For new charter schools, a successful student recruitment effort is critical to the long- term success of the school. Your entire operating budget is based upon a certain number of students enrolling, so it is critical that student recruitment becomes a priority as soon as you receive your charter.
Student recruitment is challenging and it is getting even more difficult. More charter schools are opening, and both the existing traditional public schools as well as private schools are increasing their efforts to attract students to their schools.
Marketing and recruitment may not have been part of your educational training, but, no other factor will be as important to the ultimate success of your school as your ability to recruit a strong number of students in the first year.
Here are the steps you need to accomplish to have a strong number of students on your first day.
Create your marketing plan
Developing a marketing plan for how you are going to accomplish this is a critical early step. You might have created this as part of your charter application, but if you didn’t, now is the time to work on it.
Your new charter school marketing plan needs to have several components:
- Your total recruitment goals.
- Your marketing calendar.
- Your selling story.
- Your tools.
- Potential feeder locations.
- Promotional activities.
Set your recruitment goals
Your first step is to clearly establish your recruitment goals. These were probably listed in your charter application, but as you begin your student recruitment process, you need to make sure that all your staff and volunteers know what number you are trying to hit.
Many new charter school operators downplay how difficult this is and set somewhat unrealistic goals. Maybe you are going to recruit 300 students to fill a full K-8 grade structure in your first year. But it is important to think through what happens if you don’t. Have you looked at your budget and operating plan to think through what happens if you come up short?
Set your goals, but also be realistic to your chances of achieving those goals and prepare for what you are going to do if you miss your target in your first year.
Your marketing calendar
A lot of the things that you are going to be doing in student recruitment will need to be planned well in advance and having a calendar that lists your schedule of events will go a long way to making sure that you are maximizing your efforts.
For example, if you know that you are planning a large neighborhood open house on April 1, then all your activities in March should be planned to support ensuring a large attendance at this upcoming event.
Planning out your events will also allow you to understand how well you are tracking against your ultimate enrollment goal. If you find that it is June 1 and you have only enrolled 30% of your targeted first-year class, you now know that you need to make some decisions on additional resources to devote to enrollment or to potentially scale back some of your offerings in the first year.
Develop your selling story
A critical step in effectively marketing your new charter school is to develop your “value proposition” — the description of your school that will resonate with prospective parents and makes them want to learn more about your school.
If you are in an area with several other school choices, you will also want to think about what your school offers that they can’t get at another school. It’s critical to differentiate yourself as your target families will need some clear-cut reasons to change schools to come to yours. (And a little secret, being a college prep school with pennants hanging on the walls is not differentiating)
Your selling story should describe your new charter school in a way that is easily understood by your prospective audience. This is not the time to describe your school using academic jargon, but instead, describe it in a way that your audience can instantly grasp the benefits of their child attending your school.
Spend a little bit of time in your selling story to describe yourself and why they should entrust their child to your school. At this point, you have no school, no track record, and no history. Parents, to a certain extent, are buying “you” – your expertise, your staff’s experience, your educational philosophy. Don’t be afraid to brag a little bit about your qualifications or why you are going to develop the best school for their child.
Finally, do not forget to mention that you are a “free, public, charter school.” Often, we forget that many people are still confused by the different types of educational options that they have available to them. It is a common misperception that charter schools cost money.
Build your tools
Student recruitment is going to cost some money initially because you are going to need to build tools to effectively market your new charter school. You may want to engage with an agency that supports small businesses to develop these tools.
Here are some critical tools that will enable a successful recruitment plan for the first year:
- A WordPress Website that is mobile-optimized $7,500
- A commercial email system (Mailchimp, MyEmma, Constant Contact, etc.) $250
- A set of collateral materials (brochure, poster, tabletop display) $2,500
- Tchotchkes or giveaways (something they will use, not drop in a drawer) $500
- T-shirts for new students and/or staff $500
Note that this is the bare minimum for a school that is trying to do this with as little out of pocket cost as possible.
