10. Reflecting on Small School Admissions with Melinda Ellingsworth & Kelly Nguyen

In this special admissions panel episode, we’re joined by Melinda and Kelly as they share great tips for tours and open houses, the pivots they’ve made over the past pandemic year, and ways they incorporate mindfulness into their work and personal lives.

About Melinda Ellingsworth & Kelly Nguyen:

Melinda Ellingsworth is the Director of Advancement at Walden School, a 280-student K-12 independent school in Louisville, KY. Melinda formerly served as the school’s Director of Admissions for two years. Melinda and her team are responsible for establishing the overall admissions and enrollment strategies based on a thorough evaluation of enrollment trends, marketing analysis, and outcome measurement. Melinda oversees the Admissions, Development, and Marketing Departments.

Kelly Nguyen is the Director of Admissions at Butler Montessori, a small independent Montessori School in Darnestown, MD. She taught Lower Elementary there for five years before taking on the administrative role. She oversees all aspects of admissions and directs the process from inquiry through enrollment. This year because of the pandemic, Kelly also returned to the classroom as an Upper Elementary teacher. Developing easy-to-use organization systems supported Kelly in balancing the responsibilities and tasks that come with admissions and being an educator.

Show Transcript

Aubrey: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Aubrey Bursch. 

Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today’s a special episode focused on independent school admissions. We’re joined by Melinda Ellingsworth. Melinda is the Director of Advancement at Walden School, which is a 280 student K-12 independent school in Louisville, Kentucky. Melinda formerly served as the school’s Director of Admissions for two years. Melinda and her team are responsible for establishing the overall admissions and enrollment strategies based on a thorough evaluation of enrollment trends, marketing analysis, and outcome measurement. Melinda oversees the admissions development and marketing departments. 

Aubrey: And we’re also joined with Kelly Nguyen, the Director of Admissions at Butler Montessori, a small independent Montessori school in Darnestown, Maryland. She taught lower elementary there for five years before taking on the administrative role. She oversees all aspects of admissions and directs the process from inquiry through enrollment. This year because of the pandemic, Kelly also returns to the classroom as an upper elementary teacher. Developing easy-to-use organization systems supported Kelly in balancing the responsibilities and tasks that come with admissions and being an educator. Welcome Kelly and Melinda, 

Kelly: Thank you so much for having us. 

Melinda: Yes. We’re happy to be here.

Tara: Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us more about yourselves? 

Kelly: Yes, just as Aubrey said I am at a Montessori school, we are from, originally 18 months all the way to eighth grade, but since I’ve taken on the task, we are now going to ninth grade. And with the pandemic, we are now accepting students at two years old instead of 18 months. But I thought I was going to be out of the teaching role and, you know, kind of growing up and being an administrator. And then of course the pandemic hit, and they said, Kelly, could you please return to the classroom? We need an upper elementary teacher. And because I am trained, I said yes. So this year I had the awesome privilege of being an educator and I’m working in admissions, and the as Aubrey said, enrolling doing the inquiries, the tours and things like that. So I’m really excited to be here to tell you more about that.

Aubrey: And Melinda, I’d love to hear more about you and your role at Walden school. 

Melinda: Sure. So I am now the Director of Advancement. But I cut my teeth on being the Director of Admissions and being the Director of Admissions during that crazy thing, we call a pandemic. So, it has been, you know, trial by fire around here. So as the Director of  Advancement, I am in charge of advancing the school forward. And so I have a marketing, development and admissions as part of my team. And it’s been very exciting to make that change. We had not done that before we had those three positions all reported to the head of school.

And so now I’m sort of the mid-range between the head of school and those three teams. Unlike a lot of people who work for a school and are even an admissions,  I am not a teacher by trade. I’m not an educator by trade. I actually have spent the last 30 years on the corporate side of life, working in marketing sales, advertising, and communications for an insurance company. So this was a big different jump for me and I’m loving every minute of it. It has definitely been a wild ride. But it’s exciting. I come to work everyday sort of knowing what I’m going to do or with a plan. And if I have a great day, that means I can execute the plan, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Aubrey: Melinda, do you, have you also have grandchildren at the school? Is that correct? 

