While every school has a unique recipe for retention, most schools that are highly successful in their efforts share a few key practices. One key element of a good retention strategy is a clearly defined method of tracking, assessing, and following up with at-risk students. In our Retention Fireside Chat, we asked three school leaders how they manage retention efforts at their private schools and what they do for at-risk students. Here’s what they shared. 

Meet the Panelists

  • Kila McCann, Dean of Admission & Financial Aid, The Bolles School

Kila McCann recently joined The Bolles School in Florida after many years leading the enrollment team at Fountain Valley School. She has held admission and recruiting roles at Darlington School, Fulford Academy School of English Boarding Preparatory, and St. Lawrence College. 

  • Carrie Birchler, Director of Outreach Marketing, Damien High School

Carrie Birchler currently oversees outreach, marketing, and digital strategy for Damien High School in LaVerne, CA. She brings over two decades of organizational leadership in sales, marketing, and management of community development projects. Carrie has previously served as a founding member of a charter school organization.

  • Kristen Kaschub, Director of Admissions & Enrollment Management, The Darrow School

Kristen Kaschub attended Northfield Mount Hermon School, a boarding school in Western Massachusetts, and returned to the life of boarding school at The Darrow School after a career in New York City. Kristen brings an extensive marketing background, as well as both domestic and international recruitment experience, with over 20 years in the field at three different boarding schools. 

Managing Retention Efforts

Q: Who owns retention at your school? 

KylaAt every school that I’ve worked at it’s been a group effort. It’s the entire community. Everybody has an impact and everybody owns a piece of it. But the ultimate responsibility, in my experience, falls back on admissions. I’m responsible for the total enrollment revenue. If I’m going to be responsible for that number, I’m going to own it. And then I’m going to put processes in place that help to create more awareness about the importance of retaining our students.

Kristen: I do think it lands on the admissions team to continue to educate your population and your community on the importance of retention and that it includes literally everything that you do. Retention is anything from a warm, inviting, classroom setting to doing a great job running your theater program. It’s important to continue to keep your ear to the ground as a school, and as an administration, to better understand how your students feel about the programming that you put forth.

Q: How often do your retention committees meet or how often would you like them to meet in an ideal scenario?

Kyla: From my lens, it’s most realistic for our retention committee to meet once a month. Some schools may want to meet twice a month, or even more often. It depends on your school.

Kristen: It does depend on your school size and how much hand-holding your community might need or individuals may need in a given season. I’ve been at schools where retention committees meet once a week and schools where committees meet once a month. In terms of admissions, it’s something that we’re tracking and discussing within our team throughout the year.

at-risk student list

Tracking, Addressing, and Following Up With At-Risk Students

Q: How are you tracking at-risk students?

Kyla: My plan for the coming year is to put in place retention committees at all four of our campuses, with an admission director, the principals, an advisor, and the dean of students. I’d love to meet monthly and talk about the students at each level to see how we can support them to achieve their best success. And if they’re faltering, we will discuss what supports we can put into place and then track them. 

Too often schools get feedback and then there’s no action or we find out about an unhappy family, but there’s been a whole dialogue that’s happened before we find out about it. And then, we have to do some repairs. What I hope to do is head that off at the pass, starting with student success, retention teams, and talking about our students proactively. It will also help me from an admission lens to see if we did a good job in admission and if we really know a child or if we missed something. Then we’ll compile a list, assign action items, and then follow up at the next meeting to see where we are at. 

Ultimately what I want to do is end up with a retention list that’s coded by financial, social, emotional, or academic struggles. Then I can go to the head of school and the board and share how many students left for each specific reason and we can look for gaps within our own programming or things we’re missing and work to support our students better from the start. We want every family to leave being raving fans of our school. 

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Q: How do you handle families when they do decide to leave your school?

Kristen: Whatever the reason for a family leaving, I think it’s important that families get to connect with somebody that isn’t intimately involved in their reason for leaving the school. It could be somebody from the admission office, or it could be the head of school, depending upon what’s going on. You want to ask them to tell you in their own words what specifically happened so you can get really genuine feedback that they might not give in other places. It’s about fostering that relationship. 

We’ve all had people that love us, love our school, love the experience they have in admissions, and then they call and say “I’m really sorry I didn’t choose your school.” That is exactly the experience you want them to have when they leave your school. They need to have somebody that they feel heard by. You also have to act on the feedback, change, shift, and respond. In the end, even if they don’t return to your school, you still want them to say they had the most amazing experience because “I had this interaction with the administration who really heard me and really responded. It just wasn’t the right place for my child.” That’s the feedback you want out there.

You don’t want to hear “they never talked to me. They never discussed it. They ignored me. And I just walked out the door.” That is not what you want. Reaching out is not just about seeing what you did wrong, it’s also a PR move because there are many people that will listen to the negative, and that spreads way faster than the positives. You want to mitigate the negatives and turn the focus to the positive.

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Q: Do you run exit surveys for families that choose to leave? If so, how do you run those surveys? 

Kyla: Yes. Exit surveys are vital because you want feedback. You want to know what you did well or how a child’s experience was. You want feedback so you can evolve and grow. And if they relocate somewhere else you want them to spread good things about your school and be able to recommend your school and speak positively about their experience. 

Our plan is to use a form that encourages families to communicate a reason for leaving. Right now they simply send an email to the registrar who then sends it out to a group of folks. I would much rather they complete a form that says why they’re opting out and gives them an opportunity to signal that they would like a call or have already spoken to somebody. Using an electronic form makes it easy to send out and provides a good framework for taking next steps. 

Carrie: We have a form that the registrar sends out to families. From there we have category buckets or reason codes to categorize why families leave.

Kristen: Exit surveys are important from an admission standpoint. When somebody picks another school, we want to know how their experience was with us. In the attrition or retention conversations that we have as a team, we decide who should reach out to each family to get real, genuine feedback. You have to understand each family and the individual student’s experience to know who they’re going to open up to. It’s not always going to be me, it might be the advisor or the dean of students or the head of school. It really just depends on the relationship. That’s how you’re going to get real feedback and that’s what you want in the end. You don’t necessarily just want the tick box. You also want to know how you can improve, how you can do better, and how you can better support moving forward. 

Learn more about the ways schools are delegating retention tasks, getting the whole school on board, and communicating with families by watching the full on-demand retention fireside chat.

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