Thirteen years ago at this time, experts said the economy was starting to “turn around.”

Twelve years ago, they said that the recovery will take a very long time, events in Greece and Europe affected our stock market, military actions in Afghanistan continued, provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act started to kick in, and unemployment rates were still at unacceptably high levels.

Eleven years ago, we were embroiled in bitter election-year rhetoric, and news items featured business owners who were are accused of threatening their employees if certain individuals were re-elected.  Viewed from one perspective, it was seen as a way to force employees to sway their vote if they want to keep their jobs; from another perspective, if the businessman spent the last four years laying off half of his workforce to maintain his company, and the trend continued for the next four, what “vision” is there for him to expect anything different?

Ten years ago, our country averted a default on our national debt which could have had catastrophic consequences for the economies of the world.

Nine years ago, two words – “ISIS” and “Ebola.”

Eight years ago, while the media focused on the front-runners in both political parties, many of the people I came in contact with were fearful if ANY of the candidates who threw their hat into the ring were elected to the highest office in our nation.

Seven years ago, we witnessed one of the most divided elections in our nation’s history, and many were uncertain about what would happen next.

Six years ago, we saw celebrities being embroiled in sex scandals, athletes taking a knee in protest during our nation’s national anthem, weather events that have wiped out livelihoods and island populations, and the threat of nuclear attacks which could wipe out so much more.

Five years ago, we were in the midst of another “cleansing” of church personnel, as victims of abuse that happened 30, 40 or even 50 years ago came forth because of state investigations.  Abuse of children is sickening, repugnant and purely evil, but the consequences have now put any type of behavior that shows compassion toward one another in jeopardy because it now matters how those actions will be perceived.  And, of course, the political divisiveness continues, and, as some would say, had become even deeper.

Four years ago, the division widened as political rhetoric heated up and we started to hear about a new virus that no one had ever experienced before, cause significant illness in the far East, and reminiscent of the SARS virus of 2002.

Three years ago, another two phrases summed up our world:  Coronavirus pandemic and election insanity.

Two years ago, workers were just quitting their jobs as “The Great Resignation” got underway, people refusing to get vaccinated yet don’t want to die from the coronavirus, political division, personal rights vs. public health, and supply chain problems as new cars can’t be delivered because there aren’t enough computer chips.

Last year: A war between Russia and Ukraine, skyrocketing inflation, and teetering on the edge of another recession.

This year: Israel vs. Hamas, and economic concerns continue, and the building anxiety over political leadership and next year’s presidential election.

Looking for some good news?

The Good News is that we are people of hope.

St. Paul said that there are three things that last – faith, hope and love. Faith is belief, hope is trust, and love is sacrifice.

Unfortunately, there are those today who do not believe, who do not trust, and who do not sacrifice.

Fortunately, though, if you are reading this, we are engaged in faith-based schools which allow students to do all those things. Hopefully, we’ll heed the words of Scripture, and train up this generation in the “way they should go.”

One way is to make sure there are students in our schools through “Baby Steps” Marketing.

It helps to realize that both Enrollment and Development are both “long-term” strategies. They require “sales processes,” such as meticulous record-keeping, relationship building, and systematic follow-up. If you’re not doing these things and wondering why your enrollment is declining and blaming your school’s lack of funding on the economy or the pandemic, then you’re not doing things you have to do today to survive.

One schools I spoke with a few years ago lost a significant number of students prior to the pandemic.  I asked the school’s principal, “Who’s your enrollment director?”  The answer: “We don’t have one.”

That’s like a secure jewelry store that has a security system on the front door and relying on selling pieces of exquisite jewelry not having a salesperson, and just expecting that people will buy what they have.

Businesses engage in consulting to improve the processes they utilize.  If you’ve ever heard of Six Sigma Certification, it’s given to a company that has completed training in this area to make them as efficient as possible.  However, since most administrators, boards, pastors, parents, and anyone else you can think of associated with faith-based schools shudder when they’re spoken of as a business, they continue to languish until they consolidate or close.

Realizing that we don’t simply just walk up to a potential donor and ask them for a contribution, the same process of engagement needs to be practiced with parents of potential students in our schools. A relationship must first be established with a prospective donor before that prospect can become “engaged” – participating in a deeper relationship – with the school. Engagement is the step that must occur before the person becomes a contributing donor to the school.

