To Draw in New Families, Educational Expo Engages Admission Officers, Parents, and Prospective Students

A Super Bowl ad? A commercial during “The Ellen Show”? Facebook? How will private schools carry their message in this busy education landscape?
Hint: It’s not through traditional open houses or school fairs because these events mostly attract people already interested in private school and rarely draw in enough new “customers” to meet schools’ hopes. 
Enter the Educational Expo, an innovative, data-oriented approach to delivering professional development for admission officers and admission recruitment to prospective families. The Association of Independent School Admission Professionals (AISAP) launched the Expo this past school year.

Inspiration for Admission Officers

So what’s different about the Expo, also called School Fair 2.0? For starters, admission officers take part in an hour and a half of professional development before they meet families in the Expo hall. To prepare for the experience, officers learn about relevant issues, including branding and marketing strategies and the journeys of notable admission professionals. They also have time to network with peers.
At AISAP, we know many schools can’t afford to send their admission officers to a conference, so we meet them in the field, concentrating in competitive markets. In 2016-2017, we held Expos at Tower School (MA), Derby Academy (MA), Aspen Country Day School (CO), Newark Academy (NJ), Princeton Academy (NJ), Carolina Friends School (NC), Cannon School (NC), and Francis Parker School (CA). Anywhere from 20 to 100 schools attended each Expo.
Speakers included Matt Proto, vice president and dean of admission at Colby College in Maine; David Holmes, cofounder of the Institute on Character and Admission; Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton University; Dave Kraus, director of admission at Davidson College in North Carolina; Emma Jones, chief brand officer of Credo Higher Ed; and Jennifer Mueller, associate professor at the University of San Diego and author of Creative Change: Why We Resist it ... How to Embrace It. We also featured longtime admission deans of independent schools, including Liz Schmitt of Miss Porter’s School (CT), Erby Mitchell of The Hotchkiss School (CT), and Beth Whitney of Fay School (MA).
Admission officers say they’ve valued the time to reflect on the field’s changes and absorb fresh inspiration from thought leaders. “I would have come for [Rapelye’s] talk alone, never mind the rest of the event — what a treat to have access to such a professional,” said one admission officer. Attendees were buoyed by Rapelye’s place as Princeton’s first female dean and how she chose her roles based on growth potential, not because she was bored or frustrated.  

 Admission officers listen to a speaker at a professional development session at Princeton Academy (NJ). Credit: Ray Diffley

Sifting Through a Treasure Trove

For families, the Expo typically begins with pre-registration, but walk-ins are welcome, too.  
Pre-registration gives AISAP opportunities to communicate before the event, which is key to drawing families in the door when so much competes for their time now.
Early registration allows AISAP to collect critical data about families, and offers families the chance to share what they’d like to learn at the event. Initial feedback reveals that families are mostly in the dark about independent schools, and are eager to talk with experts about the application process, financial aid possibilities, and testing requirements, including how testing works and the weight tests are given. At a slightly more nuanced level, our analysis shows that for boarding school prospects, cost and distance are the two key barriers to attending, while relationships and autonomy are the two most appealing attributes of this school environment.
Finally, collecting this data is teaching us at AISAP about our marketing efforts. During the 2016-2017 school year, most families learned about an Expo through a school referral or via word-of-mouth advertising like Facebook and parent networks at private schools. In the coming year, we will use the data we’ve collected to guide whom to target and which media outlets to place messages. To expand our reach, we’re also partnering with others, including New Jersey Family magazine, which boosted our Expos in New Jersey.   

Speed Sessions Aid Learning

Expos last two hours, and visiting families can participate in a series of 25- to 30-minute speed sessions. This year, sessions focused on three key areas: the application and pathways (for day or boarding schools), testing and assessment, and affordability and financial aid. Unsurprisingly, sessions about the application process were consistently the most popular. Assessment and affordability sessions revealed some confusion about the policies, practices, and realities of independent schools, including how applying for financial aid can impact the decision to admit a student. During and after the events, several families shared that they were grateful for an open forum to discuss such topics, especially financial aid and affordability. Afterward, we sent links to families with more information about financial aid.

Peter Curran of Blair Academy (NJ) and Jennifer Sheppard of Princeton Academy (NJ) host a speed session on the application process. Credit: Ray Diffley

At the Expos, families can access resources from organizations affiliating with or providing a pathway to independent schools. These include: A Better Chance (ABC), Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT), Educational Records Bureau (ERB), New Jersey Seeds, and 3W International. AISAP is encouraging these groups to add interactive elements in future Expos. Ideas include having testing companies provide sample questions on an iPad and scrolling through demographic data about test takers.    

Expo Starts to Grow

The Educational Expo is slowly maturing. Last fall, AISAP partnered with existing and successful fairs at Tower School in Marblehead, MA; Derby Academy in Hingham, MA; and Aspen Country Day School in Colorado. Our data showed that most families already had an association with the school, whether that was through a sibling or a parent. In fact, a majority of families attending the fall events had a sibling tie to an independent school.
While each event is different, other Expos are bringing in new families. Of the more than 130 families that visited Newark Academy this spring, 80 percent reported that no sibling attended an independent school. Upon exiting the event, one mother shared the following sentiment with my colleague at AISAP: “That was the best two hours spent — I learned more tonight about the application and financial aid process and so many resource groups than I could have in two weeks of research.”
After the first year, we have been inspired by how many admission professionals want to help us evolve the traditional school fair. Both admission officers and prospective families are looking to learn more. In year two, we are ratcheting up the instructional level with new sessions, including “Independent school experts share the three keys to evaluating a school” and “What every middle school student needs to master before high school.” We hope such offerings will allow us to draw in more new families and show them how independent schools can transform lives.

Michael Kennealey of The Governor's Academy (MA), Vivien Valenzuela Mallick of Phillips Academy Andover (MA), and Jon Deveaux of Westminster (CT) presented a breakout session on admission at Tower School's Expo in Marblehead, MA. Credit: Ray Diffley
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Ray Diffley

Ray Diffley is director of AISAP’s Center for Admission and Enrollment Management Leadership.