How many times have we heard about changing demographics, changing economic circumstances and changing attitudes based on the consumer’s experience of a company, service or product?

How many times have we heard that all those changes are detrimental to our schools’ survival?

Here’s a newsflash – EVERYTHING changes. If nothing changed, we would become stagnant, and we would die.  Therefore, wishing things would stay the same would bring about the same negative consequences!

Further, changing to a new process or tool and using it the same way you used the old process or tool can lead to even greater negative consequences!!

Demographics, economics, and now, COVID, are the easy “scapegoat” reasons.  It’s not all about the money, as many people claim.  Recall that in the most economically prosperous decade in our nation’s history, the 1990’s, faith-based school enrollment fell and schools closed.

Think of the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea has no outflow, hoards all the water that comes into it, and has one of the highest saline concentrations of any body of water in the world. Nothing lives in it (okay, something lives it – certain types of bacteria).  And today, even the water in the Dead Sea is starting to disappear.

The Sea of Galilee, conversely, is teeming with life, and is always changing. Water flows in, water flows out. Fish thrive.

Think of breathing. What would happen if we only had the ability to inhale?

Now, think of your school and the children that flow through them, rather than the number of children that are “in” them in any given year. The more children that flow through our schools, the more life that is in our hallways, the more vibrant our schools are

So if people aren’t moving in to your area, how can you get more children “in” your school – or, at least to “flow through” your school in terms of touring with their parents?

Here are three ways to increase your school’s enrollment:

  • Retention (the “experience”);
  • Marketing (“Baby Steps”); and
  • Development (Community events).

Once again, this is another example how all aspects of advancement are related. I’ve put items in parenthesis so these can be discussed a little at a time.

Let’s focus on the first part of Retention this week, and then continue with the process over the next four weeks.

There’s an adage in the media business – the first step to build an audience is to keep the audience you have.

That’s why when you’re watching TV or listening to the radio, they tell you what’s coming up next. They’ll hope you’ll like whatever’s coming up that you’ll stay tuned. Applying this to schools, the first step to build your enrollment is to keep the students you have.

In fact, when schools lament the effect of “declining enrollment,” most of the time, they’re still able to enroll students for kindergarten.  It’s that the students in the upper grades leave…and when one of the older children leave, usually the rest of their younger siblings go with them.  Declining enrollment really isn’t about not bringing more students into Kindergarten – it’s the failure to retain students!

After more than a decade and a half of writing about faith-based education, I believe there STILL is no empirical research on this phenomenon, but anecdotal evidence shows that a cohort of students which enter kindergarten with a particular number of students will see half the number of those students by the time that cohort reaches 8th grade.  It was true in 1974, it was true in 1997, it was true in 2011, and it’s still true today.  It’s the reason behind the fallacy that lulls elementary school administrators into a false sense of stabilization is when their incoming kindergarten cohort equals the number of 8th graders that are moving on to high school in a given year.

My updated book on Retention is available at and can be accessed by visiting this link.  Since teachers are at the heart of retention efforts, some school leaders have purchased multiple copies and have given them to their staff. Some have even used it for their professional development training for the year!  One school leader in Central Pennsylvania called it “the Bible” to be able to grow his school’s enrollment!

There are some professional consultants that say that enrollment growth begins with your teachers and staff.  While that’s EXTREMELY important, it’s not the only element at work.

So what’s the problem?

Many school leaders, school board members, and organizational administrators consider enrollment to be the combination of admission and retention.  The problem is, as sung in the song by jazz great George Benson, “The words got in the way.”

When you don’t define things properly, that’s where the problems begin. Remember, the Chinese proverb tells us, “The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names.”

When schools say they have an “enrollment” problem, they’re talking about the “whole” of a school’s enrollment.  You “enroll” new students in a school…but you don’t “enroll” returning students.  You “re-enroll” them – but you retain them by retaining their parents since they’re the ones paying the bill.

In a nutshell, there are three “top-line” considerations relative to retention:

• The “Experience”
• Financial aid (one part of Asset Management)
• Tuition model (the other part of Asset Management)

The “experience” doesn’t deal with the amount of teaching experience your staff has – it has to deal with the type of experience your parents are having relative to their child’s learning – and this is where not only teachers, but EVERY member of your staff plays a role.

If great things are happening with their child – academically, emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually (how about that – 5 elements!) – their perception is that their child is having a good learning experience (and note that learning is not just about academics).

If there are some academic difficulties, but teachers and staff are most helpful in working with the child and the parents in a very caring manner, the parents’ perception may still be that their child is having a good learning experience.

