For a long time, schools didn’t think about retention until after students were admitted. But as of late, it’s becoming increasingly clear that retention needs to be top of mind from the very beginning of a family’s journey at your school. Retention begins in the initial relationships you form and cultivate with families and requires intentionality with the students you admit. Here’s how three private K-12 school leaders and retention experts work to retain students from the very start and keep up communication with families to maintain an excellent parent experience.

Meet the Retention Experts

  • 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 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.

Retaining From the Start: Selecting Mission-fit Families 

Q: How do you ensure that you’re selecting mission-fit students that will be successful and not become attrition risks? Have you seen a change in your selection process because of COVID?

Kristen: Every school wants to find students that are a good fit and when you do send out your acceptance letters, you want to make sure that all of the right scaffolding is put in place and you have support teams ready to ensure those student’s success. Retention really does begin with the quality of care you use to address every family throughout the admissions process. It continues with fostering that wellbeing and the good fuzzy feelings about the school from the moment they sign that contract, to their summer experience, and as they move into future experiences throughout the year.

Kyla: I have often said to faculty and community members at every school I’ve worked at that from the time a family signs on the dotted line, and really from the time they visit campus, you are in a constant state of proving your value. That’s become increasingly more important as we have a lot of disruptive innovators with charter schools and moving online. 

Reading the statistics in the Recipe for Retention book, 52% of schools have seen increases in voluntary attrition. You have to be accessible. It really comes down to forming trusting relationships, asking for feedback, and finding out where your community is and the climate of the school. You want families to feel heard and if you’re not creating avenues for that, you’re definitely going to feel it as people start to depart. 

Communicating with Families and Managing the Parent Experience

The ability to connect and increase access with parents is huge. Traditionally schools have been open 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM and then when the office is closed, you can’t get a hold of anybody after hours. I think those days are gone. I appreciate that we have tools and the ability to respond immediately when parents need something. Communication with parents, consistency, and access are big.

Carrie Birchler, Director of Outreach Marketing, Damien High School

Q: How are you managing the parent experience this year? Have you changed the way you talk to or communicate with families? 

Carrie: We have really increased access. By that, I mean we are being incredibly proactive with perspective families trying to learn about our school. We have weekly webinars and instead of requiring registration and the typical steps to access the webinar, I’ve utilized SchoolAdmin’s text feature to simply remind families two hours before we go live. We’re seeing great participation. Families feel that they are able to see the faces and hear the voices of the department leads that will be part of their child’s experience. 

Kyla: There’s been no time in independent schools’ history where communication has been this important. From what you’re doing in terms of COVID and providing updates to how you’re shifting or maintaining programs, you need to be constantly communicating with families. Access to families is probably number one on the list of importance. 

Every week we put out a COVID memorandum and each division head encourages parents to call if they have any concerns or if there’s anything we need to talk through. The Head of School is making themselves accessible much more than they ever have. We also have bi-monthly communication with all of our current parents offering to chat whether it’s via phone call,  zoom, or we find someplace where we can safely meet. It’s all about giving access and getting feedback

Kristen: Schools are handling communication in many different ways. In the admissions realm, it’s more communication, more virtual events, more access within the classroom, and trying to replicate what would be an in-person experience virtually. Once families are on campus, you shouldn’t just send out traditional communications from the head of school and department heads and, and advisors. It’s also good to leave the door open. For example, we’re doing fireside chats and that includes our head of school, our dean of students, and our director of studies, and their intent is literally to listen. 

Q: How do you handle feedback from families?

Kristen: You want to make sure that if you’re asking and soliciting information from families that you’re willing to act on that and let them know that they’re heard. Otherwise, it’s all for nothing and all it does is create ill-will. You want to make sure you’re managing expectations at the same time that you’re listening to families. Larger or more technologically savvy schools are running surveys in a very consistent way and planning one to send out in October, one in December, and one around contract time. Surveys can be helpful and really simple and automated. Any way that you feel you can connect with your community — both regularly scheduled and ad hoc as needed — is important.

Kyla: In terms of managing expectations, you actually have to take action if you’re asking for feedback. Certainly, for admission folks, we’ve had to completely regroup and rethink how we can still maintain the same personal connections virtually and provide the level of service that is very important in the admission game. But it’s also okay to ask for grace. We’ve never been through this before. We are going to have a hiccup from time to time. There are so many variables and being able to set the tone with your parents and ask for grace in advance is a good way to set expectations.

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Q: Besides surveys, how else are you getting information on how families are doing and what specific things are you doing to communicate with your community?

Kyla: We are on perpetual enrollment, so you have to actually opt-out. Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty around people’s finances so we have families who are reaching out and we immediately send them to the principal so they can pick up the phone and talk to the family, and assure them that we will work with them. Being flexible with your families is equally important to communicating. You’ve gotta be able to work with your families. 

Kristen: Not only do we have a team that works on attrition, but we’ve also created documents in which we list all the potential re-enrollments. We look at reasons as to why folks might be leaving whether it be for financial, social, emotional, or academic reasons. At one point this past year we heard that our day students were really struggling to be incorporated within our boarding school community so we initiated a fireside chat with day student families. From there we decided to bring the day students back to campus. Some students were getting pulled back into their home life rather than dedicating themselves to their studies. So why not take that variable away and bring them to campus? We’ve done that to address a concern and communicate directly with families.

Carrie: We send a weekly email from the principal through our learning management system and now we have microsites in addition to our overall school website. Every school website has a lot of information and different places parents can go and it can be confusing for a new family. We’ve set up a dedicated virtual admission center or a microsite so there’s a hub and one single page where all announcements, calendars, and important deadlines can be communicated. We’re also doing that for our graduating class so we can direct families to the same information hub. That greatly helps with communication right now.

Learn more about communicating with families, ways to track and assess at-risk families, and how to get your whole school involved in retention efforts in the full on-demand webinar

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