With so much up in the air for the fall, private and independent schools are faced with creating not only a plan A, but a plan B and C to set themselves up for success no matter what this fall looks like.
In our webinar Virtual Fireside Chat with Enrollment Leaders, three experts from schools all over the country shared some of the ways they’re planning and preparing for the summer and fall.
Not only are they continuing to recruit families virtually, but they’ve also managed to take this opportunity to add tools to their tool belts and discover new ways of doing things that they will continue to use many years down the road.
Here are the ways these schools are engaging with families now, thinking through shadow days, and recruiting for the fall.
Meet the experts
- Jill Hutchins: Associate Head of School for Enrollment, Dublin School
- Geordie Mitchell: Incoming Assistant Head of School for Enrollment Management, La Jolla Country Day School
- John Barrengos: Director of Admission & Financial Aid, The Putney School
Recruiting Students Virtually: Engaging New Families
What are your plans for engaging new families virtually throughout your main recruitment season? How do you move them through the admissions funnel efficiently if they’re not allowed on campus?
Geordie: The good news is most of us have already moved to an online process. We’ve learned each time we’ve done a virtual event what works and what doesn’t. It’s actually much easier to make information available for every grade and all trajectories virtually than it was in person. We hosted a yield event where we talked about upper school academic programs and we invited lower school parents. We’re going to take the best of having to move virtual and continue to incorporate that into our practice.
I’m going to continue to do evening virtual panels so families can learn more about my school in a more convenient way. We can even record those events and make them available online. We are learning lessons that will pay off and be more convenient for many of our families. We’re going to keep doing virtual events, keep being iterative, keep asking for feedback and keep learning from our mistakes. And at the end of the day, all of us will have new tools to use in this process that we didn’t even think to use before.
Jill: I’ve learned as a leader of this office that you have to get excited about the new opportunities. We just had a meeting about the fall, because the reality is even if we have students on campus, we’re probably not going to be welcoming visitors. We have to think about how we can carry out recruitment and visits in new ways, like getting fancy equipment and having students do great tours. You have to get excited about the possibilities. I’ve learned so much and found opportunities that I didn’t even think about before that we won’t ever let go of now. If you’re leading an enrollment team, you have to get them excited about it too.
John: One thing we haven’t had to face yet that will be really important is how we’ll bring in new kids and families in the fall and create our school culture. The kids are huge drivers of community and culture, and I’m sure they will be even if it’s virtual. So far we’ve only had to deal with preexisting relationships and a culture that was already created. There was already a preexisting relationship and a foundation to build on.
I trust that we will experiment as we go and we’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. But when I think about the fall I think about the vulnerability of our newest students. I want to take care of them and have a good embrace for them until they get their feet underneath them. And if we are stuck remotely for much of the fall, I wonder how we will do that virtually.
Recruiting Virtually: Parent Ambassadors and Shadow Days
Is there anything you can speak to around the mechanics of your parent ambassador programs? How do you engage with current parents? At what point in the process do you engage them? How do you connect people?
Jill: We actually have a template in SchoolAdmin. That way we have a list of parents that have already said they would be happy to be an ambassador or be involved. We can have our parent ambassadors reach out to prospective families. Our parents love it and I think it helps with retention as well. Because it makes them feel like they’re really part of our school.
Geordie: There needs to be a great amount of intentionality around this. You want to cherry-pick your parents and train them. The information we get back from our ambassadors can help us better our school. We have wonderful relationships with a group of parents who will tell us what they think about our math program or other specific aspects of the school compared to other ones. An ambassador program is a two-way information conduit. Once you’ve established trust and that relationship it benefits your office and your school in ways that I didn’t realize or appreciate when I simply saw it as a marketing technique.
John: With bigger ambassador programs you need to make sure you have the right parents involved. We don’t have an elaborate ambassador program. We do things case by case because we know each of the families. One of the things that we’re able to do now is to use virtual programming. That allows us to use different tools for particular instances. We can use different videos for incoming students to create a personalized experience.