If the school demonstrates students caring for one another with, for example, a “buddy” system to prevent bullying, the parents’ perception may be that their child is having a good learning experience.

But if there are a couple of things that aren’t up to the expectations of a parent, then the entire learning experience may be adversely affected.  A child may not be talented at sports, and is therefore picked on by classmates, which leads to a negative self image, and their academic performance begins to decline.  Note how just one issue can lead to a complete systemic breakdown.  We’re seeing that today all around us, and that’s why an understanding of systems thinking is of supreme importance today!

Therefore, ANYTHING that detracts from a good learning experience is a reason for parents to leave!  In fact, good isn’t good enough.  Even great isn’t good enough anymore.  If you’re school is touting “academic excellence” as one of its hallmarks, parents don’t see the word “academic.”  They see “excellence,” and for something to be “excellent,” the whole thing has to be “excellent.”

For instance, if you had a child in your school with three “C”s, two “B”s and one “A+”, would you consider that child to be doing “excellent” work?  Even if you give an extra .5 quality point for the A+, that’s a QPA of 2.75.  That’s a C+.

A C+?  That’s a little better than average. And there’s no faith-based school that touts its “better than average” performance.

Rising tuition, therefore, is usually not the main reason that a child is withdrawn from the school; it is usually, however, the deciding factor when parents are considering disenrolling due to any number of negative “experiences.”

Think about it – are there parents who wish they could disenroll their child from the public school because of the negative experience their child is having there?

\You bet!! AND, that’s been demonstrated over the past few years, as public school mandates have parents choose to check out their local Catholic or Christian school.

For those who decide to remain in public school, what’s keeping them there and from enrolling them in a private or faith-based school?  The perceived high cost of tuition.

Notice – I said the perceived high cost of tuition.

When in a “paying” situation, most customers will not tell you what’s wrong – they will vote “with their feet.”

When people receive something they think they’re not paying for (they are paying for it through their taxes – but in many parts of the country, only if they own property) and are dissatisfied with it (such as a public school education), they will complain about it rather than take action to change. Why? Because people fear the unknown, one change leads to another, and continued change – known as transition – could be – no, will be – a lot of work.

If you could ask all the parents in the public school system in which your school is located this question: “If you are dissatisfied with the education your child is receiving, and you could enroll them in the school of your choice, would you do so?” what do you think their answer would be?

Many faith-based and private school administrators would say, emphatically, “Yes!”  That’s what our current reality has started to see, but it’s also why so many people jump on the school choice/voucher bandwagon.  However, the answer (which is seen in the actual practice) is usually split.

In a district with a high number of low-socioeconomic constituents, I’m sure many would want to leave the public school district, but many would stay (and continue to complain), especially if they were expected to not only pay, but participate to the degree that current parents in faith-based and private schools are expected to!

If parents were in a district with a low number of low-socioeconomic constituents, I would say they would remain in the public school district simply because they would continue to think that they can’t afford any amount of tuition, and the amenities of the public school (like sports programs and activities) may be more aligned with the student’s desire to participate in them.

Because school districts receive funding based on the tax base of the local community, low-socioeconomic communities may have little tax base to draw upon to attract and retain teachers, support top-rate athletics and activities that support and enhance classroom learning, and provide the technological infrastructure necessary to train children to compete in the world marketplace of the 21st century (notice all those “and”s in there).

Although some private and faith-based schools in these communities show better academic scores due to, perhaps, smaller class sizes and personalized instruction, these schools face the same challenges as their public school counterparts do. Further, if students would leave the public school for the private school, there would be more resources to benefit the students that remained, and the public school environment could be improved, while the private and faith-based school might continue to experience economic hardships.

Conversely, those in high-socioeconomic environments endure the inconveniences due to well-maintained facilities, excellent extra-curricular activities that may have a reputation of a winning tradition, technology-enhanced learning opportunities and special programs such as vo-tech career training. If the local faith-based or private school cannot provide these, and they were important to the student’s family, chances are students would remain in the public school.  That’s changing today, however, due to parents who are choosing to homeschool their child, and the cyber-charter schools that siphon funds away from the public school district because it’s also a tax-funded option.

The underlying reason that drives both of these scenarios is schools are not just places for learning.  They’re societies, or, more correctly, communities. Once a person is inculcated into a society or other tight-knit community, it is very difficult to choose to opt for one that may have more potential, yet is filled with responsibilities and expectations. Moving to a faith-based or private school would certainly fall into that category.

Additionally, one would think that since a large exodus from a school would be disastrous, a large influx would be a blessing. That’s not necessarily so either, as any type of radical change can bring about other changes, which may not be very popular, or could be fiscally constrictive.

