The chaos and uncertainty that accompanied the start of school last fall led some families to explore alternatives for where their children attend school. In some cases, parents decided to transfer their children to what seemed to be the best match for their assessments of the seriousness of the pandemic and the necessary mitigation steps. Some students enrolled in private or parochial schools that committed to start the year with in-person learning. Others transferred to virtual schools so that students would not have in-person contact with others not in their family safety pod. Of course, some students returned to their original school during the year after having a less than satisfactory experience at their new school.
Certainly, protecting the health and safety of their children was a reasonable concern for families. However, the consequence for many schools and school districts has been a significant reduction in enrollment, even though superintendents and principals followed federal, state, and local health agency guidance in their response to the pandemic. Of course, reductions in enrollment can also have significant financial implications.
Now the pandemic is subsiding, and in-person learning will likely be available to virtually all students in the fall. Many school leaders are faced with the challenge of reattracting students who left and potentially attracting other students and families who may be interested in considering a change in their school enrollment. Still, developing and implementing a plan to accomplish this task requires careful thought and insightful actions. Here are some do’s and don’ts to consider as you prepare to address this challenge:
- Start by discovering the reasons why families chose to leave. Consider personal reach-outs, surveys, interviews, focus groups and other strategies to collect this information. It may be that the reasons are no longer relevant as the worst of the pandemic passes, but incorrect speculation can lead to making the situation worse. To the extent practical, address the concerns of families in your “new normal” as in-person school returns.
- Leverage your “new normal” to inform people of the new opportunities and benefits of attending your school or schools. If you have integrated lessons from the pandemic experience, redesigned learning experiences, developed new learning environments, and made other changes, let stakeholders know through newsletters, podcasts, blogs, and any other means that reach families.
- Make the transition back as convenient as possible. Where practical, streamline the enrollment process. Consider assigning a staff liaison to assist and support families as they transition. An extra level of attention and support may be all some families need to decide to return.
- Invite students and their families to visit the school and experience the “new normal” you and your staff are creating. Feature learning opportunities, social experiences, co-curricular activities, and other opportunities available in the coming year. Fun, excitement, relationships, and rich and varied learning experiences can be compelling as families make decisions.
- Use “relational marketing” or word-of-mouth to support your recruitment efforts. Families and students often rely heavily on the observations and opinions of friends, neighbors, and co-workers as they make decisions about which school their children will attend. The idea of “building back even better” can be a good way of communicating that the benefits of the past will be present and new opportunities will make the experience even better.
- Criticize the opportunities and benefits available at the school in which families enrolled their children. It may be that your school or schools offer far more benefits and better opportunities in multiple areas. However, appearing to disrespect the schooling choice of parents is likely to lead to defensiveness and may work against your goal of reattracting them.
- Don’t blame or shame parents for the decision they made. You may be suffering significant negative consequences due to their decision. You may even believe that their children have not been well-served by their choice. Still, your choosing to point out their mistake is more likely to work against your goal as parents may feel the need to defend their decision. If there are significant differences in your favor, parents will probably sort them out as they consider what you have to offer.
- Don’t assume families and students are not interested in returning. Of course, some families and students will be pleased with their choice to change schools. They may have discovered friends and made connections they want to maintain and will not be open to returning. However, there will likely also be a number of families and students who, if made aware of the opportunities associated with returning, will choose to reenroll in your school or schools. If you choose to ignore the possibility, they will probably stay where they are.
- Don’t accept an initial “no” as a permanent response. Some families and students may not have given much thought to returning. When initially approached with the idea, they may decline. Yet, after more thought and conversations with friends, neighbors, and others, they may become more open to the possibility. Varied avenues of communication, a strong case, and an open and supportive approach may be what it takes to convince them.
Admittedly, convincing people to reconsider a decision they have made can be a challenge. Still, if you are committed to making a strong case for enrollment and are positive without pressuring, you may be surprised at how many families and students choose to return.