Melinda: That’s actually how I came to know Walden school is that our oldest daughter and her husband have four of our grandchildren. We have five grandchildren one’s out of town, but the four grandchildren here at school. And I always say it’s the best job perk ever because I can be strolling down the hall with a budget in one hand. Frenzy of a day. And then one of them goes, Nana and I get a hug and it just reminds me of why I’m here and why I do what I do. And it’s the best. 

Tara: That is wonderful. 

Aubrey: It’s like the perks of working in a school, especially when you have loved ones there. 

Kelly: I would say that’s a perk of just being in a small school in general. I mean, I personally don’t have any children or grandchildren, but because our school is so small and I have the privilege of working with the families who come in, I get to know all of the children. And so they all know me and just going down the hall, I always say, you know, I always get, “hi Ms. Nguyen!” Or good morning. Or sometimes they’re so sweet. And like, I like your dress. I like your hair, the little ones. So yes, that’s always a perk.

Melinda: We have a great big green space out the back of our school. And our main conference room is, looks at big windows that look out onto the green space. And it’s great to be in a meeting and look out and see 15 kindergartners frolicking about in the green space or digging in the dirt or just all the wonderful things that go on back there. Especially with our science, our lower school science activities. They’re always doing something, you know, within nature. And it’s just a great thing to see. It’s much better than what you saw out the windows of corporate life. 

Aubrey: Yeah. And I love that and that’s, I think the beauty of working in a school, but especially a small school where I feel like you’re so interconnected with everything else that happens there.

I’d love to switch and I’d like to kind of talk about this past year. I know we can all say this past year you know, over the past year, admissions teams have faced many challenges. You spoke a little bit about them in your intro, but you’ve had to pivot and redesign the admissions process in many ways.

I’d love to hear some ways you’ve seen the admissions process changed this year.


Kelly: Well, for me, this is just my second year in admissions, so I don’t know how different it is. But just in the previous year, before the pandemic, I already had to learn new systems and was getting used to it. So, it wasn’t much to get used to in the pandemic, I would say, but there were some changes that we had to do.

Like, of course, we couldn’t have in-person tours anymore. So we transition to virtual tours. And then that was taking a really long time to give individual virtual tours to everyone. So then we transitioned to group virtual tours, which has been more worked tremendously. And I would say that’s probably one of the biggest changes that we’ve made during the pandemic.

But it also required me to, because I’m doing teaching and doing admissions to really put in place like automated systems that would help make everything go smoother versus me having to answer every single email and say, yes, here’s how you schedule a tour, which is what we had to do, even before the pandemic.

Before we had the systems put in place, I would say, can you do Monday? And they would say, no, Monday doesn’t work for me. Can you do Tuesday? No. Tuesday doesn’t work. Can you do Wednesday? And so some of these systems that we put into place would be like a calendar where the client could go in and pick the day and the time that works best for them. So I would say that has been very, very, very helpful. 

Melinda: That’s that’s interesting Kelly because I’m curious about the group tours because we debated that quite a bit. And our concern was that our guests wouldn’t want to be with other guests. So we never went down that road. I’m pleased to hear that you did and that it was successful. We, of course, you know, when the pandemic hit in, it’s so interesting to think back because we were talking about the pandemic on, the encroaching pandemic, on February 20th. I remember it because it’s one of our co-workers birthdays and we were talking about it on his birthday. And Alison, our head of school said, I, you know, I think this could be kind of serious.

That was on February 20th. We were shut down on March 13th and we popped up and went remote on March 16th. So we had, you know, just those couple of what, 2, 3, 4, whatever weeks. Before it became just this crashing reality that we were facing a global pandemic that we were going to have to shut down at the time that we shut down for two weeks, which was funny. It’s funny now to think about that. We thought we’d get through this in two weeks. And so we had a very short-term strategy. That involved, really just putting everything on hold, just with a lot of communication back and forth with families that we were working with. And, you know, we’ll be back with you in a couple of weeks.

And so needless to say that changed dramatically. And so that after those couple of weeks is when we really said, okay, gang. We’ve got to do something radically different. And we just started thinking about turning absolutely everything we did into a virtual platform. And we did a lot of like what you said, Kelly.

