Rethinking Outreach to Boost Enrollment
Innovation. Design thinking. STEAM. Maker spaces. Our schools have become incubators of 21st-century skills. We are building new spaces, enhancing technology in our curricula, and creating new faculty titles. But, in enrollment management, are we selling these concepts in the same old way?
With creeping tuition and lower demand especially in early childhood programs, schools need to reinvent practices that used to be state-of-the-art, such as the typical open house that was primarily a sales pitch. Rethinking outreach has led schools to begin major trend reversals.
In 2018–2019, at The Elisabeth Morrow School (NJ), we set an eight-year record in enrollment, 10-year records in applications and yields; and a 12-year record in retention. Through partnerships and events, we’ve been able to position ourselves as a community leader and attract new families. Here are some of the ways we’ve been able to accomplish that.
Corporate and Community Partnerships
As a way to bring the community to our school, each November we host a program called EMS Gives Back. Based on our mission, a weekend event at our school highlights character and service, music, and STEAM. The event is open to the public, and the entry fee is a food donation to our local food pantry. During the month, and coinciding with the weekend event, local retailers, including 13 Starbucks, 3 Whole Foods Markets, an H Mart, and four other businesses, join in by collecting food donations in baskets that have our signage. The spirit of giving and our mission-match of service are underscored.
At this event, we offer two-hour workshops for children—those who might or might not enroll in our school. The local nature center brings raptors, the performing arts center offers children’s acting, the art school offers a class, the local hospital teaches nutrition, and we square-dance. We also have face-painters, balloon artists, music, and this year we added a petting zoo. Families who are interested in our school see the campus, witness our spirit of giving, and meet some of our current parents, teachers, and student ambassadors.
This year, we invited the local Community Chest to the weekend event, and four of its organizations had tables to advertise their organizations and seek volunteers. We hope to build this event to be the area’s biggest community volunteer fair. As these organizations continue to partner with us, they are also spreading the word that we are a school that promotes character.
Each of our partners advertise the event with their networks, and most of the sponsors do not charge or charge very little for their workshops. One of the most important results from these partnerships is that our students get to see truckloads of food being collected for our community.
Child-friendly Open Houses
Through surveys and by tracking attendance, we have found that busy parents want to attend open houses with their children. In the past, our typical open house presented our school’s features and strengths, and included a walking tour. Now, parents who attend can see teachers in action as they complete STEAM projects with their children in our Innovation Alley. Last year, families constructed a “mint mobile” together. More families are coming to our open houses, and more families are “sold” after they experience our instruction first-hand.
Taking Our Show on the Road
Busy parents also can attend our events when we go to them. Bringing events to neighborhoods from which we draw is a way to attract families who might never have considered going to our campus (as they may have had a preconceived idea of our population or types of learning).
River Road is a rapidly developing area near us, with lots of young children and prospective families. The public school system is not a viable alternative to some families. We’ve co-partnered with the local children’s gym and offer Wine to Design nights, in which the gym provides the play space and we pay for the gym, food, and wine; the event is free for families. While the children play, we teach parents STEAM concepts, such as how to build structures with materials found at home. This is also a way to feature our amazing faculty.
Another event we take on the road is Admission 101, which can be offered at a gym, yoga studio, library, or café. Prospective parents learn about independent schools, the benefits of an independent school education, how the admission year unfolds, and the application process. By offering valuable information, a family can begin to see our school as an education expert.
Flip the Closed Sign
We’ve had success with inviting prospective parents to on-campus parent association or development events, which previously had been just for families who attend the school. In October, we invited applicants to our annual fall festival and held an information session for the new families. They registered and wore wrist bands with our logo so that our current families could say hello. We’ve also opened our book fair to the public. We hold it on the same day as EMS Gives Back, and it has increased attendance at both events (and revenue at the book fair).
Use Inbound Marketing to Your Advantage
We have written several e-books that families can download after they sign up by email. We collect those addresses and add them to our database of prospective families. Our most successful content was “ How to Find the Best School for Your Child. ” We have offered this e-book for three years and have had hundreds of downloads. We followed it with several more e-books, such as “How to Navigate the Middle School Years,” for parents who are looking for information about their children’s education.
The more you draw your applicants into your community, and expose them and their children to your current families, the better. A true fit will happen naturally.