March: Build Cohorts

After reading the title of this article, you may be thinking, “What’s a cohort?”

According to Wikipedia, “In statistics and demography, a cohort is a group of subjects who have shared a particular event together during a particular time span.”  It’s an appropriate definition to describe a “class” of students, such as “The class of ’78.”  But it’s also a way to describe the parents of those students.

When we think about enrollment, we usually think about the total number of students in the school.  Whenever someone says, “We want to increase enrollment in our school,” the comment is usually met with anything from head nodding to thunderous applause.  School administrators, teachers, and parents all believe that increasing enrollment is a good thing…and it is.  Whenever the comment is made, I always think of the line from the Kenny Chesney song, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven:” Everybody wanna go to heaven, but nobody wanna go now.

So even though school administrators and parents “want” enrollment to increase, many aren’t ready to do the work that needs to be done to make it happen.  It means more projects will be put on someone’s plate, and because there’s so much to do already, enrollment in the school continues to decrease.

Further, many school councils and administrators take a “macro view” of enrollment.  They’re very happy when they graduate 14 students from their 8th grade, and have 24 students registered to start Kindergarten.  Do the math, and that results in an increase of 10, right?  Unfortunately, no.  Usually, it results in a net loss of 2.  The problem is that the figures aren’t analyzed deeply.

One of my supervisors once told me, “Don’t over-analyze.” That’s great advice when trying to make a decision between new Honda Civic or a Ford Focus, but when you’re dealing with data, you must analyze as much as you can to find out why figures act the way they do, and then apply human consideration so discover the background regarding the actions of the data.

So where did the loss of students in the above example come from?  The math resulting in an 11 student increase would work if the enrollment in every grade in between the entry and exit grade remained the same from year to year.  Providing these calculations is a complex process – validated by data sites such as DataHero (www.datahero.com) and their resulting pricing for data analysis involving cohorts.  Research involving cohorts – that is, the number of students in grade level in a school – was conducted back in 1981, and found that estimates could be offered by analyzing the previous five years of “cohort drop.”  For schools, it answers a fundamental question: “How did the 8th grade class get to 14, when there were 28 students in that ‘cohort’s’ kindergarten class?”

Here’s the reason why that’s a very difficult question to answer – nobody tracks it.  Why?  Administrators change.  There’s too many other things to do.  We don’t have an Admissions director.  The list goes on.

If an administrator has been in place at a school for many years, I would lay odds that enrollment questions usually are focused on a horizontal cohort rather than on a progressive one.  The basis lies in another familiar conversation heard in planning meetings for schools: “We had 18 students in 3rd grade last year, and this year we will have 16 students in 3rd grade.”  Adjustments are then made according to how many students will need supplies, books, and perhaps even technology devices for each grade level.  The underlying factor that’s “understood” but never brought to light is the fact that there might have been 19 students in the 2nd grade that are moving to 3rd grade, which will have 16 students in the following year.  You might think, “That’s only 3 students,” but multiply the effect through 8 grades in your school.  That’s a loss of 24 students.  Now we’re getting into some figures that are dangerous to your school’s survival.  It’s a trend you cannot have continue unchecked.

When separating enrollment from retention, enrollment becomes focused on the “entry-level grade” of your school.  That’s why admissions directors in high school start speaking to families of students in 5th and 6th grade.  It’s why administrators in elementary schools need to start speaking to parents as soon as their children are born and baptized if they’re looking to enroll them in your faith-based school’s PreK program!

While I have found no empirical research done on the matter, the pattern seems to be that the typical faith-based school will have 50% of the number of students in 8th grade than were present in that cohort’s kindergarten classroom.  For instance, there were 96 students (48 students in each class of 2 classrooms) in my first grade class in the fall of 1966, before Catholic schools had kindergarten programs.  When we graduated from 8th grade in 1974, there were 52 students, with 26 in each classroom.  If we could extrapolate back a year, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume there would have been 104 students in my kindergarten “cohort.”

And that was back in the 60’s and 70’s, where there were still religious men and women who were teaching in the schools.  Our Catholic school could see the next closest Catholic school across the valley from us, and there were two other Catholic schools within the next 3 miles.  Today, all four of those parishes have no Catholic schools – and all four parishes have been combined into one.

Using today’s example of 24 students entering kindergarten, when that cohort reaches the 8th grade, there will only be 12 students in the class 9 years later.  It’s interesting to note that the speech heard by incoming college freshmen at orientation has the same theme:  “Look at the person sitting next to you.  In four years, odds are that only one of you will graduate from here,” since the cohort drop percentage in higher education is 50% in four years.

If you track those “cohorts” along a progressive diagonal, you can then do some predictive calculations to determine how many students will remain in the school the following school year.  SchoolAdvancement’s “BASIQS” tools can help you do that (check the “Enrollment” navigation tab on the home page).  Since these estimators are free, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t search for your school’s grade-by-grade enrollment data over the past 6 years, and enter those figures into the spreadsheet to discover how the “cohort-drop” method of enrollment calculation estimates your next year’s school enrollment…unless you’re afraid to face realistic facts.

Even if you are, you can input the desired enrollment for your school.  The Enrollment Estimator (TM) will return a number that shows how many students you need to enroll in Kindergarten to meet that overall enrollment goal!

You may ask, “But that means that there’s nothing we can do about maintaining the enrollment in grades 1 through 8.”  That’s because that process is called “retention,” and not enrollment.  My book on retention describes ways to you can increase retention as the first step to building your enrollment.

But here’s something you can do that is both remarkable and differentiating, and will help to solidify your overall enrollment. Usually, when cohorts are discussed, as this article has done, it talks about the members of the grade level.  Most schools also have a parent-teacher organization, where all the parents of the school meet and support fundraising efforts, discuss changes in school policies and hear about topics of special importance, like safety, technology security, and anti-bullying initiatives.  But if you’re going to build cohorts, the parents of students in a particular grade level need to support each other in a special way.  Perhaps it’s getting together for a potluck dinner at a parent’s home every month…just to get together to know and support one another on their journey through your school.  In faith-based schools, families can pray for one another, and perhaps share burdens, since burdens shared are burdens lightened.  Why would a parent want to leave your school for another educational program where this type of support is non-existent?

How do you start such a program?  That’s an easy first step.  Bow your head, and ask the One who gives your faith-based school its purpose. If you have an administrative team meeting, ask everyone there to do the same.  If there are two or three of you gathered, I’m sure you know who else is there in your midst.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2013-2017