June: What Makes a Faith-Based School Attractive to Today’s Parents?

When I ask this question to school administrators, there are three traits which are cited more than any other attributes:

– Academic excellence;

– Faith formation; and

– A safe and caring environment.

Consequently, many schools create their marketing materials spotlighting these “big three,” and then wonder why enrollment still decreases from year to year.  What’s even more frustrating is that these schools assure me they’ve done their research with their parents, and these traits are what parents appreciate most about “their” school.

Wait – shouldn’t that read, “These traits are what parents appreciate most about ‘the school where they’ve enrolled their children?'”

Perhaps in a few years…but not today.  Two generations of parents have children currently enrolled in PK-12 faith-based schools, and this year, the majority of parents are Millennials, since most of them have children in the PK-6 age group.  Members of Generation X, the “Me” Generation, have children in grades 7-12.  For both of these groups, even though their children are enrolled in school, and you may think it’s “the children’s school,” parents are the ones paying the tuition.  Therefore, it’s “their” – read, “the parents'” – school.

I was made painfully aware of this mindset a number of years ago when our Diocesan office did an exit survey of parents who withdrew or didn’t re-register their students from our Catholic schools when some of our schools closed.  We did this because, as is the common practice when a Catholic school closes, parents were encouraged to enroll their children in other schools in the Diocese which were accessible to them.  About 17% of the families surveyed responded, and one of the most popular answers as to why their children were no longer enrolled in a Catholic school of the Diocese was, “You closed my school.”  It’s important to note the response was not, “You closed my kids’ school.”   It wasn’t even “You closed our school.”  The response was clear: “You closed my school.”

And yes, these families that no longer enrolled their children also appreciated excellent academics, formation in the faith, and an educational environment that was safe and nurturing.  Unfortunately, these are not “remarkable” attributes of a faith-based school.  Academic excellence, faith formation and a safe and caring environment are expectations of a Catholic, Christian, or any faith-based school.  Parents already know these things about the school.  They expect excellent academics; they expect a safe and caring environment; and they expect a strong formation in the faith.  In the spirit of consumerism, however, they’re not going to “pay for” expectations. The question your school must ask is this:

“What is “remarkably different” about our school that will attract parents, and in doing so, make our school their preferred option regarding the place where they want their child to be educated?”

The parent, along with the child, must feel that the school environment is where they not just want to be, but desire to be. They must become emotionally engaged with it – not just logically informed about it.

To illustrate this point, the Diocese referred to in the above paragraph has two high schools. When I started in my new role in the schools’ office some 15 years ago, I walked into the one that was centrally located to most of the elementary schools of the Diocese.  Frankly, I could have been a ghost walking from the from the front door to the office.  Students I passed in the hallway seemed to be oblivious to the fact that there was a stranger with an ID badge walking their halls.  The other high school that always seemed to be struggling to get by financially, however, had a completely different atmosphere. I was made to feel welcome there as soon as I walked in the door!  Students asked if they could escort me to where I was going and their enthusiasm showed on their facial expressions. I wondered why the school struggled as much as it did – all people would have to do is come to the building and they’d be immediately hooked!   Some research, however, answered the “why” question.  Although there were differences between the two Catholic high schools, the latter school was located in an area where the reception was the same when a visitor entered the public high school of that community as well. It stood to reason, then, that potential families may not have wanted to pay tuition when they saw “no significant difference” regarding how they were made to “feel” when they entered the school (and educators know all about what happens when the research shows “no significant difference”), even though the school had excellent academics, a safe and caring community, and offered a continued formation of the student’s faith…something that the public school couldn’t necessary boast about.

It’s not good enough to know yourself and your school’s Opportunities, Weaknesses, Threats and Strengths (or OWTS); you also have to know your competition and their OWTSs too. Touting faith-based values, excellent academics and a caring environment won’t increase enrollment – unless others see that a remarkable difference is manifested in the actions of the school’s students, and other schools in the immediate marketplace don’t provide that experience.  Certainly survey the parents of your school community, but focus on the families in the entry grade and the next higher one for your school (for instance, K and 1 in an Elementary School, or 9 and 10 in a High School.  Perhaps 7 and 8 if your high school is a Junior/Senior High School).  Dig a little deeper to probe for the differentiators that make your school unique in the marketplace to these families, or discover the processes that create the excellent academics, faith formation, or a safe and caring environment, and focus on how families experience those traits.

Why not survey parents of the of the children in the upper grades?  Two reasons.  First, they’re looking at what’s ahead for their child, so they’re trying to make their own decisions of what’s in store for their future at the child’s next school, and they’re now sufficiently removed from the initial enrollment experience that they’re more apt to answer the question as to why their children have remained enrolled in the school, rather than why they enrolled their children in the school…and that’s Retention research; not Enrollment research.

Remember, there’s something your school has that absolutely no other school has.  If you think you know what that is, or you’d like to know what that is, sent an email to admin@schooladvancement.com with “Most Unique Differentiator” in the subject line.  I’ll share some of the answers in next month’s article, along with the correct answer.

© Michael V. Ziemski/SchoolAdvancement.com, 2012-2017