At Knuckleball Consulting, we believe that establishing strong relationships within the school community is the key to retention and to effective marketing. If you're looking for a measure of how good your school is at this relationship work, take a close look at the months of December and January, retention crunch time.
Consider the forces converging in December and January for new and continuing families. For new families, the honeymoon has come to an end. By the end of the first half of the year, they've likely encountered their first disappointments with the school and discovered sacrifices in time and dollars that they hadn't anticipated. And for all families, the wind-up to the winter holidays and its impact on the family calendar, budget and emotional landscape carries its own swift current. School events, academic reports and the imminent re-enrollment process (and costly deposit) push the river over the banks for some parents, and schools must be prepared to customize how they help families navigate these waters.
I'll skip to the end of the story here to say that if December is the first time you've asked your new or continuing families how they're doing (not in a survey: individually, face to face), or discovered that no one really has the kind of relationship that would make this conversation comfortable right now, then you have accomplished the retention measure-taking I recommend here. You have touched the bottom and have nowhere to go but up.
How will you know when you've reached the surface? Like all human endeavors, especially one as complex as education, you can take perfection off the list, and indeed, a critical part of your conversations with some school families should be an ongoing campaign to remind them that they can't expect perfection either. Rather, the goal should be to insure that the school has done its absolute best to come to know each and every family and to keep knowing them in the course of the many changes that will happen in their lives during their years at your school, potentially 15 at a PreK - 12.
The school's plan for this effort relies on the value placed on relationship building in your job descriptions, the hiring process that helps you identify the right people, and the systems and accountability you construct for the relationships they must build with each other. I'll return to the months of December and January and describe this matter from the vantage point of the Director of Enrollment, the person who should be at the center of this network.
By the time December rolls around, the DE's strong rapport with the teachers, Head, Division Directors, Directors of Business and Development and her regular check-ins and occasional meetings with them about emergent issues have brought the DE to a solid understanding of each new family's transition into the school. The DE has insured that Division Directors have created processes and expectations for teachers to provide special care for new students and their families. The DE has added to that what he has come to know about the family through the admission process and the many formal and informal conversations he's had with each new family since they arrived in the fall, including proactive efforts he's already made to help those families overcome early obstacles. And, even though many continuing families have left the DE's "nest" and built strong relationships with their children's respective Division Directors, oversight of retention remains the DE's direct responsibility.
The entire senior leadership team should be working through December and January under two operating principles: leave the door open, be proactive. That is, each should be as available as possible--to parents or colleagues who need to check in, and to hear the buzz--and work to initiate the conversation rather than wait for it to come at you, like a fastball under the chin. Often those proactive efforts might take the form of careful choreography: the DE asks the Director of Development to hold off on an annual giving reminder to a cost-sensitive new parent until she's sent her reminder/description of the re-enrollment process and had an in person follow up with that family. Or the DE double checks with the Division Director about the potential collision between the parents of the struggling new student and the teacher with a track record of leaving unhappy surprises in report cards. Or the Director of Advancement picks up a sour note in an annual fund call to a continuing parent and relates the experience to the DE and Division Director for their follow up. This is a season for finding it out, and getting on it.
When it comes to retention, December and January are the critical months, and your school's effectiveness at the work will be entirely predicated on the depth of the relationships you have with all school families--with special care for new families--and the network of working relationships that the senior administrative team models and promotes among their colleagues. The additional benefit of all of these efforts will be the amplified voices of a grateful, loyal school community, the most powerful kind of marketing.