Many of the darkest predictions about independent schools from last year have not come to fruition. Very few schools closed, and most were successful in keeping attrition among families and faculty within historical averages, including the so-called "safe harboring" new families who enrolled in the late summer or early fall last year. As Heather Hoerle, Executive Director of the Enrollment Management Association, writes in the summer edition of Independent School magazine, "Independent school value is on the rise," and the 2021 - 2022 school year is the critical time to solidify that advantage. One concrete action item that should be at the top of your retention strategy list: treat families who were new in the 2020 - 2021 school year as if they were new again this year.
The practical reasons are obvious. Very little of what they'll experience this fall will look or feel like what happened last fall. Without your guidance, the rhythms of a typical year will be foreign to them, as will the special events and quirky school traditions that will be received with a sigh by veteran families. Having spent most or all of the school year rusticated from campus, last year's new parents know little about the geography of the school and the role it plays in building community. Cohorted, hybridized, occasionally quarantined, last year's new students have not met all of their classmates, nor all of the teachers and administrators. Your summer/fall plan for helping these students and their families become connected should start now with the same steps you're using to orient brand new families. Or, to put it in the obverse, if your welcome plan is to firehose them with the student handbook, the baffling arrival and dismissal schematic, the parent council meeting schedule, the snack policy, the 15 forms, and the special, warm letter from the head of school 2 weeks before school begins, that strategy will have exactly the opposite effect of the one you intended. Last, it's also worth noting that the sacrifices these families made to come to your school will feel deeper this year. Vacations, a new car, and other uses for their discretionary dollar were missing last year. They're back on the menu now. So are the events at their previous schools that drew those communities together. Nostalgia will be a much bigger competitor.
The strategic reason to develop a clear retention strategy with last year's new families is to leverage their voices as a powerful source of internal and external marketing. These are the families who took a leap during a perilous time. They left schools that were essential parts of their identities because they had lost confidence in their previous schools' ability to provide for basic physical and emotional safety. Because of their reputations for transparency and investment in community, independent schools found themselves enrolling families they thought they'd never attract: from nearby, deeply resourced public school districts or faith-based schools with multi-generation legacies. Maintaining a foothold in these markets is, without exaggeration, a once in a lifetime opportunity. These families took a risk, and when they received the re-enrollment contract last January, they confirmed that they had made the right decision. They're bullish on your school, and enter the 2021 - 2022 school year with momentum and with a compelling story to tell. A concrete retention plan encourages these families to add their fresh perspective on the school to the continuing parent conversation and even more powerfully to the families new to the school this year: "I was nervous last year just like you, but let me tell you. . ." Leveraging these voices should not be left up to chance. Instead, invite the most enthusiastic 2020 - 2021 parents to play a role in new family events, ask them later in the fall to host information coffees or playdates in their neighborhoods, incorporate them into your prospective parent follow up strategies and information campaigns.
The 2020 - 2021 new families are a special group. They came to the school during a time of extraordinary trial and stayed on because your school passed it. They deserve your close attention for that reason alone and, even more, because they could be the center of the most powerful marketing strategy your school will see for years to come.