A few years have passed since AAI Principal Rich Gerig last visited Wichita (KS) Friends School (WFS), having concluded a contract that included creating an enrollment plan, reviewing communications materials and more.
Originally interested in development, school officials soon became aware of the enrollment services that AAI offered. The fact that Gerig had extensive knowledge of Mennonites and some experience with Quakers (he was working with another Friends school at the time) made him a natural fit for the Kansas institution.
Gerig made his first visit during the 2005-06 school year. WFS Principal Shelli Kadel describes the situation in which the school found itself at the time: “Despite a very strong program and teachers that were doing a great job, we were seeing enrollment decline. Our school was located in a kind of rural area west of Wichita; even people across the street didn’t know we were here and certainly didn’t know what we did.”
Kadel’s primary concern was learning how to more effectively market WFS. “We were pretty experienced with Quaker education but found it easier to describe who we were not than who we were.” With no one on staff with marketing expertise WFS wanted to develop some useful, positive language it could use to better market.
Gerig set to work on an enrollment plan for the 2006-07 school year, one of the activities specified in the original proposal, and one that integrated the marketing emphasis Kadel was seeking.
Extremely limited resources—by fall of 2007 WFS had only 20 students—have prevented WFS from fully implementing some of AAI’s suggestions, but even today school officials continue to apply principles learned from Gerig. Below is a list of other elements from AAI’s proposal (in bold) along with updates on the progress WFS has made since then:
1. Gather ideas and perceptions among stakeholders.
Update: In March 2007 Gerig met with a group of representative parents of current students to discuss their respective experiences with WFS. Several themes emerged: strong affirmation for the quality of education WFS offered; positive impressions left by staff at campus visits; confusion about available financial aid; impressions of how the school accommodated both students who learn differently and gifted students; and the potential role parents could play in promoting the school. Each of these represented challenges or opportunities that informed WFS’ marketing strategy.
2. Train and mentor enrollment staff.
Update: As of January 2010, WFS has not hired an enrollment staff person and has no immediate plans to do so.
3. Form an enrollment steering committee.
Update: Despite trying various models Kadel has not been able to form an enrollment steering committee per se. Instead she meets regularly with a small group of stakeholders that serve as a think tank for marketing, using several principles learned from AAI.
4. Expand and update the enrollment database.
Update: The enrollment process can be described as a “funnel.” At the top of the funnel is a large pool of prospective students and at the bottom are the select students who actually enroll. Along the way, each student’s ultimate enrollment outcome is influenced by a number of factors including previous connections to existing staff or students, family circumstances and personal experiences of getting to know the school. Kadel says that WFS targets its marketing strategies toward each segment of that funnel. For instance, when new inquiries don’t come, they increase what she calls “blanket” marketing–newspaper ads, flyers posted in stores, etc. As more names enter the database, personal approaches become the focus—hosting teas or other social events where prospective families can interact with current students/parents, setting appointments for personal tours, etc. The school has also purchased a software program that helps staff enter information and track prospective parent contacts so that efforts can be targeted at successfully moving students down the enrollment funnel.
5. Identify prospective students with most interest.
Update: Kadel explains how WFS goes about this process: “As we receive inquiries, those names are placed in our database. We send appropriate information to them. About a week later, we place a follow-up call to see if they have received our info. At that time, we try to invite them to a tour or to visit our classrooms. Often they have more questions and the appropriate teacher will contact them. The more interest they show, the stronger our response. All of this is tracked in our database. Once they have toured/talked with a teacher, we schedule them for testing and enroll them.”
WFS has also become extremely intentional about gaining referrals. As incentive, it instituted a policy of awarding one a free morning or afternoon of Latchkey services to any family that refers a prospective student; if that family ends up enrolling, the referring party receives a $100 tuition discount at the end of the school year. WFS is making use of Facebook, asking parents to use the tool to invite friends to school events. And plans are to incorporate a referral piece into the school website.
6. Review communication materials, including website.
Update: The school website has become a “show-and-tell” tool for students’ relatives and friends, featuring pictures of events, newsletters and more. Several forms and enrollment information are available online and more improvements are planned.
7. Review financial aid program.
Update: According to Kadel the financial aid program has not changed much since 2006. What has changed is her approach to sharing this information with prospective parents. “We’re repackaging how we talk about our classrooms. For example, instead of saying ‘Preschool is $5,000 per year,’ we tell families ‘The cost to you is $125 per week,’ which is comparable to other area preschools. We emphasize that, because financial aid is available, our education is affordable.”
8. Review campus visitation programs.
Update: WFS has worked hard to enhance campus visits by offering “a warm personal touch.” Current students and parents typically give tours during school open houses. In addition, the school tries to host a tea or similar event where prospective parents hear positive experiences from current parents. Whenever possible, WFS utilizes personal endorsements of its program instead of, for example, sending out a flyer.
Here Kadel cites a specific activity that the school has found successful as a follow-up to an open house. On “Freaky Friday” children visit the next grade level classroom for about an hour, to see what they’ll have a chance to do and learn the following year. The hour always includes a hands-on activity so students have a product to take home. “The parents meet the teacher [at open house] and then one or two weeks later their child has a positive experience in that teacher’s classroom,” Kadel explains. “Once we get them in the door our chances are pretty high for getting them enrolled. We just want to get more in the door.”
9. Analyze retention patterns.
Update: “Rich helped me really focus on ways to retain,” says Kadel. WFS has typically seen the most growth at the Pre-K level and Kadel recognizes the importance of retaining those students to improve the outlook for the upper grades. “In our weekly newsletters we try to include something that each grade is achieving or doing. We try to do the same on our website. There are usually two or three audiences we’re trying to reach with each [marketing] piece.” The result? Retention has increased from 58% to 88% over the last three years, a development Financial Manager Sabrina Duckett credits AAI with, at least in part.
While WFS has made great strides in marketing itself, Kadel expresses appreciation for Gerig’s holistic approach to addressing its challenges. “Rich addressed the whole school in general. Besides getting the word out [about ourselves], there was an internal [personnel] issue that was also affecting enrollment. Addressing that helped turn our enrollment around. This year we started with 42 students and now have 45. Truly outstanding teachers are the ticket for our future success. The growth of the community has also caught up with us and people are becoming more aware of quality we offer.”