Schools of all kinds—including independent boarding and day schools—have had to make changes in order to stay afloat, continue to enroll families for the fall, and improve.
In our recent webinar Virtual Fireside Chat with Enrollment Leaders, we sat down with three schools to hear how they’ve been affected by COVID-19 and what they’re doing as a result to combat that. One way they’ve been able to stay afloat is by honing in on their value proposition and repositioning their messaging when necessary.
Here are the ways three schools have been impacted by COVID-19, their response, and the changes they’ve made to ensure their families feel confident enough to enroll for the coming school year.
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
The Impact of COVID and Resulting Changes
How has COVID impacted your school thus far and what have you and your departments done differently as a result? What has changed?
Jill: Everything changed. We had to do everything differently. One of the things I love about this profession is that the need to pivot is not unusual. Those of us that have been doing admissions and enrollment for a long time strangely enjoy that pivot, although this might’ve been a bigger pivot than usual. This happened at the exact moment we were trying to close the deal. All of a sudden we didn’t have our student body or our campuses to help us do that.
John: We have to be able to identify what it is about our school and our student’s experience (and how we translate that into the admission experience) that makes us different and distinctive from the peers that we share a lot with. The COVID pandemic has a lot of layers to it, but at the end of the day, what it forced us to do is ask what really sets us apart. What experiences does a student have that they’re going to be able to talk about on a virtual call? That essential part of our identity is still what we need to get across. We’re using different forms to communicate our messages and identity, but if we don’t hold tight to it, we don’t have a chance.
Geordie: I’m representing a school that is pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, so we have multiple audiences. COVID changed two things in my mind. One was the method of communicating that went from a very personal face-to-face, “feel the atmosphere” approach to communicating virtually. The other was having to pivot at the drop of a hat once COVID came.
When it comes to admission and enrollment, do you feel your school as a whole is more open to embracing change and doing things differently now than before?
Jill: I feel like there have been waves of that. At first, there was a push for change. Then there was a wave of “I just want normal.” I think our heads of school are more excited to talk about how important enrollment is now. But for smaller schools without the biggest endowment or dependency, enrollment has always been key in a school’s success. I do think that there’s a new kind of momentum. Faculty are not hesitating to ask others for help. They have time, they have energy, and they’re willing to participate and that’s pretty great.
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Positioning Your School + Selling Your Value in a COVID World
Has your school changed the way it’s positioning itself in light of the times?
Geordie: I don’t think we’ve changed our positioning, but it has certainly allowed us to put even more emphasis on the idea that independent schools are communities that care about one another. Independent schools are such close-knit, caring communities that this tragedy that we’re in the midst of has allowed us to come more into focus. It’s more important than ever that our families know we care about a lot more than just their tuition. We care about a lot more than just educating their child. This is a holistic approach to education. That approach shows what great institutions we have and why we’re able to do what we do.
Jill: Some of the collateral beauty we found in this moment is that all of a sudden we’re a day school. Normally we’re primarily boarding. Now that our students are at home with their parents we have the opportunity to get to know them too. And we pounced on that opportunity. We hosted morning meetings and invited parents to get the whole family involved in our school. We’ve seen really positive results when we engage the whole family and that’s something we will continue to do. It’s always beneficial to have the parents involved and to build a long term relationship. That was a benefit that we didn’t see coming that ended up being pretty remarkable.
Has your school changed or tweaked its value proposition due to the external factors at play right now?
John: This situation doesn’t change our value proposition, but it does give us a clear road forward. Families have a real reason to examine what a classroom looks like, what the culture is at the school, and whether it meets their core needs. They’re a more informed customer. The stories that we curate and share in our virtual open houses are important but we also need to encourage families to engage in conversation with specific students and teachers because their stories are hugely impactful. Our value proposition is elevated when we’re challenged. And that’s a good thing for schools that have a clear identity. Every school needs to find a way to lean into one key part of themselves right now.
Geordie: The hardest part of defining our value proposition is that we’re not exactly sure what we’re promising for the fall. Before families sign your enrollment contract and send the deposit, they want to know what the fall will look like. We, of course, can’t tell them because the locus of control is external. The CDC and the local and state governments are going to tell us what our education is going to look like in the fall. And they don’t know yet.
However, in many ways what I’m experiencing, and I hope the rest of you are too, is that our value has gone up. Most private schools made the transition to distance learning much more quickly and effectively than our primary competition, the public school market. Families have been so unhappy with their child’s distance learning experience at public school, and they’re concerned about the gap that is widening. They’re scared their children aren’t getting a good education, and that makes our value propositions as independent schools especially impactful. We can give them the education they’re looking for.
Providing Security for Parents in an Unusual Season
How have you given parents a sense of security as they enroll during this time? How do you engage with the parents in your community?
Jill: Transparency is key right now. We’re all in this area of unknowns. You need to be nimble with your families and parents. Be open to their anxiety and share where you’re at with them. Empathize. They want to know that you’re being real. I think that goes a long way along with being positive. We’re moving forward thinking the fall is going to happen as planned, but we’ll have a plan B if we need it. You can also be flexible with your deposits to help families on the edge.
John: Transparency and empathy are a huge piece of it. You have to develop trust in a relationship. The way parents trust a boarding school is different than a day school. In a day school, they can intervene. Offering clear information, including when we don’t know the answers, is something we can give to families. We also give prospective parents easy access to current parents. And our current parents re-enrolled more quickly this year than they had in the past. What proved how valuable our school was during the pandemic was the fact that the kids were at home. The kids were more clear about what they needed and missed in their schooling. When parents talk to prospective parents they can communicate that they trust the school with their kids.
Looking For More Insight?
Check out the full webinar on-demand to hear more from our experts on how they’re preparing for the fall, getting parent ambassadors involved, and how to get buy-in and backing for your admissions and enrollment team. Or read our article to learn how these schools are engaging with families now, thinking through shadow days, and planning to recruit new students.
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