’s “Why” has never been more important. Continue to identify individual connections between it and the families enrolled, while continuing to build awareness with all your constituencies.
- Be mindful of the re-enrollment process at your school (and the hidden or unspoken messages the process sends). Simply put, each school should consider all options, from paper to online and from annual to perpetual. Find a process that fits seamlessly with your community and philosophy.
This is an exciting time of year and a great opportunity to build momentum, celebrate all that makes your community so special, and engage those who have illustrated their support. Go beyond keeping your current families enrolled, affirm their initial decision and keep them both connected and engaged!