Schools that are new to full enrollment are realizing the impact of the rapid intake of so many families. As they’ve faced these new challenges, many are wondering if perhaps “full” isn’t the goal after all. In this four-part blog series, The Pursuit of Healthy Enrollment, we’re going to challenge you to rethink your enrollment goals and prioritize healthy, not just full.
Navigating a new season of opportunity
Most independent and faith-based school leaders with full or nearly full enrollment are navigating a new season of opportunity. It’s energizing to walk through the halls and hear the buzz. It’s invigorating to see so many new faces at faculty and staff meetings. It’s affirming to hear so many incoming families share their encouraging experiences with your school.
But rapid enrollment growth comes with its fair share of complexities. There are market forces driving families to your school, and this unprecedented season has left many feeling overwhelmed. Here are a few of the challenges we’ve seen schools across the country face.
A Change in School Culture
As the COVID-19 fog lifts, recently enrolled families now have the benefit of perspective and they’re deciding if they want to stay at your school or go somewhere else.
Of course, there are some families who never intended to stay. They’ve probably already unwound their decision and returned to the free public option or homeschool. But other families have been wowed by their experience and couldn’t imagine returning to their prior school. They’re your newest raving fans. Others haven’t really bought into the school’s mission and vision, but they’re comfortable. The teachers are nice, their child is happy, and they don’t want the hassle of making another switch.
Then there are those families who have stayed, but … well, things are a bit dodgy. They came in so fast that there wasn’t really time to slow-walk them through what they were signing up for. Now, without a mutual understanding of what your school is about, it’s evident there’s a mismatch.
Their kids are wearing out your teachers and agitating their peers.
Some require a level of academic support that stresses your resources.
These parents are in your inbox (or office) every other week.
Long-term families are voicing concern over the perceived changes in the school culture.
It probably feels like your school is walking along with a rock in its shoe. It’s uncomfortable for everyone, and with every step, the pain gets more intense.
Things are getting tight. The fire marshal might raise an eyebrow when surveying some of your classroom configurations. Perhaps you’ve rolled in a few modulars to open up new sections of crowded grades, or maybe you’ve even launched a satellite campus. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before you hire an architect, draw up some plans, and ramp up a capital campaign.
Faculty and Staff Capacity
Many schools have found their growth throttled by hiring challenges; qualified faculty and staff can be hard to find in some markets. They have dozens of families splashing around in the wait pool, but they simply can’t recruit teachers fast enough to meet demand.
And because full enrollment means there’s more to do and not enough people to do it, faculty and staff are taking on additional responsibilities, stepping into unfamiliar roles, and cramming more into fewer planning periods. They’re encouraged by the growth, but whew … it can be exhausting.
Gaps in Student Readiness
For some schools, it’s less a matter of staffing and more about the extra time required to help the newer kids get caught up.
With a rapid intake of students coming from different schools with significantly different levels of understanding, teachers feel the tension of moving a class forward when many students just aren’t where they need to be.
Of course, parent expectations have not changed. School leaders recognize the gaps; some have ramped up or expanded student success services. Regardless, there is no quick fix to this issue, as the root causes are specific to each student.
Strained Relationships with Long-term Families
At first, the “lifers” were excited to see new families discover the school they’ve loved for so long. But now, the luster is fading. Their kids are coming home with stories of new classmates who clearly don’t get how things go around here. The familiar conversations with faculty and staff are shorter, more sporadic, and tend toward areas of discontent.
Perhaps some influential families have even left, sharing their opinion on the way out that the school just wasn’t what it used to be in the “good old days.”
Outdated Strategic Plans
With the surge in enrollment, the School Board is discussing the implications for its long-range planning. Some are in the middle of creating strategic plans, while others are in the implementation process. And they’re all trying to read the tea leaves:
Will these new families stay?
Will the economy hold or tank?
Should we commit to a significant facilities upgrade?
Is it better to be aggressive and ride the wave of market demand, or should we batten down the hatches and prepare for heavy seas?
As they work through these questions, the current climate will spur some healthy debate around implications for the strategic plan.
Squishy Retention Strategies
With full classrooms, there is some much-needed, perhaps long-overdue conversation about retention strategies. Schools want to keep right-fit families engaged. But retention has always sort of taken care of itself.
Sure, there are preview days and re-enrollment deadlines and even watch lists for families who seem to be on the fence, but the reality is that no one has ever really owned retention. Perhaps “managing retention initiatives” is not even written into anyone’s job description.
In many cases, the responsibility falls to principals, but there is little collaboration with marketing and admissions. The good news is that there’s no time like the present to take some decisive steps to keep your enrollment where you want it to be.
You can get there from here.
Start by huddling with your school leadership team and identify the top three complexities of full enrollment your school is currently feeling.
What are the biggest stressors, or sources of friction?
Although there are no quick fixes, you can chip away at this list. If Squishy Retention Strategies is your biggest pain point, put down on paper what it would look like to have someone own retention. What should be included in their job description? If the responsibility is shared, what should that collaboration look like? Or, maybe it’s Gaps in Student Readiness. Implementing a more rigorous student evaluation step as part of your application process could help you screen more right-fit students.