I would expand this significantly because your first year is so crucial. There is a huge difference in starting out with 50 kids vs. 100. If you have a federal grant or more money that is available, a couple of additional things that I would recommend investing in would be:
- A staff member that is dedicated to increasing enrollment $50,000
- Good SEO to ensure your website is found in internet searching $5,000
- Facebook or PPC ads to allow more people to find you $10,000
Identify where you can reach potential students
The best fishermen tend to fish in areas where there are lots of fish. This example is also true for student recruitment. You need to identify the best places to reach families that have children that could enroll in your school.
Once you have determined your school’s location, make a list of all the organizations in that area that cater to your potential families. This would include:
- Community centers
- Preschools if you are a K-8 or Jr. Highs if you are a high school
Identify contacts at each of those locations and begin to develop a plan to engage and to build a relationship with these organizations. For example, you might have identified the two libraries in your area as a potential source of students.
See if you can post information about your school in their community area; ask if you could host an information table on a Saturday afternoon; or offer to conduct a program (Reading Day, STEM demonstration, etc.) if they would help to promote you and your school.
Promote your school
Now that you have developed your selling message, created your core marketing tools, and have identified potential “feeder” targets, it is time to start promoting your school.
This process is going to be labor-intensive and will require a commitment from your staff, board members, volunteers, and even families that you have already enrolled. Your goal is to try to talk to as many prospective families as possible to:
- Make them aware of your school;
- “Sell” them on the great things that your school will offer their child;
- Have them enroll; and
- Have them show up on the first day of school.
Many schools fall into the trap of just doing 1 and 2. You are in the “selling” mode here. You need to be trying to drive as many enrollments as possible. And just because a parent has filled out their paperwork doesn’t mean that they will show up the first day. You need to regularly reach out to the enrolled families and keep them committed until the first day of school.
As part of your calendar-building exercise, you have identified all the events that you can participate in with your feeder organizations. Next, you will also want to identify any community events where you can set up a table to try to drive greater awareness of your school. These are going to take some work, but at this stage, you are really trying to get the word out about your new charter school.
Some schools employ door to door outreach or canvassing as part of their student recruitment plan. This is a great opportunity for you and your staff to walk the neighborhood (in your school t-shirts on a Saturday or Sunday) and engage with potential families who may be excited that a new charter school is opening.
If you are partnering with a marketing agency, ask them to provide you with lists of families that have children in your age group prior to starting a door-to-door effort. You don’t want to waste time knocking on doors of people that don’t have your target student. This is a simple exercise of buying the names and addresses from a direct marketing vendor. This is not expensive (~$0.10 – $0.15 a name) and will allow you to target the correct houses.
Don’t be afraid to try new things or be somewhat non-traditional. Setting up a table outside of the major neighborhood grocery store on a Saturday may not seem like how you run student recruitment, but if you think about it, it is a great way to reach busy moms. For one of our clients, we bought ad space on the shopping carts at the three grocery stores near the school. It was an incredibly successful tactic.
At each of these events, one of the most critical things is to gather contact names for everyone you talk to. Start developing a prospect list of families, so you can begin to conduct follow-ups and invite them to tour your new charter school, participate in a neighborhood open house, etc. Make sure that you have a way for them to leave contact information on your website as well.
Once you begin to develop your list of prospects and other key community contacts, begin to send out a bi-weekly newsletter to all of them. This includes updates on your opening process, a listing of your upcoming events, teacher profiles, and other information about your school.
If you are fortunate enough to have access to your facility prior to opening, use it as much as possible. Beyond hosting open houses and giving school tours, consider other types of events to try to get enrolled and prospective families to your school. These could be things like an open gym night or hosting a family-friendly movie night in your cafeteria. The more you can get them to interact with you, the more likely you are to get them to eventually enroll and show up the first day.
Starting a new charter school can be incredibly difficult. There are a million things that you need to accomplish in that critical year prior to opening. Do not underestimate the time and importance of student recruitment, and prioritize it. Having a vertical and horizontally aligned curriculum or proper lunchroom scheduling will not matter if you don’t have any students.