Jeff Escabar From the Classroom to the Boardroom

If you know Jeff Escabar, you know that one of his many great qualities is his sense of humor. He will tell you that it’s been an important factor in the longevity of his professional career in independent schools. Over the years, his sense of humor, experience and desire to learn has served him well with students, families and colleagues.  

By Sally Benford 

Now Head of School at Marin Preparatory School in San Francisco, Jeff Escabar has spent his entire career in education, beginning in the classroom and moving into admission and, finally, administration. He knows a thing or two about independent schools and the admission profession having spent 36 years at Marin Country Day School—14 in the classroom and 22 in the admission office.

Escabar’s transition from teaching to admission was anything but normal. After 14 years at the school, he left teaching to buy a restaurant—an International House of Pancakes. Shortly after, the head of school at Marin approached him to work in the admission office on a part-time basis, and he accepted. Eventually, the school needed him there full-time, so he worked in admissions by day, and kept the restaurant running for the next 22 years, with the help of a good manager. For Escabar, it was a matter of on-the-job training for both the restaurant and admissions. He says he had the help of great mentors along the way.

Keys to success

He’s been an AISAP board member for seven years and will end his term next month. Over the time he’s served, he’s seen a lot of changes in the profession, and thinks the future is bright. Acknowledging that it’s still an accidental profession, he says that’s changing through organizations like AISAP.

AISAP is really working to elevate the profession,” Escabar says.

For him, the key now for admission directors is that AISAP has standards and competencies for the profession. He says it’s important for admission directors to take a look at those to assess their personal strengths and weaknesses. He explains that being an admission professional takes a combination of skills: marketing, public speaking, and education, among others.

For any admission professional, the first year or two is a learning curve. I practiced the craft for 22 years, and I would tell them to certainly avail themselves of everything that AISAP has to offer. There are a lot of resources out there—the certification program, the webinars, the member resources, read the articles and definitely attend the Annual Institute,” says Escabar.

These are all the things that are required to do this job well and admission directors need to say to themselves, ‘Here’s where I’m strong, but here is where I’m not too strong.’ Then they need to go to AISAP to find what they need to do to improve their skills. There really is not an admission or enrollment question that comes up that can’t be answered by someone affiliated with AISAP,” he says.

Another thing that has helped Escabar: humor.

I used humor in teaching and that came in really handy in my admission process with parents because they’re so incredibly nervous, so I would use humor to calm them down—especially with kindergarten parents because that’s the first time someone can tell them “no” with regard to their child,” he says.

He often tells new admission directors that they will say “no” much more often than they will say “yes.” He explains that it’s really important to follow up with the families who aren’t admitted to help them get their child into another school. He says that if admission directors take time to do that, the family will still feel good about the school. He believes it’s the right thing to do and it helps the school’s reputation.

Another tricky transition

Five years ago, Marin Preparatory School approached Escabar to interview for a Head of School position. He was hired, and had a very auspicious first day when he started just before the Fourth of July holiday. As he pulled up to the school, he saw 15 or 20 people milling around the sidewalk in front of the school wailing and crying. Wondering what was happening, he quickly realized that a hospice patient from the facility next door had passed away and family members were mourning around the gurney as they waited for the funeral home. Being alone because everyone else from the school was on holiday, he called a good friend and told her that the school was right across the street from a Catholic church and hospice, asking her if she thought what had happened “was an omen.

She told me I’d better go to Mass, but I went for coffee,” he says, laughing.

The transition from admission to head of school is non-traditional, but it’s worked for Escabar. When he started, the school served Pre-K through third grade. Next year, the school will offer grade 8 for the first time, more than tripling its student population.

Getting involved in your school

Escabar believes it’s important for admission directors to have a seat at the table with the administrative team. He says that they should know about the aspects of how their school functions and be able to work with administration, particularly when it comes to finance.

When they’re talking finance, if [admission directors] are successful at hitting their numbers, they’re the biggest revenue generators for a school. It's important for them to know what the division heads and the head of school are talking about, so if a question comes up, they’ll know how to answer it. For example, if a new math curriculum is chosen, they might know that, but to know why it was chosen and to have that knowledge when talking to a parent is powerful,” says Escabar.

He says that if that isn’t happening, he advises admission professionals to speak with their head of school to tell them that they would like to be involved with the administrative team and explain why. It’s also a good idea to be involved with the development director because at the end of the day, it’s a team effort to find the best fit for the family and the school.

Escabar plans to continue working for several years, which means he’ll be in education for more than 45 years, working with thousands of students and families over his career. He acknowledges that he has experienced many challenges—and many victories—along the way.

In this profession, you really need to keep your sense of humor. It is a stressful job, but there’s a great deal of joy. It’s not an easy job, but it’s really a fulfilling job. The kids are the best part.”