You got the students. Now how do you keep them?
A three-pronged prescription for private school retention post-pandemic
[ I write this hoping that the words “post-pandemic” will actually be a thing someday. I always like to focus on the positive, so we’ll go with it for now. ]
According to a recent article in EdWeek, generally speaking, private schools saw an increase in student populations in the fall of 2020. After many failed online learning experiments, disgruntled and exhausted parents frantically looked for a way to keep their children on a path to educational success.
“In a survey released Aug. 3 by the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, 22 percent of respondents with K-12 students said they would change schools for the 2020-21 school year… of those who reported a school switch, 28 percent said the change is ‘somewhat’ or ‘very much’ influenced by experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.”“Public Schools Catch Parents’ Eye as Public School Buildings Stay Shut” by Evie Blad, EdWeek, August 6, 2020.
Suddenly, schools that had not enjoyed the comfort of a waiting list for years were suddenly bursting at the seams with new admissions while simultaneously working feverishly to create a hybrid learning environment for the coming school year that would put parents’ and teachers’ expectations at ease. These expectations included small class sizes (hard to accomplish when you have full classes), individualized learning plans (even harder for teachers who have one-third more students in their class and can only come within 4 feet of them), and options that would fulfill online and in-person learning outcomes with equal rigor and consideration.
For some families, this fall became the first time, outside of daycare, they paid “extra” for educating their children. The value of a stretched dollar now has even more importance tied to it, and families are eagerly awaiting to see if the product they’re paying for—that private schools have always insisted is better—is worth it. No pressure. Here are 3 tips to make their enrollments last.
Though the feeling is relentless and feels insurmountable at times, it’s not new. Speaking from experience, literally every time I have to start a new design, I am overcome with fear. Fear that I won’t be original. Fear that I’ve simply run out of good ideas. Fear that they hired the wrong person to do the job. Fear that I’m just winging it and have no right to call myself a designer in the first place and soon everyone is going to discover the hack that I’ve always secretly known myself to be. Sheesh! That’s a lot to get over. Then I have to take a breath, and remind myself that this feeling is oddly familiar. And, hey, I have made some pretty good stuff in my past (in fact, some of it has won some awards, gosh darn-it). And finally, the people who hired me have put their trust in my hands, not their lives. Which leads me to my next tip:
It’s a precarious balancing act. How do you keep improving a relatively new style of hybrid education with thoughtful intention while also making sure parents know that you’re nailing it? (Or, at least doing better than your competitors.) During my three years as Marketing Director for an independent school, I realized the school’s greatest referral audience is its current families, and its greatest advertisers are its classrooms. Not the rooms, per se, but what happens inside of them.
With much of the employed nation still working from home, they are taking their due breaks from the onslaught of Zoom meetings. During this time, social media has amplified its role as a quick and easy brain break. Use that to your advantage and get your teachers to help. Though they are juggling additional students and an in-person as well as an online persona, much of the work their students will be doing will be independent. Remind teachers that when they can’t sit next to little Tamira, they can at least take a picture of her working. Make it easy. Create a Google Drive folder with the week as its name, and subfolders with grades or divisions, share it with your entire faculty/coach/student council community, and ask that they share at least one photo a week. If, in my experience, you only get 20 percent contributing, you’ll still have enough to work with and remind parents of the unique and innovative program their children are enjoying while in your school’s experienced hands. Bonus: Some prospective families, already fatigued by this year’s public school challenges, will be trolling your social media accounts to see what the alternatives are doing.
2 Be the leader you know you are and start telling the world.
Become a thought leader. Encourage your head of school and/or Board Chair to write editorials for the local newspapers. Get the Parents’ Association to partner with local child-development authorities to offer webinars to help families navigate their children’s futures and mental health during these times. Think social workers, pediatricians, learning development experts—all can offer useful knowledge to your families that will increase the value of what their student is already receiving in the classroom. Plus, the businesses get exposure to potential customers in return. Use your social media channels to spread useful advice from the experts. One parent told me an article I had posted from the New York Times when the pandemic hit that advised families on how to keep a routine for their children during online school was instrumental to their child’s success and their sanity.
3 Six of one, half a dozen of the other—give or take.
Indexed or discounted tuition is not a new concept for private schools who have struggled for years to maintain financial sustainability. Based on a family’s income, schools may have adopted a model that discounts the tuition in exchanged for a bright, willing student to join the ranks and fill the seat. Consider a similar option for enrolled families: A tuition freeze, or a sustainable discount over the course of their enrollment (think: even a sort-of-high tide raises all ships) can do wonders fro retainment.
Your families will have enjoyed a year of hands-on, individualized learning for their children. They’ll be so proud of their children’s progress, they will want to continue this. Seal the deal by making it financially palatable.
Now, this may not seem sustainable as cost of living increases keep happening and teachers still appreciate raises, but think about what a full school will do for your brand image in the long run! Suddenly, you are now the school to be in, with excellent academics and programming, and—more important—happy families who see you as the considerate partner in their family’s educational (and financial) wellbeing.
While there’s never a one-size-fits all solution to student retention, for the most part, reminding families that the investment they are making in their children will lay the groundwork for their success in life is an emotionally compelling argument for private schools to make. With the future economy even more uncertain, having a good education under its belt will only help this next generation make the smart decisions required for personal and national success.