Gather Your School’s Current Families to Stop Mid-Summer Melt

This week’s strategy focuses on retention, which is important during the summer.

High temperatures make cold treats like ice cream, ice pops and popsicles melt. Enrollment is no different. Most school administrators hold their breath, hoping that those families that said they’d be coming back for the next school year show up on the first day of school.

How do you make sure that happens? You have to keep in contact with parents during the summer.  Just as you must maintain the relationship with your donors via your development efforts, you need to maintain the relationship with your current customers.  And make no mistake…parents who are paying for their children’s education expect excellence for the 4 or 5 figure tuition amounts they’re paying.  That’s not just for academic excellence, but fpr excellence in every part of their experience.

I know – you’re going to tell me they’ve paid a registration fee of $50 for their family to secure their seat.  Do you know what $50 is?  Dinner for 4 at a local restaurant.  Parents will pay that fee and their children still won’t show up on the first day of school.  How do I know this?  I’ve seen it.  You’ve seen it.  I even see parents that are enrolled in a tuition payment plan after paying the registration fee leave, and that’s even after the fee for their payment plan has been paid, as well as their application fee for financial aid.  We’re now over $100, and they still leave.

There are two ways to secure your school’s projected enrollment during the summer.  This is one way.  The other way is another topic for another day, and deals with how you collect your tuition.

Unfortunately, if your school is completely shut down during July, you may need to plan on losing students.  Parents today expect immediate response, so if they need to wait to have their questions answered, you may be missing out on your chance to enroll a few new families.  You may also be thinking that closing for a month only results in losing 2 or 3 children per grade per year in your PK-8 school.  Chances are that most of those “lost” enrollments happen in the higher grades.  If that trend continues, you might have to the make the decision to completely drop 7th and 8th grade.  If attrition continues, the school may look at becoming a PK-4 or PK-5 to continue to be viable, but then the fixed costs of building maintenance, heat, light, water and sewage start to require tuition to be increased simply because of the reduced sized of the school and the fewer number of families to help foot the bill.  Then it merges with another school, then two merged schools merge, and finally down the road, there’s one school set to serve communities that used to have a number of schools serving them.

Several years ago, it was announced that a particular Catholic school would be the new single elementary school to serve the neighborhoods of the City of Pittsburgh on its South Side and into the city’s South Hills.  Encompassing Brookline, Beechview, Mount Washington, Overbrook, Warrington, Allentown, the South Side flats and slopes, Mount Oliver, and extending into Carrick, I’ve lost count trying to recall the number of parochial schools which used to serve these communities that merged into regional schools, and were then further merged until only one school now remains.  Each of these parish-based Catholic schools had significant enrollments too!  This isn’t the result of shifting demographics and difficult economic times that have recently occurred.  It’s a result of actions, or, in some instances, the absence of actions, which began happening 50 years ago.

In the past 50 years, families went from having 4, 5 or 6 children or more in the early part of this century to having 3 or 4 children in the 1960’s, to having 1 or 2 children today.  In August of 2012, The Huffington Post reported that the United States birth rate was not sufficient enough to keep the population stable (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/15/us-birth-rate_n_1779960.html).  What does that mean?  Fewer children being born means fewer adults.  Those fewer adults will then have even fewer children, and now, we’re on the third “generation” of even fewer adults whose digitally-native children are entering elementary school.

A quick look at the numbers shows that in 1910, there were approximately 2,777,000 births in the 46 states of the United States.  The population of our nation was 92,228,496.  In 2010, there were approximately 4,007,000 births in the 50 states of the United States.  The population of our nation was 308,745,538.  Therefore, while the population more than tripled in 100 years, the amount of births didn’t even double.

Combine these figures with the attitudes of a generation of adults (Generation X) who value individuality more than the expectations that go along with being a supporting member of a community, and you start to understand why “shifting demographics and difficult economic times” are easy scapegoats for some significant systemic and attitudinal issues.  So let’s decide to turn the tide of your school’s enrollment slide with a baby step to solidify your school’s current parent community.

Consider gathering everyone back to school during July for a movie and ice cream – a creative tie-in for stopping enrollment “melt.” Perhaps show a family friendly movie, and since you’re not going to charge anything for attending, you’re not breaking any laws as long as you own the video. Perhaps a local business could donate the ice cream. Somewhere around the middle to end of July is a good time, or even the beginning of August for those schools that begin later in the month or in September.

Local communities sponsor events on Sunday afternoons. Kids have baseball games throughout the week and on Saturdays. If you’ve never done it before, pick a day, send an invitation to your families, and stick to it. The point is to keep your families together, so don’t worry about inviting community members, business supporters, and donors. This is a family thing, and in tough times, families have to stick together. Communities also have to stick together. Your school is a community that needs to stick together.  It’s also not a fund raising thing…it’s a fun thing.  You’d want to post the event on your school’s Facebook page, but don’t tweet the invitation.  At the event, you’d want to tweet a long shot of all the families enjoying the event to those families considering enrolling their children in your school.

As for the invitation, it would help if you had every family’s email address so there doesn’t have to be a special paper invitation created, printed, mailed and then hope for people to respond. Email is quick, and you can even ask for an immediate response. If all your families have cellphones and you have an “important information alert system” for your school, consider a text blast with a tinylink/shortlink to more information on your school’s Web site.

If you think time is short this year, and won’t be able to have a movie and ice cream event, but you have the ability to spend some dollars on postage and little “unexpected extra,” create a note to all of your parents, and include a pack of sticks of chewing gum (but not those press-out tablet varieties – make sure you get sticks of gum).  At a $1 or $2 a pack, such a mailing will cost several hundred dollars, but you can convey the message that it’s important to continue to “stick” together, and give your families something to “chew on” over the summer months.

The fact is that you need to do something to keep in touch with your families AND keep your families together over the summer. Think of it as shepherding. The shepherd’s job is to keep the flock together and moving in the correct direction. What do you think would happen if the shepherd takes a nap for, oh, say, a month?

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2017