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Engaging Independent School Parents in the Time of Covid-19

Parents are conveying to school leadership their anxieties and complaints about how and when school will open and the risks associated with opening; the value proposition if independent schools have to return again to distance learning in whole or part; and the fears of their children falling behind if distance learning lasts much longer.

Parents want to be engaged, heard and valued.  Parents are also loyal and want to make a positive difference for the independent schools that their children attend even though they may be working from home. They know that their schools are facing challenges in recruiting and retaining students.  How do schools tap into that sentiment of loyalty and engagement without inadvertently inviting parents into micromanaging the board and the administration? 

Littleford & Associates has worked with hundreds of schools worldwide to help them establish parents as advocates, brand managers and ambassadors. In this capacity parents always serve as volunteers and operate within a formal structure that is answerable directly to the head but through the admissions/marketing/external relations side of the school. 

The Process

This program begins first with conducting focus groups that listen to a cross-section of parents across grade levels.  The Consultant asks them questions such as: Why did you choose the school? What other options did you consider? How satisfied are you with the overall educational, social and extracurricular experience? What do you like best about the school? How happy are your children? If the school closed where would you send your children? What most needs to be improved at the school? What is your perception of the reputation of the school in the external community? What is the level of consistency of excellent teaching across all teachers for your children? 

What do parents believe that they receive in value versus the money they spend? What is the parent passion index, i.e., the degree to which the parent body pro-actively markets the school to friends and colleagues, WITHOUT first being asked? 

Once parents have felt genuinely heard and the feedback on their comments has been conveyed back to them in a setting where board and administrative leaders are present to hear the message, then (and we argue only then) are parents willing to step forward as volunteers to help the school by serving as parent admissions ambassadors. The idea is to ask parents to attend a training session to assess whether they wish to be an ambassador, and that training session also clarifies the roles of the three committees and how their work will unfold. The committees focus on internal marketing; external marketing; and admissions process 

Here is the thoughtful comment of one Parent who wrote us on our final day on site at this major K to 12, independent day School:

“Harnessing the brain power, enthusiasm, and experience of our parents to sell a product we all believe in is a simple idea. And brilliant. With your insightful questions and rapid analysis you have quantified and confirmed what we know in our hearts. It is reassuring to learn that the qualities that brought us to this school when our daughter was in search of a kindergarten have held up rather nicely a dozen years later.

My husband and I are journalists–LA Times and CBS News for more than 60 years combined. We are by nature and training skeptical of hype, hoopla, and public relations. So it is, to say the least, uncharacteristic of me to leave the training session proudly wearing my Ambassador pin and checking the on-line store for a school license plate frame.

Until your arrival on campus, I was content to think of the School as one of the best kept secrets in education. But I’m persuaded by your presentation. It is important for the future of the school that we do a better job telling our story.

When it comes to news organizations–there’s always the risk that the story they tell is not the one you expected. That said, I think opening the door wider to reporters is a good idea. An interview with our head on just about anything would be gold. And I don’t think the school should hire a publicist. I’m sure there are parents and administrators who would be more effective. If I can be helpful, great.”

This Parent became the head of an external marketing committee at this school overseeing about 75 of the 125 total parent ambassadors recruited. 

The overall parent ambassador structure is not placed under the parents association but rather under the admissions office. Recognition and support comes directly from the head of school. We have seen these programs dramatically boost retention, inquiries and applications resulting in larger enrollments as well as wait lists that did not exist before. Results can be achieved in 18 to 24 months but schools that capture the enthusiasm and momentum for the project immediately can experience a positive impact even sooner.

Keys to Success

The keys to success of this effort are the complete commitment of the head; the complete support of the marketing and admission team; and the recruitment of the right volunteer parent chair who oversees a cabinet of two co-chairs for each of the three committees mentioned above. The final absolute is that once the momentum and enthusiasm have been created and the program launched, it must be maintained. That means there should be no major gaps between launching this program and then organizing and staying with it. 

Parents want to help. Many have skilled backgrounds into which the school can tap. The idea is to turn parents from passive consumers into passionate advocates and ambassadors in a short period of time. 

The first step is to ensure there is a consistent, unique powerful message or tagline in place that reflects the mission of the school. It is the role of the internal marketing committee to ensure that everyone in the school community knows this message and can relate to it through personal experiences. This committee makes sure that this message is displayed prominently throughout the school.  The external marketing committee helps to communicate that message or story where parents live, work play and pray.

The admissions process committee trains and develops parent tour guides who are matched perfectly to a prospective parent in terms of age, interests, and background of the student applicant. This committee also appoints an ambassador to follow up on each inquiry, regardless of the source, within 24 hours. Each new family has a parent ambassador who stays with them through the inquiry, testing, touring, application and enrollment process and then serves as a mentor to them for the first six months of the new school year.

Our Clients’ Experience

We have seen hundreds of schools use these tools successfully and without relying on outside advertising or paid google and similar ads. In fact, most parents are willing to leverage their own business, profession, background and skill set to help the school open doors that have never been available. This also includes trying to develop a sophisticated parent occupation directory that lists not only names and titles but other key roles such as board and leadership positions in the community. These connections also help heads receive speaking invitations throughout the community from organizations that normally would never have reached out to an individual head of an independent school. Networking of parents and then alumni allows schools to extend their reach way beyond their traditional markets. 

Parent engagement on this level is about making the parents feel needed and valued. Never underestimate the human desire to be needed, to help to make a difference in a meaningful way and also to receive real and symbolic recognition for one’s efforts. In addition to some degree of tuition control, parents have a desire to be better informed and to have more transparency and influence. Some of these desires DO get in the way of school leaders trying to provide an outstanding education. However, if you first listen to parents, tell them that you will address their concerns and worries or at least make a conscientious effort to do so, THEN parents will unleash their powerful potential to be school advocates in the broader community.