I, you know, went to our IT director and said, I need an iPad and a tripod. And I had one of my coworkers have I’ve forgotten what it’s called when it’s the steadying device for the tripod. And I would book tours and we walked through the school and we’d have a virtual visit and it was so awkward and stilted at first.

And it surprised me how quickly everyone just adapted to it. I got used to giving them that way,  prospective parents were so appreciative that they could see the school despite the pandemic. I don’t think that a school shows as well in that format as it does live of course, but it was at least a way to keep a small sense of normalcy.

And my goodness, I mean, we had, you know, we need students. We are a small school. We were I don’t want to say desperate. That sounds like an awful word, but it was scary, I guess, that to think of the fall off. We also, at the same time, we’re dealing with our families who were in dire financial straits because they had been so impacted by the pandemic.

So, it was a tumultuous time, to say the least, it’s surprising to me how much it’s smoothed out. And now we are back to giving tours in person. I think we will forever offer both. I think that’s one of the things that’s come out of this is why not continue to offer the things that we offer in-person and virtual. Why not continue to offer both? So I hope that I’ve answered your question. I was reliving the pandemic. 

Kelly: I was trying to think back as well.. And one of the ways, well, actually I was really thankful that our school had just had these beautiful professional pictures taken for our Google site. And that’s what we were using for the virtual, because I just couldn’t see myself coming to on-campus with my little screen my little iPad or phone walking around the campus because we’re on 22 acres of land. And it’s hard to show that on just a tiny little screen, but we had these very beautiful pictures that depict what our classrooms look like, what the outdoor space looks like, what, you know, the creeks and the woods and the trails that the children hike look like.

And that was what we used to do, our virtual tours, and what I liked about the virtual tours in comparison to our in-person tour, was that it was very personalized. The in-person tours were very scripted. It’s like, here’s our main office. And, you know, we walk them through all of the classrooms and they see everything, even if they don’t want to see everything and they see everything, even if you don’t want them to see everything.

Cause you know, you have some families where you’re like, I wish I could just end the tour here. Right. But with the virtual tour it allowed us to be Just kind of tailor it to that particular family’s need, even when we moved toward the group the group tours. So if they were looking mostly for primary for us, that’s age three to six, then we showed them the primary classrooms and just what the primary children do.

And then we show them a little bit later of what their child could go into when they get older. Here’s what the elementary might look like. Here’s what the middle school might look like, and I so much prefer the virtual over the in-person. And I do think in the future that we will offer the bird tour first so they can get all of the questions and all of the anxiety out of the way. And when they come in person they can just enjoy our campus because our campus is just so, so beautiful that I don’t want to take away just by talking through what the Montessori philosophy is, because most of our tour is that because our philosophy is a little bit different. Sometimes parents want to know more about what the programs are like and not necessarily what the classroom looks like.

Tara: Yeah, that makes sense. I think there’s a saying that disruption provides opportunity and it sounds like you have found some silver linings or some things that, that the COVID experience has offered to you that you’ll continue to use. I’m wondering about in marketing and a lot of what you’re talking about is imagery, is how you dealt with the whole mask issue. I know we see, you know, schools and now coming out of that, right. Preparing for your marketing for the next year. Right now, your students may be still in masks. So how have you dealt with your photography and your video with masks? 

Kelly: When we had those professional pictures taken, it was right before the pandemic hit,

so everything was already beautiful. Well, it was on, it’s such a beautiful sunny day. The weather was gorgeous. The classrooms, I remember cause at the time I was teaching, it was right before I had transitioned to this role. So, I had cleaned up the classroom. My classroom was looking really nice and just like spiffy and shiny.

And we like hid all of our messes, and so you just see the beautifulness of the school. We didn’t have any children in those professional pictures, but we do have a school photographer who just takes pictures on a regular basis for our social media in general. And those pictures were also on our Google business site.

Melinda: And we yes, our students continue to be masked. We think they will be in the fall as well. We’re not sure yet, but we’re anticipating that. And so we have just joyfully gone right along with all of our photos. We have a wonderful director of marketing who has a camera in her hand, just about all the time. And we have a very communicative community that will email her and say, well, this morning we had twenty-five baby chicks in our high school lobby under a heat lamp. And so that’s, you know, they sent her an email come down quick. You know, you’ve got to see the action down here. So we have made it a point to have all of our photography with our students masked and appropriately distanced.

