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Executive Summary

By Jayne Helgevold, an Account Manager at DehlerPR

​Effective communications with families is vital to maintaining and raising your overall census.

There’s a big difference between thinking you know why students are coming to and leaving your school and knowing. Knowledge is powerful and attainable. The key to understanding why you’re gaining and losing resident students is to ask the experts: Your families.

Like it or not, open enrollment is likely here to stay. Whether you net over or under each year, if you are not making the following 10 activities part of your district’s practices, there is more you can do to stabilize your census and your district’s bottom line.

Checklist to Attract or Retain Resident Families in Your District

  • Assess your communications

  • Interview parents

  • Make a plan; Work the plan

  • Look with fresh eyes; Make easy fixes

  • Open your doors; Show what you’ve got

  • Be transparent and accessible

  • Stay in touch; Be social

  • Target your messaging

  • Accentuate the positive

  • Thank early and often

Statewide enrollment options, or “open enrollment” can be a school district’s greatest ally or worst enemy, depending on whether it is the beneficiary of additional students or it is feeling the effects of a resident student deficit. For example, in the 2020-2021 school year, 9.9% of Minnesota students were open enrolled.

While working to attract new families to your district is one strategy for a healthy school, retention of your resident students is another component that cannot be overlooked. The strategies may have some overlap, but they are not always the same. However, both rely on a sound, consistent approach.

Like it or not, open enrollment is likely here to stay, there’s a multitude of reasons why families open enroll in, but if a resident family open-enrolls out, your district needs to know why and try to control it. Here are 10 ideas you can start using today.

1. Assess your communications: First, audit, then plan

You can’t know where you’re going, until you know where you are right now. That’s where a thorough audit comes in – the audit places a pin on your map of where you are now so you can chart a course to where you want to go.

If your message and your vision are unfocused, there’s a good chance your future will be as well. A good communications audit is about more than simply looking at your brochures and website; it’s about knowing who you say you are and if you’re living into that vision to your stakeholders.

A good communications audit looks at your brochures and websites. A great communications audit digs deeper; it asks the probing questions to learn about your community, your district, your message, and your future.

2. Interview parents

It sounds simple enough. If you don’t know what makes your district’s parents choose your schools or why they are giving you a pass, you need to find out why. But are you and your school leaders doing it? Maybe you have a few families who are homeschooling but would

When was the last time you conducted an exit interview with families who have chosen to leave your district and enroll in another school? What about finding out what was the selling point for a family choosing your school over the other options available to them? Do you have a standardized set of questions or a designated position to fill this important role? What do you do with the information you gather? How does it inform your ongoing communications plan? If you can’t answer these questions, you have untapped opportunities for your district.

3. Make a plan; Work the plan

Like it or not, saying nothing is communication…and it may speak louder than words. What are you saying to your community about your schools, either through planned communications, or by not saying anything at all?

A communications plan is best when it considers all of your audiences and takes into account any gaps noted during your audit (see Number 1 above). To make your schools shine, share your message both internally and externally. Communicate with your staff about key messages, preferably prior to making the message public, so they have time to absorb the message and have their questions answered, then share your messages to the right people at the right time.

A postcard to every home in the district is a great way to communicate a general message to every home, but a targeted message on social media to families with 3-5 year olds about an open house is a different message with a different vehicle. Think of the important milestones in your district – the transitions from one school to another – and reach out to your resident families well before that transition happens to remind them of their option to take advantage of the options your school provides.

In any case, taking time to make a plan helps to ensure you’ve taken select groups of people in mind for key messages at the right time and that you’re also remembering the community at-large, as well. Invite everyone in your community to be active participants in the well-being of your schools; thank them for their support and let them know you wouldn’t be here without them.

4. Look with fresh eyes; Make easy fixes It’s been said that the first two things a new family does when it moves to town is drive by the neighborhood school and go to the school website. Do both of these entry points provide inviting places where families and students can see themselves engaged in your community? When was the last time you looked at your schools with an objective eye, or better yet, asked someone new to the area to tell you what they see?

