Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Over the last few days, I've interviewed independent school directors of enrollment to find out how they're adapting their work with prospective and current families this year. I'll have that piece ready next week, but another great topic arose serendipitously as these enrollment professionals reflected on some of the critical understandings that remain unchanged by the pandemic. They're not hard truths, so much as common tensions in the independent school admission process that, if understood and managed, lead to success.
Talking v. Listening
Enrollment professionals must be articulate and knowledgeable in describing the school and responding to questions, but they must be even better at asking good questions that, from the very first encounters with prospective families, elicit a growing understanding of their child(ren) and the family. Like a good classroom teacher, enrollment professionals should do as much listening as talking.
Level Playing Field v. Precious Time
Directors of enrollment organize ethical, transparent admission processes, but they also understand the value of their time and the many other initiatives that compete for it. In this light, it is both considerate and practical to counsel prospective families out of the process in its early stages when it is patently clear that the school would not be a good fit. That is, not to do so out of a misguided sense of fairness (or lack of courage) is both inhumane and an unnecessary and dangerous waste of the enrollment director's precious time.
Polished v. Permeable
A school tour should showcase the school's assets, but it is also an opportunity for an extended, evolving family interview. The tour should be built around what the enrollment professional has already learned about the family and what she gathers throughout the tour as the family responds to elements of the school in action. Enrollment professionals need to be knowledgeable and professional in describing the school, but overly scripted tours come off as inauthentic and tin-eared: "We've told you that our daughter's interests tip steeply to theater and dance rather than athletics, and yet here we are in the gym, our third athletics related stop, watching you point out the championship banners and describe how many graduates go on to play sports in college."
Expert v. Facilitator
Enrollment professionals make themselves widely knowledgeable about the school and often (and ideally) have some closer expertise to bring to the work from previous experience. For instance, I believe that directors of enrollment at elementary schools profit from a strong early childhood classroom background (more on this later). But, when the question at hand requires an expert answer, one they don't possess, good enrollment professionals facilitate connections for prospective families with colleagues who do. Even better, real pros anticipate these moments and plan for them: first stop, chorus room for a five minute chat with the chorus director before rehearsal begins; fine arts department chair pops in, by design.
Jobs to Be Done v. Jobs to Be Taught
Over the last several years, many independent schools have gotten interested in Clayton Christensen's Jobs to Be Done framework, a demand side effort to understand and respond clearly to the several common jobs that families expect the school to do for them as opposed to thinking about the school as a product to be marketed. Schools, however, need to think about a next layer in that framework that I call Jobs to Be Taught. Sometimes, this amounts to expectation setting. One of the four common jobs that parents want the school to do for them, according to a 2019 NAIS study, is to provide an excellent academic program and reputation that will insure that their talented child is admitted to selective colleges. Yet, when enrollment professionals hear words like "insure," they make certain to accompany their descriptions of those programs and track record with a similarly detailed description of the student's role in that success, and recognize that this lesson may be one that they and colleagues will spiral back to for years to come. Enrollment professionals are called on to teach a more sophisticated lesson when they help parents of very young children understand what an excellent early childhood academic program should look like: how, for instance, dramatic play is connected to language development, how spatial reasoning is a foundation for numeracy, and why these kinds of open ended activities--as opposed to seated, academic-looking paper pencil tasks--are developmentally appropriate.
Amicable v. Ambivalent
As their default, enrollment professionals plan for an ambivalent audience and allow themselves to be pleasantly surprised when it becomes clear that both parents are fully committed to an independent school education for their child. Conversely, with this default preparation, they're prepared for the one sanguine, one arms folded child-rearing partners, or the brittle cooperation vibe of the divorced partners, or (increasingly) a third vector of influence in the form of a grandparent, or (also increasingly) the young parents conducting a broad search among all kinds of schools from a disinterested skeptic's stance.