26. Retention Strategies that Connect Parents and Retain Students

Aubrey and Tara discuss retention strategies, focusing on methods towards aiding parent to school connection. Due to Covid, small school enrollment has skyrocketed but parent to school ties remain severed. As public schools reopen and reality returns to normalcy, how will you showcase to parents that your school is still the right choice? Aubrey and Tara share their solutions, taking us back to proven and effective basics for a healthy retention.

About Aubrey Bursch & Tara Claeys:

Aubrey Bursch is founder + CEO of Easy School Marketing. She’s also a mom, lover of green smoothies and Peloton and podcast host. She is passionate about supporting small + independent schools to increase enrollment, retention and revenue.

Tara Claeys is the founder of Design TLC – a professional website agency for small schools. She’s passionate about helping organizations provide enriching experiences for children by creating a great first impression online.

Find Aubrey Bursch & Tara Claeys:

Aubrey’s Instagram & LinkedIn

Tara’s Instagram & LinkedIn

MSM Instagram 


Show Notes




Show Transcript

Aubrey Bursch: Im Aubrey Bursch. 

Tara Claeys: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today, instead of a guest, we’re going to talk about retention for independent schools. Many private schools has seen an increase in enrollments during the COVID times, but once more public schools return to a more reliable schedule, how will independent schools retain their students?

What are the strategies that schools should be thinking about now to prepare for these changing times, and to ensure that their school is a place where families want to stay? So we’re going to chat about that today and I’m going to start out by asking Aubrey about it. So what are some things that you’re seeing Aubrey, that you’re seeing that small schools are doing to address retention right now? 

Aubrey Bursch: Well, Tara, I am so excited about this topic because I think this is such a huge topic and always an important one, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s not. So I’m glad we’re doing this episode. And in terms of what you know, schools need to do to, or are doing to address retention, I think it goes back to the basics for retention. Whether we’re dealing with COVID or not. It’s understanding that when parents go through the admissions process they’re sold on the schools, I’m using quotes, sold on the school’s value proposition. And they’re sold on the experience of what they want in that independent school. And so what happens with retention is if they’re not seeing that experience, or they’re not understanding that they’re being, the school is delivering what they said they were going to deliver. That’s where there’s a disconnect and that’s where we often see problems with retention. For schools usually when I’m working with them, I talk about the connect four framework, which is a really important retention framework, because really it allows schools to say, what am I doing in these areas? And how can I address them? So often we’ll talk about what does that look like with communications and everything like that? But the framework is simple. It says, connection to the teacher, connection to peers, connections to the classroom and connection to the child’s experience. So for connection to the teacher, this would look like, like, how are you? And this is especially true for K through eight schools, right? How are you connecting parents to the teacher? And so there needs to be like that know and trust factor, like the parents need to be connected to the teacher so that they can trust that their child is in a safe, nurturing environment. And when that’s absent, that’s when you see like a disconnect or dissatisfaction happening that leads to retention issues. And then there’s connection to peers. Now this means peers within the classroom for students to have those peer relationships, but it also means peer to peer connection for parents. So for example, if I’m in third grade, I need to be connected to other third grade families, right? Because those are the people who are going to most likely move with me from year to year. And those are the people who are most likely to have kind of relationship within the community. And they’re really important. And I would say this, especially during COVID has suffered a lot, but it does impact retention because the more connected people are to the school and to their peers, the more likely they are to stay and see the value. And then there’s connections to the classrooms. So this piece is obvious so the classroom, obviously parents chose this school for some reason it’s probably academic related or social emotional related. So what happens in the classroom is actually really important and we need to connect parents with that experience, whether it’s through using videos or weekly newsletter from the teachers, some way to connect, you know, parents with what’s actually happening in the classroom. So they see the value of what is being offered. And then the fourth one is connection to their child’s experience. And this is probably one of the most, most important one of these framework pieces here, because connection to the child’s experience is really, you want to know, like how is my child doing social socially, emotionally, and academically. For example, little Jenny comes home crying at carpool and says she doesn’t have any friends, if I have connection, to the teacher, the teacher might email me and say, Jenny is having a lovely time. Here’s a video of her playing on the slides with her new friends. And, you know, I’m sorry for this transition issue, but she is doing well here. So it’s understanding their real child’s experience, not just what their children are saying when they come home or picked up at carpool, understanding how they are thriving in this environment. So it’s interesting to note that schools might be delivering on all of these connect four framework pieces. But the parents might not know it. So for example, the schools might be delivering fantastic value in the classroom, but if the parents haven’t received weekly newsletters talking about like the Spanish program that’s happening and how they’re building, you know, this rocket as part of some sort of science experiment, they’re not understanding the value. And so there’s a disconnect. So that really ties in with like communications and how important it is to, look at every piece of this framework and understand how are we actually communicating it to the parents. 

Tara Claeys: Yeah it’s really insightful to think about how basic these basic things that sometimes we just don’t think about in, in our everyday lives as well. They’re just basic things that are so easy to implement and that we don’t do and same thing for schools. And I also think that there’s such a focus on enrollment, like getting more people to apply and inquire that it’s easy to get the retention piece falling off because you think once they’re there, they’re there. You know, there’s a quote about marketing. Like the one thing that will kill a product faster than anything else is good marketing for a bad product, because people are expecting something and then they buy it and it doesn’t work and they don’t buy it again, or they tell all their friends. And so it definitely is something you have to deliver on, which is what retention is really about. 