Similarly, you can’t simply approach a parent when a child turns 5 and expect them to enroll their precious little one in your school – especially if your school charges a significant sum for tuition. By the way, “significant” can be described  as any dollar amount equal to or more than four digits…and I’ll bet that’s where your tuition is set.

So when does the engagement process begin? If you consider decisions to enroll in a faith-based or private high school begin to be thought about when the child is in 5th grade, that’s 4 years before 9th grade begins.  Therefore, if you looking to get students to your 3 or 4 year old PK program, the engagement process must begin shortly after the child is born! When a child is born in your parish or church family, make note of it in your meticulous record-keeping system.

Read that again – if you don’t have a meticulous record-keeping system, that’s now #1 on your “Do” list.

When the child is baptized, that is their “starting day.” After all, it’s said in the Baptism ritual that the child has become a new creation that day. On that occasion, a letter is sent to the parents and the child (in the case of a Catholic School, from the Bishop of the Diocese where the school is located), along with a small appropriate plush animal.  For a Catholic or Christian school, I would suggest a lamb, since Jesus is the Good Shepherd and looks after the sheep – and finds the ones who stray. For other faith-based and private schools, perhaps there is an organization affiliated with your school who would like to embroider the school logo on a baby blanket and present it as a gift to the child’s parents.  It represents warmth and security in the cold and oftentimes impersonal world.

On the first anniversary of the Baptism, the parents and child receive a letter from the Superintendent of Schools, or in the case of a Christian school, a Head of School or administrator, along with a magnetic picture frame that parents can put on their refrigerator. The border of this frame says, “Future Catholic School Student,” or “Future Christian School Student,” and the child’s picture is placed in the frame for all to see when they walk into the kitchen.  Why the kitchen?  In non-pandemic times, it’s where everybody gathers when they come to your house.  (You’d like to think it’s the family room or the living room, but in order for everyone to feel welcome in your home, they’ll find their way to the kitchen sooner or later).

On the second anniversary of the Baptism, the parents and child receive a small book of a child’s first prayers since the child should be learning his/her prayers at that time, along with a letter from the Pastor of the parish or the Board of Pastors, inviting them to be a part of the community and to experience the school – usually through an event like a basketball game, school play or concert.  Notice that while schools are considering focusing on academics and cutting extra-curriculars like this, these are the events that will draw people to your school and engage them emotionally before the child begins attending classes.

On the third anniversary of the Baptism, the moms and their children receive an invitation to an open house tea from the Principal of the school. At this point, the child is 3 years old, and may be ready to enter a PK3 program. If your school has one, you’ve now earned the right to ask that parent to consider your school since you’ve laid the groundwork for the past three years.

If you’re part of an elementary school, and having just read this, say to yourself, “This doesn’t apply to me – I don’t have a Pre-K program,” you need to start one. It’s the best feeder system for an elementary school, especially if you include the parents in the school activities to make them a part of the school community. In many areas, Pre-K programs become “money-making” programs because of their demand.

States are starting to realize this, and have extended their funding to all-day Kindergarten as well as pre-K programs.  If this is the case, you now need to know what makes your PK a remarkable place to be…just like the rest of your school vs. the other schools that are, indeed, competing for the attention of parents of young children.  Remember that you are also battling cyber-charter schools and homeschooling in order for your school to continue to survive.

Want a way to make your pre-K program remarkable?  Teach the children music.  Teach them to play an instrument.  Start music education since it will develop the neuropathways in their brains for higher-order thinking when they’re toddlers, tweens and teens.  Then watch your academic scores go through the roof when they get into the higher grades.

A word of caution – I have spoken with principals who have said they have a great relationship with “an organization that’s right down the road from them” which has a Pre-K program, and don’t want to start their own to provide competition and jeopardize that relationship.  One of those schools that maintained that attitude closed a number of years ago.  Relationship is important…but it must be a mutually beneficial one.

I also can point to a couple of examples where a local non-profit organization has discontinued their Pre-K program and left the school with having to build a program from scratch instead of talking with the school and referring the families of those students to school so they would have the ability to continue the PK experience.  The school would then have a number of families ready to enroll their children in a PK program rather than needing to start something from the ground up with no guarantee of enrollment.  When the future of your school is at stake, remember that doing the right thing isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

And don’t we teach that to the children in our schools?  As H. L. Mencken has been quoted as saying, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2023