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Will They Stay or Will They Go? Strategies for Understanding Independent School Families’ Intentions

Jan 13, 2024

In my almost two-decade-long journey working closely with schools, I've been intricately involved in navigating the challenges of re-enrollment periods. The privilege of collaborating with Heads of School and admissions teams has granted me insights into the complex web of dynamics during this critical phase. Bringing my holistic marketing background to the table has been instrumental in crafting innovative solutions to tackle these challenges head-on.

During the re-enrollment phase, schools often find themselves in a paradox: while there's an intense focus on attracting new families, there's a noticeable void of information regarding the potential families that might leave.

The repercussions of unexpected attrition or the departure of families we cherish are palpable. Beyond simply disrupting our admissions procedures, these instances often leave us with insufficient time to pivot our marketing strategies or reassess our admissions criteria effectively.

However, the burden of uncertainty surrounding parents' decisions—whether they opt to stay or leave—can be alleviated. School leaders wield a variety of tools to anticipate outcomes surrounding re-enrollment time. Here are some of these effective strategies:

  1. Surveys: For those familiar with my blogs, it's no secret that I advocate for surveys as valuable tools in gauging the thoughts and sentiments of parents and students. One of our ongoing initiatives with schools involves crafting a mid-year check-in survey. This succinct yet impactful survey poses a fundamental question: whether families plan to continue for the upcoming year, and invites them to share the reasons behind their decision. Typically circulated in January (sometimes in December, depending on the enrollment cycle), this survey's strength lies in its ability to segment responses by grade. This streamlined approach offers a swift overview of potential attrition, encouraging higher participation rates due to its brevity 
  2. Informal and Formal Parent Conferences: In working with several school clients, our efforts in retaining families have encompassed implementing both informal and formal parent conferences over the last couple of years. Informal conferences serve as brief check-ins bridging the gaps between formal sessions. Why are these sessions crucial for retention? Not only do they foster stronger bonds between parents and teachers, but they also serve as a proactive measure to resolve issues before they snowball into larger problems that disrupt the attrition cycle. Early identification of frustrations or dissatisfaction allows for timely intervention. Moreover, even if concerns cannot be resolved, documenting these conversations provides administrators with a trail and a clear pathway to identify families likely to leave. We adopt a color-coding system during these conferences; for instance, marking dissatisfied parents with a particular color like purple. This information aids admissions in planning for potential openings in affected grades.
  3. Teacher Team Meetings: Several schools we've collaborated with have integrated dedicated segments during their bi-weekly or monthly teacher team meetings to discuss families and retention. This practice ensures swift escalation of pertinent issues to the administration and facilitates the early identification and tracking of families at risk.
  4. Retention Committees: Establish committees comprising key administrators and personnel from diverse school departments. These committees can efficiently track, document, and analyze data encompassing teacher feedback, conference insights, survey responses, and devise strategies to support families facing challenges or counsel out those not ideally aligned with the school's ethos.
  5. Attrition Research: Often, schools approach us when they notice significant attrition levels within specific grades or classes. They seek comprehensive data and insights into the underlying causes leading families to leave and require recommendations to address these issues. It's fascinating how much parents are willing to share with a third party who isn't directly affiliated with the school. Through conducting one-on-one interviews and surveys, we've honed our ability to accurately predict attrition rates. We can even forecast the number of students likely to leave a particular grade and the reasons behind their departure. If your school is facing attrition challenges, considering the expertise of a third-party consultant can provide you with a clearer understanding of these obstacles. They can offer essential data, enabling you to grasp your current situation and devise effective strategies to overcome attrition problems.
  6. Touchpoints with Administrators: A highly effective strategy that has yielded positive results, particularly for smaller schools, involves assigning each staff member and administrator 10-15 families annually. The administrator's responsibility is to schedule dedicated time every week or every other week to connect with these families. This connection might involve sending a note, an email, making a phone call, or arranging a visit. Establishing these regular touchpoints nurtures communication and strengthens the relationship between the school and families. It also allows administrators and staff to genuinely understand these families. By fostering this connection, they gain insights into the families' level of satisfaction, enabling them to predict potential attrition more accurately.
  7. Parents as Resources (PA/Class Liaisons): Drawing from my personal experience as both a parent involved in school associations and someone deeply engaged with parent associations for almost two decades, I've learned a key truth: parents possess valuable insights. Parents tend to confide their concerns and emotions more readily to fellow parents within a class or grade rather than directly to administrators. That's why it's pivotal for school administrators to maintain regular interactions with Class Liaisons (Room Parents) and the Parents Association leadership. These interactions can take the form of informal check-ins or allocating time during leadership meetings for sharing thoughts and challenges encountered within each class and grade. This exchange of information provides a pulse on the school climate, aiding in preparedness during re-enrollment by identifying potential issues in advance.
  8. Tracked Attendance at Key Events: Tracking attendance at pivotal school events—such as Back to School Night, class gatherings, teacher conferences, and grade-previewing sessions—offers a window into families' commitment levels to the school community. When there's a discernible shift in attendance from a particular family, such as a sudden absence from these significant occasions, or if they consistently miss key events, it raises a red flag. At our school, we've developed a color-coded system to identify families displaying such attendance variations, allowing us to promptly follow up and understand the underlying reasons. This practice has proven to be a valuable indicator in assessing retention concerns.
  9. Donations Tracking: One often overlooked but highly effective strategy involves analyzing donation patterns. By structuring an abbreviated annual fundraising campaign that concludes on December 31st, we gain an invaluable tool for gauging families' ongoing support. This method generates a list in January known as "LYBUNTS" (Last Year But Unfortunately Not This Year), highlighting families who contributed previously but haven't this year. Additionally, we examine shifts in donation amounts—such as a drastic decrease from a regular $500 donation to $20—as potential red flags. These insights are crucial discussion points in our retention committee meetings, aiding in understanding evolving family dynamics and potential attrition factors.
  10. Deadlines and Continuous Enrollment: Reworking contract deadlines for current families significantly impacts our enrollment strategy. By instituting a policy where families need to provide advance notice or opt-out by a specified date well before new enrollment decisions, we gain greater flexibility. This adjustment allows us to intensify our efforts in marketing and engaging with prospective families well ahead of critical enrollment deadlines. This proactive approach enables us to ensure a more robust enrollment process while allowing families sufficient time for thoughtful decision-making.

Understanding and predicting family intentions are pivotal in fostering a stable school community. Implementing these strategies cohesively empowers schools to proactively address attrition concerns, ensuring a more informed re-enrollment process.


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