Thinking Retention: Beliefs and Dreams

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It’s the time of year when schools are thinking extra hard about next year’s enrollment numbers, which means it can also be the time of year when some families are thinking about making a move. Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a faculty about retention and internal marketing, a topic that isn’t so much on most teachers’ minds as the fall term goes into its final weeks.
I can’t refrain from using my inevitable term “mission” here, by which I refer both to the statement of that name and to the other aspirational documents, words, and phrases that schools bandy about by way of reminding themselves of their higher purposes and most deeply ingrained principles. In our webinar last week for the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals my pal Tiffany Hendryx made the point that mission statements are both aspirational and foundational—sometimes, she said, they are like seeds containing the school’s DNA, from which spring programs and policies.
In the matter of internal marketing, of telling the school’s story truly and well within the community, making sure that faculty and staff (and coaches, to be sure) share clear sense of this DNA—these ideas and beliefs—is extremely important. If retaining current students is a priority at your school, and it should be, it might be worth providing a refresher course in mission (in all its forms) and exploring ways in which you might expand or focus programming to support the ongoing education of current families in the virtues of staying with you.
One of the points that I made with the group yesterday is that a family chooses a school because at some point something about the school struck a chord with parental aspirations, even dreams—that somehow they saw your school as just the place to develop their child into the best, highest version of him or herself. If your school offers a philosophically and programmatically consistent experience, you should be finding ways to continually remind families of how your school will sustain their child’s development toward the fulfillment of their evolving dreams from grade to grade, division to division.
This kind of internal marketing for retention can become a kind of regular celebration of what is best about your school. Along with experiences—sampler days when students (and parents/guardians) can experience life at the next level, for example, or events in which kids at the highest level explain to parents/guardians the leadership and growth opportunities they’ve had (by sticking around for the upper school or the final year, say)—look for language and visual images that convey the idea that your school is not a series of plateaus but a rising crescendo of great, developmentally appropriate experiences toward a magnificent conclusion.
And collect stories. Imagine all the great stories about kids that your faculty takes home over the course of a week or a term or a year and shares with their own partners, families, and friends. What if all these were to become part of the greater, ongoing portrait of your school and how it supports kids in their growth at every level?
A long time ago I collected some wisdom on this topic on behalf of the National Association of Independent Schools; the resulting monograph is available here (behind a log-in, I must add).
But retention begins, I think, by reflecting on that dream that first brought the child to your school and by thinking about what that dream was—presumably it had something to do with what your school claims to believe in. The key is to keep identifying ways to keep these ideals front and center in the discussion even as you develop nuts-and-bolts policies and programs to support the goal of keeping the students you have.
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