And now it seems odd if we pull an old photo. With children who are not masked because now we feel like we have to put the disclaimer like in the caption saying that these photos were taken prior to the pandemic.  We have a wonderful, welcome video that goes out to our accepted students.

And it’s all about a hundred of us at different times, welcoming the new family and the new student. And of course, we’re all you know, side by side, we’re in a big group. Nobody has a mask on. So we’ve put we’ve labeled these disclaimers all over anything that shows people admin teachers or students without masks.

Aubrey: I think that’s so, interesting and exactly. if we’re looking at the people who are shopping for schools “shopping”, right. You know, they are looking for a safe environment for their child, and so at first, I don’t think schools were really embracing showing the masks, because we didn’t know it was going to be a long-term marketing thing. But now, and I looked at both your websites, they both include like recent pictures and you know, stuff like that because it’s important to show the now and the reality and how, and to reassure parents like this is how we are embracing education during this pandemic. So it’s very interesting.

Thank you for telling us about that. Shifting gears a bit, through the lens of our podcasts, we talk about mindfulness and how it applies to schools. How do you think mindfulness plays a role in the admissions work?

Kelly: For me when I think about mindfulness I think about focusing on one task at a time and kind of giving that my full attention and oftentimes in admissions, you know, it can get very hectic, especially this year this pandemic year was very hectic. One thing that I try to do is just focus on one task and if the task is to send out the acceptance letters. That’s what I’m doing, focusing on either just the marketing piece or just the development piece. And I tried to do this thing where I like to focus on just my emails instead of like do my emails and that reminds me of another thing I have to do. And then I try to do that, which reminds me of something else I have to do. And then I’m like, ah, that’s I go back to my email and then the email. So so long. So for me like that narrow focus really brings that big results. So just being able to fully concentrate on the task at hand. And I think the parents really appreciate that as well because I’m able to give them my full attention and really be able to answer their questions fully. And I don’t know if that is what you were looking for. Aubrey, does that answer your question? 

Aubrey:  Yes, I think so. And that is such a good reminder because so often, I mean, small schools, we wear many hats, right? It’s so easy to jump from task to task, but if you just focus on it first, it probably gets done faster and it’s more intentional and you’re being more mindful in the process.

Kelly: Yeah, and for me, because I’m also teaching at the same time at the beginning of the school year, it was really hard for me to balance both because I wanted to be there present for my students, but I also wanted to be there and present for the parents who are looking for places for their children.

And I found that if I, you know, dedicated a specific time to emails in the morning, then I’m able to teach my three hours that I do in the morning. And then right before lunch, I do a couple of emails again, and I found that was really helpful. Just remembering that like emails don’t have to be answered right away.

Unless it’s an emergency, but usually in admissions, it’s not an emergency and they’re emergency like their fire drill is not our big fire that we have to put out. And for me that helps me personally, right. With my mental health that’s and making sure that I’m taking care of myself, but it also helped me to be able to be fully present for my students as well.

Melinda: I’m right there with you, Kelly. It is so difficult in admissions to find a minute to be mindful because there are always, there are always fires. I learned early on with the pandemic, just in balancing my own stress. I started book-ending my day. So I did a minute in the morning and a minute at night of just quiet to solitude and just deep breathing.

And it was one minute and that, and you all don’t know me well, but that this was not what. I thought this was the way to do things because my methodology had always been, we’ll just do it faster, just do more and do it faster and then you’ll get it done. And then you can go home. And I really resisted meditation, mindfulness because it just seemed frankly like a waste of time.

It took me a long time to realize that those minutes at the beginning and end of the day actually make me more productive. I also have the good fortune of a team and a head of school that believes in that as well. So when we have our admin meetings, every Wednesday afternoon, we start off with a mindful minute.

That’s what it’s on the agenda. So we don’t, so we don’t miss it. And it really, it really is very centering and it’s yeah, it makes a difference in the day.

Tara: Yeah, I love that. It’s so hard to embrace that concept, even though there’s so much said and written about how good it is for you, but it is very hard to actually believe it until you practice it. And even after you practice it, sometimes it’s hard to believe it. I’m going to move into our questions that we ask all of our guests. And the first one is what are the most important things that you can do to grow personally and professionally?