Watertown-Mayer Minnesota Superintendent Darren Schuler recalled an eye-opening experience when he learned of a new family who pulled into his elementary school lot to take a tour...and left again without even getting out of their car. “They had mistaken our prairie restoration area adjoining our schoolyard for an unkempt lot,” Schuler said. “Here we’ve made an investment in an outdoor education area, and at that moment, I realized we had no visible signage explaining what it was.” Schuler now plans to highlight the outdoor area and the educational benefits it brings to the community in a series of Earth Day communications. “And I try to look at all of our buildings and grounds with a fresh set of eyes,” Schuler reflected.

A similar thing can be said for your website. Does it invite families in or is it simply a place for administrative messages? If your website spends more time outlining the details for how detentions will be served after school than it does sharing how students are celebrated and sharing how the community can engage with the schools, it may be time to re-evaluate your homepage.

5. Open your doors; Show what you’ve got

f parents can’t envision their kids being a part of your school through your communications channels, it will be harder to get them to make the leap to signing their kids up for your schools.

Every communication you make needs to be considered through the lens of recruitment and retention. Is it inviting? Is it engaging? Does it put your schools in a light where parents would entrust their children to spend the majority of their waking and learning hours with you? If not, your communications may not be sending the message you need it to send.

6. Be transparent and accessible

Parents want to make informed decisions. Finding data can be daunting. While you may or may not have the best test scores in the area, parents will appreciate your transparency in sharing the information in a clear and concise manner.

There are other ways to let your districts shine besides scores; show off your stats. Share the number or percentage of teachers with masters or other special credentials in their field. List the sports and academic achievements. How many dollars did your scholars receive in scholarships last year? Test scores are important, but at the end of the day, there’s more to a well-rounded education than one set of numbers, make sure parents get the whole equation.

7. Stay in touch; Be social

Helping parents prepare to transition to the next step in their students’ lives, like a pre-K child moving on to Kindergarten; or an elementary student making the step to middle school; or helping your teen make the transition to high school with helpful content, like checklists or even simple words of assurance, can help drive shares and interest in your school. Share checklists. Share helpful posts. Send postcards and put out something about the schools in the papers. Let the community know you are part of the community; your “home” is their home, too.

8. Target your messaging

There may be a time and a place for general messaging, such as thanking the community for their support at the end of the school year, but whenever possible, aim to target your messaging so that the right message gets to the right people at the right time.

Sending a photo of high school graduates to the entire community with the general message to consider your schools might be effective for families of 8th grade students, but it may be too far a reach for a Pre-K family who just wants to know if their youngster will be able to find her way around her school.

A targeted message to families with young children with an invitation to tour your Pre-K school will likely be much more effective. Just as your middle school families want to feel that their kids won’t get lost in the shuffle and could do well with an individualized message and an opportunity for a smaller gathering for Q&A and to register their youth.

9. Accentuate the positive; What’s your niche?

What are you known for in the region? Are you the school with the best sports or drama program? Do you have a top-notch band or academic program? The reasons why parents and students actively choose one school over another varies. For some, it may be academics. For others, it may be better facilities. For others, it may simply be that parents and students can better imagine the student living out her daily life in that particular school environment, which might have nothing to do with the age of the building or the condition of the swimming pool. It will have everything to do with the school’s culture.

‍Remember your interviews from Number 2 above? This is the time to use those responses to your advantage! Highlight what makes your school shine. Find photos that reinforce that advantage and send them to your targeted audiences in your communication plan (Number 3) for retention and recruiting. This is your opportunity to put your efforts to action.

10. Thank early and often

You teach your students to do it, but are you practicing this simple golden rule? We broached the topic in Number 3, but when was the last time you thanked your parents and the greater community for their support?

Showing you value your parents and letting them know they are a valued member of the educational community is vital. If they don’t feel involved and valued, it’s easier to feel that their family’s departure won’t be missed. So, thank your families early and often! It costs you little, but the payback is invaluable.


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