An important part of maintaining enrollment is student retention. Students often cite a lack of connection to the school community as the primary reason for leaving.
When students and their parents feel alienated from the school community, they will leave. Don’t let that happen. Use these student retention strategies to keep your students happy and enrolled.
Why are students leaving your school?
Examining your current enrollment statistics and looking for patterns in your attrition rate is the first step. Are students leaving after specific grades, or is attrition spread across grade levels?
Finding out why parents and students aren’t making the transition is essential. Cross reference changes in your academic or sports program, staff, or timetable with the attrition pattern to get an indication of the causes.
Don’t forget to also look at your competition. Students may be leaving your school for what they consider a better option.
Why are parents unhappy with your school?
The best way to find out what the problems are is to conduct exit interviews. These don’t need to be formal events. A few words over the phone could be enough.
Only interview parents. As long as you are a K-12 school, students are not the primary decision makers. Approaching students on such a sensitive topic is unfair and a breach of parent trust.
Keep interactions positive. Exit interviews can be very awkward for parents. Ask parents why a new school appealed to them, rather than have them explain why they are leaving yours.
Ask for feedback. Emphasize your interest in improving your school, not shaming them into coming back.
Don’t argue. This is critical. Even if the parents’ perception is wrong, arguing will only make them defensive and angry. You do not want the final impression of your school to be negative. Angry parents will never return, and they will share their experience with others.
If an interview is not practical, consider a written exit survey. Again, keep the tone positive. Emphasize your intention to use their feedback to improve the school.
Now, create your plan.
For students transitioning to a new grade, emphasize community building within the class. Consider team-building camps or overnight trips. This will give students the opportunity to build up the community spirit outside of the school setting.
To make transitioning smoother, have a “level-up” day. Assign transitioning students to shadow an older student. This will help reduce student anxiety by familiarizing them with their next step. Continue to focus on team-building for transitioning classes throughout the school year. Make sure students feel like the class is an integrated unit.
For specific disputes, determine if parent complaints have merit. Was the student bullied? Is there a discipline issue that needs to be addressed? Is the child an exceptional learner? Once you have identified the issue, make a plan, and then contact the parents. Let them know you have a plan in place to keep this from happening again. It may not convince the parent to return, but it will increase the likelihood the parent will have a more positive perception of your school.
Strengthen the connection between the school and the community.
Get students involved in recruitment.
- Let them work the booth at the community fair. Make sure they are in uniform, and give them a script so they will be comfortable talking to the public.
- Allow them to bring a friend for a shadow day.
- Let them submit photos, or have a ‘selfie’ contest for your social media accounts.
- These could have a weekly theme, or highlight a specific event.
- Let students conduct humorous teacher interviews for social media.
- Have your drama department create music/dance videos for Youtube.
While it might be tempting to hand these responsibilities off to your tech-savvy teens, online safety should not be ignored. Make sure you approve all content posted anywhere online. Require signed release forms for any students appearing on school websites/social media.
Make parents your most valuable recruitment partners.
- Have your parent volunteers form a new parent welcome committee. This will let new parents know they are valued members of your school community. Make sure there is a new parent packet with numbers/email addresses for parent associations and committees. Make it easy for parents to volunteer.
- Also, be aware of parent cliques, and intervene if necessary. Many schools have a small group of parents who do everything. As a result, other parents may feel isolated.
- For parents of current students, consider tuition discounts for referrals. Even a small savings on tuition could help encourage a parent to speak up for your school.
- Parent referrals are your best advertising platform.
Establish a parent committee for publicity. Assign a team of parent volunteers to create posts for social media, and contact local news organizations regarding events at the school.
Effective Community Outreach Ideas
- Donate student art to local libraries and community centers. Make sure students’ names, grades, and your school name are visible. This will showcase your art program to potential parents in the community.
- Have your performing groups give concerts in public places. Let the community know about your exceptional performing arts programs. Public performances will give your school some much-needed exposure. In addition to malls, professional sports venues, and public parks, many local television stations have morning shows that feature student performers. Find out how to get your performing group on these shows.
- Organize a large charity event. News organizations love human interest stories. Make sure you notify local media outlets of your event.
- Parents and students who feel invested in the school will not only re-enroll but will also become partners in recruitment. Just attending a school isn’t enough. Make students and their families a part of your retention strategy, and they will feel like a valued member of your school community.
The Art of Student Retention by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, Educational Policy Institute
Factors affecting student retention at one independent school in the southwest by Dan R. Alstrom, July 2013