Melinda: I’ll go first, Kelly, if you don’t mind, just because I have a quick answer for this and it’s something that has always served me well, and it’s networking, actually doing things just like this. I, you know, I’ve now I knew Aubrey, but now I know two other people that I didn’t know, half an hour ago.

And if I have admissions questions, I could now email Kelly and say, what are your thoughts on this. And because we’re in small schools, we don’t have big admissions staff. So I have learned to reach out to the other admissions directors at other independent schools in Louisville, Kentucky. We’ve created sort of a collegial wand, which has been nice, we’re careful cause there are competitors also. But I have learned a lot just by asking, you know, just ask people questions and it’s amazing what you can learn. So networking is my go-to for growth professionally and personally. 

Kelly: I totally agree with that. I did right before I took the role of admissions director, they sent me to this admissions 101 course, and it was just a mini little cohort of admissions directors, but we still keep in touch. And that was I think, two summers ago. And we still email each other and have zoom calls and we’re like, hey, can you share your parent handbook? Can you share your welcome video? And it’s just amazing. So I totally agree with that. My one important thing that I do is I read and since I’ve graduated college I’ve always preferred like reading nonfiction books over fiction and specifically I was reading a lot of books about teaching, but now I’m really into self-improvement and self-improvement books. And Aubrey’s also shared some admissions books with me that it was a little bit harder to get into, but I definitely find them helpful. Um, So I make it a habit to read before bed, and also when I wake up in the morning and that’s also helped me to get off my phone right before bed, because we’re all working on our bed hygiene and making sure we’re taking care of ourselves and getting enough sleep right. 

Aubrey:  I love that. I’m so glad you what great networking and reading books so important. Well, you know, I’m a big fan of books. I’m going to read this book. I know. I was just thinking about it. What is joyful reading for me, it might not be so joyful for other people, but you have embraced it so nicely. So next question. What is one of the most important things we can do to be more mindful?

Melinda: You know, I, if I can start by saying for me, it’s scheduling it.  I truly recognize the importance of it, but it’s so very easy to put it off during a busy day. And again, I think that’s why I like the bookend approach because I just know I can count on that time. So that’s, I would say that scheduling it for me, like literally putting it on my Google calendar is what makes me remember to do it and remember the importance of it. 

Kelly: So true. That is so true. I mean, the more I think about it, it’s still my, there’s a quote that I always think about, and I don’t remember who it’s from, but it’s “a narrow focus, brings big results” and it’s just focusing on one task at a time because we’re all so busy and just trying to do so many things at once that it’s just doesn’t allow us to fully concentrate on the task at hand.

And this is something I tell my students all the time, because they want to do multiple things at a time. And it’s just so helpful. And for me, Trying to be a morning person and waking up a little bit earlier. I like to sit down with my cup of coffee in the morning and just say, what is the three things that I want to make sure I get done today and making sure that those are my priorities. And like you said, right, adding them to my calendar and making sure that I have a specific time, like this is when I’m going to do, that specific task. So then we can make sure we get our things done. 

Tara:Yeah, you’re speaking my language in my huge planning and three things is good, you know, it’s good to have just three things and not 20 in a day.

So yeah. Yeah. I’m going to ask some rapid-fire questions now to wrap up the first one is what is a book that’s had an impact on you that you would put into high school curriculum as mandatory reading 

Melinda: The Hate You Give is an excellent book. If you haven’t read it. It’s never been more salient than it is these days.


Kelly: I’m going to cheat and I’m going to give you two books. The first one that comes to mind is This Book is Anti-racist, 20 lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action and Do Work by Tiffany Jewels. It’s a very gentle and thoughtfully written book that equips young children or young people with the tools needed to be actively anti-racist. And it’s just so, and you can even adjust it for any age, like the younger elementary age children and the other one that’s really impacted me as the Miracle Morning, the Not So Obvious Secret, Guaranteed to Transform Your Life before 8:00 AM, by Hal Elrod. And he has lots of books in the series all geared towards different professions, but I’ve personally read the original one, which is for everyone.

And there’s one specifically for teachers, which actually also shows you how to implement it with your students.. 

