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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Love (and Retention) in the Time of COVID

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Only two weeks ago, I had sketched out a piece on the retention efforts that independent schools should make during the spring and summer. The lede: Just because you've got a bundle of enrollment contracts in hand, don't think that retention work is over. Seems quaint now considering that all independent schools will be in the spring/summer retention battle of a lifetime.

Every independent school I know is already wading into the conflict with extraordinary efforts to deliver remotely, as much as they can, the rich programming and compassion that defines our schools. In the vapid language of business, this is about delivering value and internal marketing. In the language of school people, it is the question of how the members of our school family will support each other in these deeply troubling times.

What will retention efforts look like this spring and summer? Here are some of the efforts that we think deserve your consideration. All presume a gradual return to normalcy over the summer and the opportunity for school as usual in the fall. . . . no scientific vision here, just the hope we're all maintaining at present:

  • Work with heads and enrollment directors in your area, and your city-wide association if you have one, on common, extended enrollment contract deadlines. If schools make these extension decisions independently, it's easy to imagine an environment in which families and schools feel gamed and view some of the schools as profiteering.

  • Prepare for new financial aid and contract conversations. That your enrollment contract is legally bulletproof and doubly supported with tuition insurance is a moot point in this crisis. Unless you're prepared for the cultural blowback of taking over the hurdles families who've recently endured health and/or financial trauma, we think it's reasonable to think of every consummated re-enrollment or new family contract as effectively dissolved. You've got to win them all back.

  • Make a plan for continued, intimate, academic, social and emotional support for kids and families throughout the summer. This will look nothing like summer-business-as-usual. Some possible examples of the above:

  • Weekly or bi-weekly summer "office hours" for teachers to be available by phone, text, Skype for parents and kids. This helps some faculty build boundaries around heart-felt summer promises to families they might have trouble fulfilling in practice, helps those same teachers create the time they'll need to take care of themselves, and builds expectations for other teachers who may not envision how different this summer needs to be.

  • Daily touch-base calls from the Director of Enrollment, Division Directors, Head (and Assistant Directors at larger schools) to faculty and families, set out on a schedule to insure that everyone hears from school leaders two or three times over the summer

  • Weekly update communications from the school

  • Prepare to invite the school community to gather formally and informally on campus as soon as restrictions are lifted

  • Identify a few super-flexible summer camp veteran teachers who would be open to pulling off last-minute camps if that possibility becomes real. These camps should be free to members of the school community.

  • Offer free skills brush-up and academic exploration activities in the weeks before school begins and ask these teachers to do some light assessment to put context around fears of some parents who wonder if their children's skills have slumped, and to inform instruction for the year ahead.

  • Prepare the grandest opening day (week?) of school you can imagine for the 2020 - 2021 school year. If your first day of school doesn't begin with balloons and a big, kid-focused/led assembly and end with a massive, school-wide dance party, you're missing the point.

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