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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Center Stage

We're often asked by clients if we can help them understand the impressions of their school among prospective families who aren't considering them as an educational option for their children. This is a difficult task, first of all, and clients are often attracted to commercial marketing consultants who allege that they can capture the impressions of John and Jane Q. Public with massive, low-yield surveys. We get stronger, more meaningful results through families who entered the admission process and left at any point up to declining an offer of admission, and from the acquaintances of current and past school families who agree to speak with us because of their connection to those families.

We routinely hear a negative perception that has existed for decades but has become amplified in the last 7 years. It will come as no surprise: your school's tuition is exotically beyond their family budget and your culture inhospitable to "normal" people. The first perception can be dispeled with rational conversation and data. The second is much stickier and more complicated to counter. And, with the Varsity Blues scandal, the dissolution of legacy preferences at prestigious colleges and universities--what some journalists now call "highly rejective"--and the student loan crisis throwing the very idea of college education into question, the latter of these perceptions has taken on a particularly toxic character: increasingly, people see independent schools as places where the wealthy send their untalented children to get fluffed up for a goal that may be a mirage. In the past, independent schools were criticized for "creaming," recruiting the top of the class from public and parochial schools, but this perception only made our programs appear more competitive. Now, the value proposition itself is undermined by the perception of bad faith.

Visible, authentic excellence is the antidote to this perception. Schools must make sustained efforts to demonstrate the integrity of their mission and programs. Some of this can be done through campaigning, especially with influential community advisors--administrators at peer schools and colleges and universities, pediatricians, therapists, educational consultants, realtors, the kind of people parents might ask, what are my educational options? Your director of enrollment management should have this outreach in her yearly plan. But the most salient efforts come from putting student and faculty talent in front of the wider public by inviting the public in and by taking students and teachers out into the community, in athletic contests, debate tournaments, arts festivals, field trips, plays, concerts, community service activities, research projects. At Christ Episcopal School in Covington, LA, theater performances go on week-long runs to accommodate audiences filled with people otherwise unaffiliated with the school, and the summer theater camp sells out in days. In South Bend, IN, Stanley Clark School's blog pieces are written by students and faculty on timely, high-interest topics for current and prospective parents. The Tiger Talk Blog collects many suscribers who are not members of the school community. The tacit message: our campus is filled with experts. These are the kind of views into excellence that schools need to create.

It's important to reflect on how your students and teachers show up in these moments. Do you regularly receive compliments from museum staff or park rangers on your students' behavior and engagement? Are other schools trying to get on your athletic schedules because they know that you field solid teams year after year and that your athletic department will have all of the logistics squared away? If you arrive at ambivalent responses to any of these questions, the first step is to create an internal plan for improvement. No web page buff up or targeted social media campaign can overcome these firsthand encounters with poor performance; in fact, they'll just serve as a backdrop for irony. If, on the other hand, your students and faculty consistently impress, the challenge is to get them out there more often and in front of audiences who may not regularly encounter your school.

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