Retention 2020 - 2021
Last winter I wrote a piece describing December and January, the months leading up to re-enrollment, as retention crunch time. That piece contained a bit of a sucker punch: "If December is the first time you've asked your new or continuing families how they're doing (not in a survey: individually, face to face), or discovered that no one really has the kind of relationship that would make this conversation comfortable right now, then you have accomplished the retention measure-taking I recommend here. You have touched the bottom and have nowhere to go but up." So, I promised myself to reprise that advice about retention plans in a piece this fall when it was pragmatically valuable, and as it turns out, with some additional nuances demanded by our pandemic times. For a fuller narrative description, you can access the original piece here. For a quicker take, I've provided a bullet point summary below, and included pandemic adaptations. The centerpiece remains, however: the Director of Enrollment must lead the effort to know and understand school families during their years at the school.
DEs work with administrator colleagues--the division directors (and through them, the teachers), director of business, director of advancement--to create specific plans to prepare new families for all of the school's idiosyncracies particularly from the perspective of kids and to track new students' progress through their first year at the school. DEs should also keep a running list of "continuing families-of-concern" and hold as a recurring agenda item with admin colleagues a review of those families and specific action plans to address their concerns.
Pandemic version: DEs at schools that are entirely or partly remote can neatly translate their check-ins with admin teammates to remote formats. And, teachers can use their digital communication tools to customize their outreach to new families particularly in advance of "firsts": what does dress assembly really mean? do children come to curriculum night? what happens at parent teacher conferences?
As often as possible and by plan, the enrollment team, division directors, director of advancement, and the Head should be visibly present and available at high-traffic moments like arrival, dismissal and major school events with a light agenda of check ins with new and continuing families. All of these administrators should also make time to visit classrooms and to participate in classroom projects when possible.
Pandemic version: The nature of school in a pandemic has taken away many of these organic opportunities to intersect with school families and teachers. If your school is entirely remote, make certain that you're on the Zoom invite list for classes and events. If you're in person, and your safety plan allows it, be present at the roll-up arrival and dismissal and visit classrooms briefly even if it's just a hello from the doorway. More importantly, the enrollment team and division directors should set a phone check-ins goal with new parents. Schedule and track the calls, and re-set your "trouble" threshold to hair-trigger. If you're picking up early sounds of friction from a new family, pick up the phone--not email, not text, and, for the love of all that is good, give them a Zoom break.
Convene new families and make special efforts to invite them to community building events like Head's coffees, parents council activities, affinity groups, etc. Get new parents engaged in the admission process this year, through volunteering at events designed for prospective parents. New parents get a chance to see a version of themselves from a year ago and measure how far they've come as a member of the community. Enthusiastic new parents can be very powerful ambassadors for your school with prospective families.
Pandemic version: Create more of these new parent focus group-like meetings this than you might have in the past, perhaps one a month into the school year and one soon after Thanksgiving. Make extra-special efforts to bring into the "room" those families who might be thinking of your school as a one-year alternative to their public school's remote learning plan. You've got four months to win these families over.
Enrollment professionals are necessarily engaged right now with fine-tuning the remote tools they built to transform their admission processes and welcoming the early wave of applicants. But, they must make time for retention, which is not linear, like the process for prospective parents. It is instead the on-going construction of caring, supportive relationships with families and with administrative colleagues and teachers who must come to see themselves as part of the entire admissions project. This is time-consuming, complicated work, often rewarding but occasionally frustrating, particularly the parts that are about expectation shaping as opposed to trouble-shooting. Best of all, though, these retention efforts double as the most effective marketing your school can do.