Tara: That sounds wonderful., I’ll have to look that one up.

Aubrey: I love those. I have the one for entrepreneurs. I and I’ve read the one that because he does them for every well. He hires people to do them for each profession, not him. These are great books, selection by the way. And I’m definitely going to look up the one for my kids because I’m always looking in that genre to be able to educate and have those meaningful discussions. So this brings us to our next rapid-fire question. What are you reading right now?

Kelly: Right now I’m reading Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. 

Melinda: I am reading, Be Our Guest, which is the story of Disney, because we’re having this big discussion about customer service. And no, no one does it better than Disney, right? Those are brilliant. Yes. I’m in a book club. So from a fiction standpoint, we’re reading an American Marriage, which is also a really good book.

Tara: Oh, I read that. Yeah. Good books. Good recommendations all around. Yeah. Thank you so much. Next rapid-fire question. What is one app you could not live without? 

Kelly: This is so boring. My calendar. Well, I’m equally. 

Tara:  You’re not the only one who’s answered that. You’re not the only one. 

Kelly: I love it, I use a little bullet journal. I don’t know if you’ve tried the bullet journal and I love it, but my calendar keeps me balanced. Like my bullet journal helps me to be creative. But I need all of my things, all my meetings and everything in my calendar.

Melinda: I have to, for me, it was a toss-up between my calendar and the weather app. I know I’m a, I’m a fanatic about checking the weather, but well, Aubrey knows the story of our school, but the weather can make a huge difference in the impact of. Probably you too, Kelly, because you talked about your 22 acres. I mean, we only have about three and a half acres, but it’s beautiful. Whereas we have a very old dated school building it at the front part of the school. It’s an old elementary school we’ve built on quite a bit in the back.

So it gets prettier as you go back. But what really sells it, if you will, is the green space, especially if our kids are out there, it’s bustling there are science projects going on over here. People are planting over there. The pollinator garden is alive with bees buzzing. And so, yeah, I’m big on the weather app.

Kelly: Your school sounds like my school, just like on a mini scale, right? 

Melinda: I think so. And we’re very we describe ourselves as being somewhere in the middle between traditional and Montessori. I would say, yeah, we probably share a lot of similarities. 

Kelly: And I would say the weather definitely affects the tours, which is one reason why I love that we’ve moved toward the virtual and have those beautiful pictures that we’ve taken because it looks beautiful every day, no matter what the weather looks like.

Aubrey:  Those are two great apps by the way. And I had never thought about the weather app, but you’re absolutely true when I used to work events and like, sure enough, you check that weather because it can make or break, especially an outdoor event. So. Fantastic. I appreciate that. Okay. Final, rapid-fire question.

What is one great piece of advice you’d like to leave with? 

Melinda: And you mean from an admission standpoint, I’m assuming not a philosophy of life standpoint. It could be whatever you want it to be. Well, from an admission standpoint, I would say the best piece of advice I can give is to find fantastic admission software.

And maximize it. Get every like Kelly, you mentioned it too. I mean, I have automated reminders set up, so I don’t have to do them. I have automated emails set up, so I don’t have to do them. I mean, I feel like our software is an assistant it’s an admissions assistant. So I, if I were talking, giving advice to a new admissions person, that’s what I would say.

Kelly: I guess my admissions advice would be. Find people that you can connect with and ask questions and bounce ideas through. Sometimes you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, right? Someone’s already thought of this and has a solution to your problem. So just reach out and ask for help. My personal advice would be to believe in yourself and be kind to yourself because the way that you see yourself is the way that you’ll treat yourself.

And the way that you treat yourself is what you’ll become. 

Tara: Thank you so much. Where can people find each of you online? Do you want to share your website or profiles? 

Melinda: So our school is walden-school.org. And then me personally, I’m on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn. 

Kelly: Our school is Butler school.org. And I’m more of a browser than a poster, but I am more active on Instagram. My handle is at kellyt_nguyen. 

Tara: Thank you both so much for joining us. I really enjoyed hearing how you’ve been handling it and sounds like you’ve been handling this past year really well, and I’m excited to see the things that it’s helped you implement going forward as well. So thanks so much for sharing all of your learnings and experiences with us. 

Kelly: Thank you for having us. 

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