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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Boomerang Carrot

Updated: Oct 1, 2022

The best thing schools can do this year to retain students, faculty and staff is to remove uncertainty from all of the school's systems where and whenever possible. This is the implicit message we're hearing from clients, the outcome of a pandemic that thrust families accustomed to being in control of many of life's variables into chaos over the last three years.

We see proxies for this counsel in several corners of independent school life. On the positive side, many of our client schools experienced enrollment upticks during the last two years because they'd built and communicated effectively the plans that mitigated uncertainty during the pandemic while their competitors had not. Exhausted by unhappy surprises, families left public schools that had generated a crisis of confidence, and came to independent schools. On the negative side, independent schools in competitive markets who'd been adept at playing the waiting list chess game found those lists full of empty placeholders when they returned to them in late spring 2022. Families of wait listed students rarely inform schools when they've committed to another school. This year when admission directors called wait listed families, they heard a lot of this: "We've moved on and have no interest in reconsidering our decision."

Here's what a commitment to removing uncertainty would look like:

  • Hitting or exceeding all of your target dates for important school decision-making and communications: annual campaign kick off, the annual report, budget approval, re-enrollment contracts, employee contracts.

  • Tighten the gap on yield: move up your contract due date, improve your deposit cost, get on the phone (at a conference last year I saw some small school admission directors do a spit take when a peer from a prestigious downtown Chicago school complained about working weekends and over spring break).

  • Heightened attention to accuracy and timeliness in all planning--no surprises, or "oops, wrong date!"

  • Boomeranging carrots. If, in the past, you've hedged on faculty raises by promising bonuses in the fall based on final enrollment, find another strategy, ideally by managing the budget so that you can offer employees a reasonable raise when you push out contracts. These kinds of future promises will register not as the end of the rainbow but as ever receding mirages.

  • Crisp resolutions to complicated or unhappy circumstances. Weird discipline issue, problematic trustee, feuding volunteers, struggling teacher, contract extensions for employment or enrollment. As Jill Goodman notes in Six Critical Experiences, her excellent piece on student retention, "On average, parents will dedicate four months to conflict resolution before starting to investigate another school for their child." I suspect that this year it's more like two months.

  • Cover the margins. We know that women bore the brunt of the hardships brought on by the pandemic. They left and stayed out of work longer than men to absorb the disruption occasioned by closed schools, school buses that never arrived, assignments that required adult guidance. We also know that women make up over 80% of elementary school faculty, over 60% of secondary school faculty. If you don't provide childcare for faculty whenever their presence is required outside of school hours, now is the time to start.

  • All significant things new for the coming year should be rolled out before re-enrollment contracts are issued.

  • Very conservative approach to mid-year admissions. These admits (including their parents) should be squarely inside the zone of mission-appropriateness.

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