One thing I do is have a conversation with the parents at the beginning of the process. I let them know there are five roads we will explore, there’s some targeted for parents and others for the student. Then I ask which areas would be most useful for them to hear about. That way, they’re influencing the sequence of some communications and are more a part of things. It also meshes their expectations around their agency in the process. We invite them in to help their experience. We set expectations and clarify what they’re going to see throughout this process.
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What are your plans for shadow days? (Assuming things are remote for at least a portion of the fall.)
John: We’re still going to do them. They’re not going to feel like the shadow days of before. Now a student may connect with and shadow the experience of a couple of students over the course of a few days. We found that having kids sit in on classes worked well in the virtual arena. There’s no need for them to be there for 45 minutes the way we used to do it. Instead, we increase the contact as much as everyone will tolerate because that gives them the clearest sense of what our school is like.
Geordie: One of the challenges with in-person shadow days is that when a child comes to visit, we do our best to match them with a student with whom we think they’re going to get along with. We pair them with one student and they visit all of that student’s classes. But when we do shadow days virtually, we can make sure students get to visit the exact science, world language, and English sections they’re most interested in. That’s very difficult and near impossible when we assign them to one specific guide. Even though virtual shadow days are different, they give us tremendous flexibility and more of an opportunity to tailor the experience than we had in the past.
Jill: We’re gathering more information and having more conversations. We don’t just have one shot to impress a student. It’s not like when they’re on campus and we either nail it or blow it. If a student doesn’t like a class or connect with the student they were paired with, you can have them talk to another student. It’s not one and done which is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of opportunity. My big takeaway and thought is, I need a lot more information. I need to have Zoom conversations with the students that aren’t an interview so I can really collect and gather information and understand them better so I know who to connect them with.
John: The generation of students that we’re dealing with are digital natives. They were already living in this world long before we were. This transition and experience has increased everybody’s comfort level and ability with the technology we’re all using. In some ways, this will be easier than when we had to completely change the way we do things on a dime. It’s going to be easier because both sides now have experience with virtual events and technology. They realize they might not be able to walk through the classrooms at a school in person, but virtually they can. And they’ve been learning that way now for the last several months. So they can still gain something really valuable from this experience.
Recruiting Virtually: Reaching More Families
How are you planning to recruit students for the Fall?
Jill: We’re all in the same boat. I know I’m not supposed to say that, but it’s true. We’re all dealing with a similar situation. When I think about fall travel and recruiting, I’m going to be looking at other schools to see how we can get ourselves out there virtually. We’re not going to have travel seasons like we’ve had in the past. We’re not going to be able to visit a bunch of schools or have people visit us. So we have to get creative. We have to think about marketing differently. There’s a lot to do, and I think it’s really important to do it with others.
John: Jill and I are talking about configuring a virtual school fair. You’ve probably attended a school fair that was a little frustrating. Maybe you weren’t crazy about which table you were placed at. Maybe you didn’t like its visibility or traffic, or who you were sitting next to. With a virtual fair, you can design your ideal fair. You can have a fair with your favorite schools and the schools that position you the best. Schools are starting to get the hang of this and if we’re remote next year, that’s what people are going to be doing.
Jill: It’s cost-effective as well.
Seizing Every Opportunity
These panelists made it clear that they see a lot of opportunity in the coming months. We’ve all gone through a crash course on doing things virtually. We’re now well trained in the technology that our kids and students have always been comfortable with. This change, though stressful and difficult, has created a lot of opportunities to run events and admissions better.
We can now reach out and host events in a more personalized way than before. You can have more frequent interactions through a plethora of mediums. Each of these smaller interactions will keep things fresh and alive throughout the admission season. Additionally, you can do things very cost-effectively at scale with a community that is more engaged right now and wanting to help and contribute than ever before.
To hear more from these schools on their approach to the fall, getting the budget needed, and how to get the backing and support of their CFO’s, watch the full webinar. Or learn more about how these experts are responding to changes and repositioning their school.
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