Pennsylvania school re-shapes enrollment effort

Imagine yourself in this scenario: You are the new administrator of a small private Christian school. For a number of years now, your school has enjoyed steady enrollment growth. Families are attracted to its diverse student body; highly qualified teachers and caring staff; Biblically-based curriculum; and abundant co-curricular opportunities. Students come to you, prompted mostly by the word-of-mouth testimonies of loyal constituents. As enrollment continues to climb, your stakeholders see the need for increased student capacity. Leaders conduct a successful capital campaign for major improvement and expansion of your facilities.

But after completing the project, enrollment levels off. Then, it begins to slowly decline. In fact, just four years after building, your student body has room to grow by roughly 40%! Internally, your program is as robust as ever. Your patrons are committed and your constituents are generous. The future may still be bright, but may require your enrollment efforts to shift from “relatively minimal and passive” to “intentional and sophisticated.”

And with limited experience and no enrollment person currently on staff, perhaps your biggest question becomes, “How?”

For Keith Garner, this scenario requires no imagination. He has witnessed it unfold for Lititz Area Mennonite School (LAMS), where he is currently in his second year as head administrator.

Located in southeastern Pennsylvania, LAMS serves grades pre-K-8 and is one of eight such Mennonite schools in the greater Lancaster area. In addition to this high level of competition, several other external factors have, in recent years, influenced enrollment. Among them:

• an increasing number of potential patrons are considering home schooling.

• the nationwide recession has created financial hardship for many families, including their ability to pay for private education.

• Christian education is a waning priority for some parents.

Recognizing these realities, and anticipating that these circumstances may be unlikely to change anytime soon, the school decided to be proactive in addressing its challenges.

Primed to be proactive

A few things were working in LAMS’ favor. First, it already had an active enrollment committee, formed several years ago upon a staff vacancy. The group includes Garner and representatives from the board, staff and patron body. Second, Garner, who has worked at the school a total of 23 years, had noticed enrollment numbers dwindling and so entered his new position eager to try some new ideas.

In the summer of 2012, LAMS also contracted with Advancement Associates (AAI). Principal Rich Gerig first conducted an enrollment audit. Based on the audit, AAI recommended the school take the following steps, and offered suggestions for how to achieve each one:

1. Build the enrollment database.

2. Review retention patterns.

3. Identify distinctives of LAMS.

4. Identify ‘desirable outcomes’ of a LAMS education.

5. Strengthen visitation activities.

6. Identify and mobilize networks of current patrons.

7. Prepare formal enrollment and communication plans.

8. Consider hiring an enrollment director.

Tough questions, concrete steps

Gerig asked—and continues to ask—tough questions, Garner says. “He forced us to really look at what we were doing in the area of enrollment. And what has come to light is what we really were not doing.”

Systematically tracking queries was one thing LAMS began working on right away. They created a tool that each secretary uses to gather information from every prospective patron phone call or drop-in. This information goes immediately into a prospective student database, which will be used when organizing a February open house.

Other immediate steps have also been taken:

1. Garner has begun conducting informal exit interviews with each patron family who leaves LAMS, and plans to develop a more formal exit survey.

2. The school made enrollment growth a part of its strategic plan in its recent re-accreditation process.

3. The board has approved a part-time enrollment coordinator staff position, whom Garner hopes to have in place in early 2013. Gerig is helping to shape the job description for this position, based on his own list of 10 desirable qualities for an enrollment officer.

4. Finishing touches are being put on a written enrollment plan, a collaborative effort between Garner, Gerig and members of the enrollment committee. Having a written plan is helpful, Garner says, because it forces the team to put things in writing “for the world to see.”

LAMS continues to work on some of Gerig’s “tough” questions. “Every school needs a selling point,” Garner acknowledges. “We feel that we do many things very well, so one of the important things we continue to wrestle with is what ‘our thing’ is. What makes LAMS truly distinctive?”

Articulating desirable outcomes of a LAMS education has also proven challenging. “We know what they are,” says Garner, “but putting them into a format that can be communicated through the written and spoken word is important.”

An on-going process

This administrator knows that enrollment in small private schools such as LAMS is likely to be an ongoing concern, and is responding accordingly. While he still believes that the best form of advertising is word of mouth, he is also aware that for many schools, “that just isn’t doing it anymore,” and that such schools will need to be more proactive in order to maintain or grow enrollment. That is one reason Garner expects the enrollment coordinator position to become a permanent fixture among LAMS staff, and one whose time will likely increase as enrollment grows.

But Garner is also realistic that it will likely be some time until the school reaches its total capacity. Based on an intensive self-study completed last year as part of their re-accreditation process, LAMS has set an enrollment goal of at least 288 students (300 preferred) by 2016, approximately a 10% increase from the current student body.

When asked what stands to limit their success, Garner replies without anxiety. “Enrollment in a Christian school is truly a matter of the heart. No matter what we do, the Lord will bless and send the families He wants here. We need to do our part, and then allow the Lord to bless those steps that we take.”

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