For instance, if 14 6th graders suddenly moved from one school to another because all the parents got together and decided they wanted their kids to go to school together, and if one was going to do it, they would all do it, there would need to be a choice made by the school administration:

  • a) Split the 14 children up into the 2 existing 6th grade classrooms that had 24 children each, creating 31 children in each classroom – two more than the school policy “maximum” of 29;
  • b) Hire another 6th grade teacher.  However, you’d need an additional 4 children or the new teacher hiring would mean a net loss of funds for your school, since there would be 3 classes of 20, 21 and 21 respectively – and you need 22 in each class to make budget; or
  • c) Start a waiting list. Interestingly, by telling some of those parents that they would be placed on a waiting list since your maximum class size was 29, you could run the risk of losing all of them.

There is much debate as to how change should be made – gradually or globally. Gradually runs the risk of “dragging out” the process, but it can be accomplished. The key is knowing that there is a plan for change, and by detailing the step-by-step process that will take place. The plan for the gradual changes must be known up front, too. For instance, if you want to exercise at a gym three days a week, it easier to have that goal stated, but then go one day per week until it becomes a habit. Then go two, then finally, go three. You might even go four…or five. But also with that change comes the realization that exercise isn’t enough. You need to change your diet. And, you may also have to change your activity schedule so that you can shop for the food to prepare the meals that are necessary for your new diet.

Therefore, while gradual changes can be good, ALL the known changes necessary for improvement need to be known, and, if one knows the changes that will need to happen, better results can be achieved if they’re all implemented at the same time!  The system  – not just the process – needs to be put in place. Not doing so gives ample opportunity for failure since other events or circumstances could derail and delay the plan.

Further, unlike the song made famous by The Rolling Stones, time is NOT on your side. Today’s parents expect immediate results, so you must either fulfill those expectations or educate your parent community regarding why those expectations are unrealistic in such a way that they are emotionally moved to participate in the leader’s vision for the school.

Which leads to the other driving factor – a vision for the school must be formulated and articulated. There must be a goal toward which one is striving. If not, then change after change year after year can become tedious, and today’s parents and guardians will only stand for tedious for so long.  Tedium is not a positive “experience” of your educational environment.

Changing everything at once is a manifestation of “Chaos Theory.” By “upsetting the apple cart” and changing everything simultaneously, there is no option for non-participation. Everyone MUST have a role to play, pulling together to make the necessary changes so the desired goal can be achieved.

Please note the key phrase in that sentence – “the desired goal.” This type of change also needs a vision, and, once again, ALL the known changes necessary for improvement need to be communicated and implemented, and the system necessary to achieve the goal must be put in place. Not doing so gives ample opportunity for failure.

Both methodologies – “over time” and “all at once” – share the same common denominator…a vision. This is why Scripture tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). If you’re just going along from year to year “hoping” that things will get better, that more students will come to your school, and that more donors will contribute, know that “hope” is excellent for ministry, but is not a good business strategy.

How do you know if a parents thinks their child is having a good experience of your school? Ask them! We’ll cover that next week.

And, so we can “retain” your attention for the next four weeks to cover this whole topic, here’s what we’ll be discussing:

•November 4: Surveying Your Parents About the “Experience.”

•November 11: Financial Aid and Your School’s Tuition Model

•November 18: Marketing (Baby Steps)

•November 25: Development (Community Events)

The last article will be published over the “Thanksgiving break” – which really isn’t a “break.”  It’s a time necessary to reflect, rest and be truly grateful for all of our blessings, but life continues, and that includes the life of your school.

You’ve also probably noted that the question posed as the title of this article wasn’t answered.  Too many times, people “just want an answer” rather than getting into the underlying causes surrounding the question.  If you’d read this far, you’re not a “TL/DR” person, and that’s commendable.  Too many people today just don’t read.  They want bullet points.  And, in our current society of war and gun violence, bullets kill, especially when they’re not put into any kind of context.

Recall the method of teaching that Jesus used – if he answered the question directly, the people usually didn’t like the answer He gave; if the people were given a parable in response, they would listen to the story…and then, perhaps wonder why He didn’t answer the question directly, or even His disciples would ask what He meant by the the story He told.

Today, research has shown that even if one is told what to do to improve their health, there’s a 1 in 9 chance that they will follow the advice given.

With all that in mind, if you’d still like the answer, send an email to [email protected] with the words “No children in my community” in the subject line.  You’ll get another question to answer your question.  It’s may be the shortest question you receive to cause some of the most difficult thinking you’ve experienced.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2023