Running a school is an exercise in controlled chaos. Even though I’ve worked with educators for years, I’m still impressed when I watch a principal walk down a hallway, shuttling students to class while answering phone calls from concerned parents and simultaneously finding a last-minute substitute for a teacher who has fallen ill. This is all in addition to the principal’s main job of keeping the school running like a well-oiled machine.
Of course, principals don’t do their jobs alone. Whether it’s a vice principal in charge of discipline or a fundraising committee working to keep the lights on, the success of any school is a team effort. The glue that binds this team together is their shared values and shared vision for what their school can be. In short, the driving force of any school is the school culture.
Most schools have a culture of striving for academic success, although it rarely stops there. Whether it’s athletics, community service, religious faith, or any other factor or combination of factors, almost every school seeks to honor their past while continuing to grow and improve. However, all too often, I see schools creating a vision of what they want to become without considering how they’re going to find the students who will ultimately fill the classrooms.
A school cannot thrive without a new crop of students every year. And while some schools hope their reputation or track record is strong enough to draw families, most schools can’t rest on their laurels. For the vast majority of schools, the best way to secure their future is to make enrollment success part of their everyday culture.
Start at the Top: Make Enrollment Marketing Part of Senior Leadership
The team of administrators who run your school all have specialized skills. That’s why you hired them! But you wouldn’t ask the head of the Athletic Department to run your big fundraiser, would you? Of course not.
However, when it comes to enrollment marketing, or to put it more bluntly, ensuring that you have the revenue to pay your salaries and to keep the lights on, too many schools expect someone on their staff to magically fill that void, or even worse, don’t think about enrollment marketing at all.
The fact is, attracting new families is crucial to your school’s survival. Without students (and the tuition or state funding that follows them) all your work building great academic, athletic, and extra-curriculum programs will be lost. Even a temporary slump in enrollment can be impossible to bounce back from.
That’s why at universities (like every large company), the Chief Marketing Officer is the peer of the Chief Academic Officer. Marketing your school to new families isn’t seasonal or secondary. It’s a year-round job that is vital to your survival.
In a world where families are constantly distracted and bombarded with messages, a marketing professional can help you break through the noise. Whether your school is implementing your inbound marketing strategy improving your search engine optimization, or preparing for the next school enrollment fair, your best shot at success is to have a dedicated professional spearhead the process.
An enrollment marketing professional can also lead your school in harnessing all of your resources to make sure everyone is working towards the goal of increasing enrollment. Whether it’s getting teachers involved in supporting enrollment, or current parents, or even the students themselves, a marketing professional can lead a school-wide effort to mobilize every aspect of your community to ensure that you will be able to find the next generation of students and families who will carry your school into the future.
Of course, this also means you must make enrollment marketing a priority in your budget. Obviously, school budgets are tight these days, but in this environment, enrollment marketing is more important than ever.
Would your school scale back fundraising during a budget crunch? Of course not. You would redouble your efforts, seeking to maximize the support you get from your community. Similarly, hard times mean that enrollment marketing is more critical, not less. Not only does every empty desk represent lost tuition, but it also represents lost donations for years to come. To secure your school’s future, you must invest in enrollment marketing now.
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Establish a School Culture of Surveys and Feedback
One buzzword tossed around a lot in education circles these days is “data.” Through experimenting, testing, and innovating, educators have devised proven, effective strategies for reaching their students. However, while many schools strive to use data to guide what is going on inside the classroom, too many administrators shy away from using data to understand the needs of the families who attend their schools.
If you want to understand the concerns of families in your school, you must establish a culture of seeking and analyzing their opinions through surveys.
Well designed and executed surveys allow administrators to get an accurate picture of what families really think. Instead of relying on anecdotes, old habits, or the loudest voices in the room, surveys provide a neutral platform for administrators to gain a better understanding of what is happening under the surface.
And do not be afraid if the feedback is negative. In the words of Bill Gates, somebody who built a nice little company, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”
However, simply identifying problems is only the first step. To ensure that you are adequately addressing parents’ concerns, you need to build a school culture of seeking feedback by consistently going back to parents to see how they feel their concerns have been addressed. Only through this customer-centric process of identifying problems, addressing them, and seeking feedback can you be certain that you are providing families with the great experience they expect and deserve from their school.
Create a Culture of Delivering Excellent Customer Service
The next cultural change I would love to see in more schools is a newfound focus on delivering excellent customer service in addition to providing a great education.
Too many schools admit new families and expect them to immediately adapt to the school’s way of doing things. Instead, schools should institute a formal on-boarding process to help new families feel welcome and to get them up to speed on their new school’s culture.
And then, use your newfound ability to survey parents to find out how effective were your efforts. You might find that parents in the 21st century would much rather fill out all your enrollment forms online rather than thumbing through 40 pages of paper.
Similarly, when a child is moving to the next grade, are you sending information about what to expect or how this grade might be different than the last? You might think this is overkill, but for the engaged parents (the ones you always wish you had more of), they want to know what to expect.
These all might seem like small examples but providing excellent service means considering all your actions from the point of view of the people who are paying the bills, i.e. the parents. Going above and beyond will not only lead to happier families, but it will lead to a more engaged, active, and generous community. The best organizations are the ones that anticipate their customer’s needs and proactively fulfill them!
Create a School Culture of Making Technology Work for Parents
Modern technology provides a multitude of ways to communicate, and not all of these communications are useful or welcome. Too often, families are inundated with information from schools in the form of competing apps, emails, texts, and old-fashioned flyers sent home with students.
To keep parents engaged, informed, and happy, streamline your communications to make it easy for parents to stay in the know.
For example, many schools allow teachers to use a variety of apps, which ultimately leads to confusion when one class is using Remind while another is using Classroom Dojo and a third uses a teacher’s own website. Standardize your communications between all classrooms and all grades so parents aren’t forced to download and master multiple platforms. Or worse, give up on the process because they can’t remember all of the different passwords and processes.
Your teachers may push back on this – but if you explain to them that the goal of classroom communication is to ensure parents are informed and engaged and that by standardizing on one approach throughout the school will accomplish this – they will get on board.
Similarly, make sure you are choosing the right medium for each communication with parents. Trust me, many parents dread the dinner time robocall from the principal that is announcing an event only a small group will want to attend.
Also, be intentional with all of your communications, whether it’s by email, text, social media, or app. Is this message urgent? Perhaps a text would be best. Will parents need to be able to find this information easily later? In that case, an email might work well. Is this message of interest to your community, but doesn’t necessarily impact a family’s own children? That might be a good time to use social media.
Schools need to appreciate that for many parents – their image of your school is not shaped by what happens in the classroom (which they never see), but in your communication and interactions with them. You might be delivering an incredible educational experience, but if all your parents’ experience is ineffective and sloppy communication, they will think that you are an ineffective and sloppy school.
The New School Culture of Enrollment Success
In the end, a marketing-lead, data-driven, customer-centric organization that leverages technology to its advantage won’t just make parents happy, it will make parents your greatest marketing asset. Satisfied parents will gladly spread the word about how your school not only educates their children but also makes their lives easier. And marketing like that is worth its weight in gold.
Looking for ways to improve enrollment by shaking up your school culture? Contact me for a free consultation.