When I worked for a Diocesan Office for Catholic Schools, we developed an “internal slogan” for our first attempt at internal marketing (as opposed to the usual slogan/tag line for promoting our schools to external constituents).  It was “Together, We Move Forward.”

We have to move forward – after all, it’s called “Advancement.”

Going back to the way we did things before is regression, and it’s the first step toward closure.

So let’s talk about the first step toward growth. The first step to grow your school’s enrollment is to keep the enrollment you already have – so let’s focus on Retention this week.

Communication is key, as in all aspects of advancement, placing marketing at the center of the other four elements of advancement.

Communication with donors and potential donors (Development) is different from communication with current parents (Retention), which is different from communication with prospective parents (Enrollment), which is different from communication with internal constituents, such as church councils, pastors, parishioners and boards (Asset Management).

Communication with current parents must be increased at this time of year as they begin to make decisions about next year and re-enrolling their children in your school.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The month before schools shut down in 2020 in response to the pandemic, I experienced an AWESOME “Re-enrollment event” at a Christian school!  Truthfully, if they didn’t have this event, they may not have secured their enrollment for the coming year to effectively weather the storm sent our way by COVID-19!

Retention has become one of the hot topics among school administrators, but it’s something I started focusing on over a decade ago on SchoolAdvancement.com, wrote a white paper on it, then converted it to a book which was revised and updated just a couple of years ago.  But I first learned about its power when I was a broadcaster, and eventually became Program Director of a major market radio station in the late 1980’s.

A strategy used in the broadcasting business to build a radio station’s audience is to keep the listeners who are already tuned to the station listening for just a little longer rather than going away to do something else. This is why radio stations announce three or four songs or artists coming up in the next 15 to 20 minutes. Chances are, if you’re listening to that station, you’ll like at least one of those songs or artists enough to keep listening for the next 15 minutes through the commercials and not change to a different station. There are too many natural reasons for tune out (such as reaching your destination if you’re listening in the car, or a phone call if you’re at home) that maximizing “Time Spent Listening” is of utmost importance.

How important?  Consider the fact that YouTube hits now play a part in determining the “chart” placement of a song, and paid downloads are now included in the calculations. Many consumers become exposed to new music on YouTube, purchase music on the Internet, and passively listen to it on their mobile devices. The only time they’re listening to a radio is either when they’re at work or when they’re in their car, and even that habit is changing thanks to satellite radio and the ability to connect your mobile device to your vehicle.

Similarly, it’s important to keep the families you currently have in order to keep building your overall enrollment. This is the time of year when families say they’ll have to seriously weigh their options about returning next year, especially if your tuition has increased, and, more than likely, if you’re still telling them the tuition in 4 or 5 figures per year, rather than the few dollars and cents per hour.

For many families, their economic situation may be very difficult, even though they say they love the school as their educational environment of choice for their children. Most of the times, administrators say, “I understand,” and then worry what will happen if they leave.

Here’s the challenge – tell a family, “I understand completely, but please understand that if you leave, it makes it all the more difficult to continue the work of the school. Costs will go higher to make up for the loss of your children. However, if you stay, and perhaps invite several of your friends to enroll their children at our school, there is a good chance that we can continue our mission for years to come.  We may even be able to offer additional financial aid by enrolling more students in the school.”

By doing this, you’ve done three things:  retained a family, created a marketing resource for your school, and let the family know that they’re not just their own individual family, but are a part of larger organization and an even greater mission – and that’s what our baptism calls us to do!

Why may the parent consider staying? Because people don’t like change – even though EVERYTHING changes constantly!  Today’s parents also long, not just want, to be a part of a community; unfortunately, however, because of their upbringing, they really don’t know what community is.

We are social beings. We want to be part of a community, and would much rather remain part of a community we know than change communities. This helps to explain why it may be exciting for a father or mother to move to a new city for a new job opportunity while the rest of the family is traumatized.

Conversely, if other parents in their current neighborhood are telling them about how great their public school is, they know their neighbors will also be part of their new community at the public school, which could make the decision to leave an easier one to make.

Your school must prepare and be prepared to do the same by sharing that your school isn’t just “good,” or even “great.”  It needs to be excellent, as evidenced by your high test scores, zero tolerance for bullying and faith formation that builds the next generation of disciples.

Prepare…and be prepared.  Those are just a couple of the reasons the DREAM Framework this site has been built upon rearranged the letter to form ARMED.  Same elements, but completely different connotation.  Get ready…because if you’re having conversations about parents remaining as part of your school community with your parents today, your school is battling for its very existence, and you need to have the tools you need to fight those battles.

Interestingly, at a recent conference of Christian school leaders, the first slide of the opening presentation had only four words on it: “The battle is real.”

It may be very difficult for parents and their children to exit the Catholic or Christian school community for a public school system that may not be academically excellent, have conflicting “clique”-ish communities, and – well – you can’t even speak of a faith-based approach to education there.

Moreover, the more parents that are retained in your school, the more “Word of Mouth” marketing that can take place. It’s the least expensive and the most effective form of marketing.  Its power is felt by parents who are not part of the school community when they’re personally invited to join the school community by enrolling their children, rather than having an “All are welcome” marquee on the school’s front lawn.

And if you have an application process, require recommendations, and administer admission exams, those actions are NOT aligned with that message!

If you’d like to find out more about why building community with your school’s families is key to retaining students, check out the recently-updated edition of “Retention: A Systems Approach to Growing Enrollment” by visiting this link!

Remember the title of this article:  “United, We Stand.”  When even just a few parents start leaving, or talk to one another about why they’re leaving, that’s not a  conversation about uniting – and if you know that we stand when we are united, you also know what happens when we are divided.

With that in mind, I really hope we’re all praying this Lent for unity and not division in our nation.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2024