How can we recruit new families into our school community? And how can we retain the families we already have?
Even in a relatively small school, there needs to be a designated person on staff in charge of recruiting new students. Often, it is the Director of Admissions, but that person still looks to the principal for guidance. Ultimately, no matter how good your admissions department is, parents want, and need to know, who is steering the ship of their child’s school. They need to trust that you, as principal, “see” them and their child.
1. Recruitment - how to bring new families into the school community
Outreach: Form relationships with leaders of feeder organizations. Leaders of these programs will be more apt to recommend a school that is familiar to them. Seek out library story hours, synagogue tot groups, and home daycares.
Participate in preschool and private school fairs. You want your school’s name out in front of people as much as possible.
Set an inexpensive application fee ($50-$75). The goal is to get as many names as you can on your potential family list. A high application fee will discourage families who aren’t seriously considering your school as an option, and you won’t get a chance to sell them on your school.
Host Events: Invite applicants to school events - school assemblies, concerts, class presentations, or graduations. Often, potential families are just “fishing,” but after attending an event that showcases your school, they may see you more seriously as an option.
Hold community (i.e. non-school) events in the school to bring outside people into the building. Align these events with your school’s mission/identity. Host a visiting author, a community lecture, or an educational movie with school experts leading a post-film discussion. Plan a gluten-free cooking night or a challah baking demonstration. When families feel more comfortable in a building, they will be more likely to apply to the school.
Ask current parents to host an evening get-together at their home and invite potential parents. Current teachers, administrators, and students can share how the school is unique and effective. People are more likely to show up to an event like this because of a personal connection or as a favor to a friend.
Media: Develop a social media presence to convey the school’s uniqueness and effectiveness. Communicate the school’s benefits rather than its features. Share student accomplishments after matriculation and personal student success stories. Highlight staff’s accomplishments. Use social media as a way to join and even set the conversation about education, especially focusing on the unique mission/values/pedagogical identity of the school. Make sure the buzz is about you, not from you.
Distribute a copy of your newsletter and/or blog to varied locations. These could be synagogues, feeder organizations, and Jewish events.
Continuously upgrade your website. Highlight new staff hires. Highlight upcoming events and keep the calendar current. Highlight school and student accomplishments (student winner of science fair, school recognized as blue ribbon school, orchestra invited to perform nationally, sports team moving to next level, etc.). Bring in a professional photographer once a year to take targeted but informal pictures of students for the website.
It can take a great deal of time and energy to recruit new students. Consequently, it is critical to retain existing families for the school’s sustained growth.
2. Retention - how to keep the families we already have
Academics: Establish a strong academic program by hiring and retaining the best staff possible. Staff continuity is critical. Find ways of supporting staff that are not financially based if funds are limited. Ultimately, families stay because their children are happy; one of the reasons their children are happy is that they have excellent teachers.
Family Connections: Ask your most positive parents to be ambassadors for the school. Meet with them before the school year ends to coach them on how to best be an ambassador. Before the new school year begins, pair each new family with an ambassador family.
Host an opening-day all-school picnic the first or second weekend after school starts. Before your opening-day picnic and back-to-school night, remind your ambassador families to contact their “buddy” family to encourage attendance. Pair each new student with a buddy in a similar grade or with a similar interest. (newspaper, yearbook, sports team, same neighborhood, etc.)
Ask teachers to phone each family in their respective classroom before Rosh Hashanah to give a positive greeting.
An excellent gesture is for the principal to phone each new family to get their feedback by the end of the first week of school.
Student Connections: Put in place “moving-up” programs at pivotal grade breaks before springtime.
• From preschool into kindergarten
• From kindergarten into the grades
• From the primary grades into middle school
Host a “visit the classroom” day for students to visit next year’s classes. (Example: second graders visit third grade in May.) Ask the veteran students to talk about what is special in their class to get the incoming students excited. This excitement travels home to parents.
Put in place programs where students from different grades interact, so students feel connected to each other. (For example, a Buddy Program.) It is harder to leave a place when you are connected to others. Have mixed grades attend events like a Rosh Chodesh breakfast, a holiday assembly, a science or history fair.
Create multi-age sports teams so students feel committed to one another.
There are countless units that classes can present to younger students, such as an author study, immigration projects, biographies, and reenactments of historical events.
There are many ways to recruit and retain students. As the principal, you know your school community, and you know what will work best for your school.
About the Author: Mrs. Miriam Schiller
Miriam Schiller has been immersed in education for almost 50 years, teaching everything from 2-year-olds to 8th graders. For almost 30 years, she served as Principal of Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL where she tripled the enrollment of the Kindergarten-8th grades and doubled the number of children in the preschool. Under Schiller's tenure, the school became known for its innovative strategies, including multi-age classrooms, a buddy system, and Schiller's one-on-one method of teaching children to read. Schiller holds a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Illinois and a MA in Administration and Supervision from Loyola University. She is passionate about Jewish education and about using her expertise to fuel the next generation of day schools. Currently, Mrs. Schiller works in the Curriculum Department of Walder Education and is available for coaching by appointment.