The COVID-19 crisis has tested schools’ ability to engage with students and their families regularly and meaningfully. The longer this challenge to connect with school communities persists, the greater the threat of losing families when it comes time for reenrollment. For independent schools, it is critically important to engage families in conversations about their experience, concerns, and needs right now, as these discussions may impact their decision to re-enroll.
Creating a community of concern
St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia has made connecting with families a priority through their school-wide Community of Concern Project. Driven by the director of admission, Jennifer Cullinan, St. Catherine’s staff reached out to all families in their community to directly check in. Cullinan recruited division directors and board members to join her admissions staff—22 individuals in total—in the effort to call St. Catherine’s families. Within a week, the team worked its way through the entire list of 700 families.
The project’s goal was twofold: 1) to make families feel connected to the broader school community, and 2) to retain current and recently-admitted families for next year.
Scripting a deliberate message to families
The key to the success of the Community of Concern Project was a carefully thought-out script (see below), which ensured that all calls included the same information and offer for assistance.
Should a member of the family pick up, the script instructed callers on how to introduce themselves, how to frame the purpose of the call, and what questions to ask. The script also made sure that the caller clearly identified and recorded any appropriate follow-up actions so that Cullinan could follow up as needed. As the director of admissions, Cullinan handled difficult questions, such as the need for additional financial aid, ensuring that the school was doing everything it could to retain at-risk families. If no one picked up the phone, the script coached callers on what information to include in their message.
Maintaining community and connection
From the calls, St. Catherine’s learned about families with members on the front lines and prevailing concerns about what would happen if members of the school community fell ill. They spoke with families about their unique worries and demonstrated that their care and community remained even if they were physically separated. To ensure that families reenroll their children at St. Catherine’s, maintaining such a connection is paramount.
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Giving families the needed support
Beyond preserving a sense of community, the Community of Concern calls sourced areas where the school could tangibly support their families. Cullinan and her team identified 21 families who would benefit from additional support, including:
- Resources on how to talk about COVID-19 with their kids
- Additional devices for remote learning
- Adjustments to the timing of their payment plans
Implementing an initiative like the Community of Concern Project at your school is a great way to connect with families who may be struggling now or reconsidering enrollment in the future given the new COVID-19 reality. Demonstrating the value of individualized attention and concern is particularly important during times of turmoil; surfacing ways in which you can better support families now can prove to be invaluable for retention down the line.