Aubrey Bursch: Absolutely. It certainly is. And I think, retention is one of those things that is so important for many reasons, because obviously it costs a great deal of time and energy to bring in new families. But when we have them there, we need to keep them there. And that’s an ongoing process and it’s not, it doesn’t stop after the first year a family is there. You have to reaffirm your value to that family year after year. It’s truly important. Switching gears a little bit. I’m so interested Tara, because you have such a knowledge in the website front how do you see schools using their websites to connect parents to information to each other? Because we just talked about how connection is really important, and I’m curious how you see schools doing that with their websites. 

Tara Claeys: Yeah, it’s similar to the idea of, something that might be basic because I think school’s approach their website as mainly a tool for driving new inquiries, which mainly is what the website really is for. It’s the front door, front porch of your school. It’s what people come to see first when they’re exploring options for their kids. So it’s easy for a website to not be considered as something that can be used for retention. And there are lots of tools that are not maybe necessarily part of your main website that schools use for communication with their parents. So in terms of the websites that we build we see the there are aspects of a website that can be expanded out for communication, like classroom connection type things. The issue there is that it’s hard to be consistent and to follow through with that in the long-term, because you’re asking already overburdened faculty or admin staff to go and write information. It’s a good idea to try to spread that out over time. And instead of trying to bite off more than you can chew to say, once a month, someone’s going to write a blog post about what’s happening in their classrooms. So you’re having that content that’s out there. That’s new and fresh. So people who are coming to the website are seeing that information. And then you can also repurpose that for internal newsletters and you can actually set it up so that when you make a blog on your website, it will through an RSS feed it’s called. It will actually send an email at the same time. So you’re not even having to create it twice. So that’s a very natural way for a website to participate in this retention conversation. And I know, you talk about this a lot in your social media, and it’s what you work with with your schools on improving their retention strategies and doing some of this communication. And so I think the website is one part of that, for sure. But I know there are lots of other ways that schools communicate, especially with social media and things. So what have you seen schools doing in terms of communication, specific type of strategies that they’re implementing for retention? 

Aubrey Bursch: Sure, I, at first love to comment on that blog too, using in your newsletter. I think that’s such a great tool and I’ve seen it used successfully with schools too, where they create pillar pieces of content that then they can include in their blogs, you know, in, in their blogs. But then every year to a certain grade or something at a specific time in a newsletter. So it’s great. Such a, such a tool to be used now in terms of like ongoing communication and how important that is for retention, so I think it comes down to like continuing to share the value proposition. First knowing your value proposition but also then continuing to share it. What makes your school, you know, why do people come to you in the first place and what makes your school unique? And often there are many different ways to share that, but videos, so through your social media, like I would almost write down your key pillars or your value proposition and, strategically say, which, how are we, how are we actually telling the story about this in our newsletters and through our social media, in our videos and everything like that. And I think that’s really important. I think there’s another piece that’s often overlooked in terms of communication. And that’s what I called seeding and sharing about the next level. And this can be done through an email drip series or targeted postcards and, you know, or letters or some sort of graphic piece to send to families. But we often see that we’re so interested in like maybe our transition years from fifth grade to sixth grade, which might be middle school or from middle school to high school, or from that like kindergarten to first grade year, wherever you see the drop. But every year it needs to be reaffirmation of why to stay. And we’ve been working with a lot of clients to implement this, kind of next level visioning like speeding to the next level. So parents actually like if I’m in fourth grade, I know what’s happening in fifth grade because through an email drip series, they’ve been sharing all the really cool stuff they’re going to do next year. And maybe my fifth grader before we re-enrollment happens, gets a welcome to fifth grade packet or something that has, you know, information about the fifth grade, meet the teachers, that sort of thing. So it’s really strategically looking at how your communications can internally market to families, because we often forget that families every year have a decision to make, even if you’re on continuous enrollment. Like they have a decision, they’re either going to stay or they’re going to leave, so how are you going to incentivize them in terms of with how your school is delivering to the next grade? And then I say to the next level, which means if I’m fourth grade, it’s also making sure I know about middle school and high school, and then the end product, which is understanding that value of the school and what it has to offer. So that might be in talking about your alumni or graduates and making sure that you’re consistently communicating about that to families, no matter what the grade.

Tara Claeys: Yeah, that’s really, I think if your kid’s happy and your kid’s excited about what’s coming up there, they’re certainly also advocating for staying. And so that’s, talking about following through on your promise and that unique selling proposition too. 

Aubrey Bursch: Yeah and I’m glad you mentioned kids excited because another piece is that we often want to create marketing materials and this, you know, with the administration, but now more than ever children are making decisions. Students are making the decisions, and so often what we think is really a great marketing idea or like a fun event, you know, held to, you know, get children excited about the next level or, high school or middle school, is not what the kids that age actually want. And it’s encouraging also schools to look at, how can you utilize your student population to create communications that are impactful for students, a student communications and like events that people actually want to go to? What do they want? So I think that is a really important piece for sure. Especially, if parents are faced with school A and school B and they like both schools, but you know, the student is like, I want to go to school B the parents are probably going to go with school B cause no one wants to drag their student, their child kicking and screaming to school every day. So it’s definitely some interesting ways to look at how you can communicate student to student. 

Tara Claeys: Yeah. I’m also wondering about thinking back to my experience as a parent in a, in an independent school, the, the community of parents was also really important. And so I think the school supplemented that by allowing us to communicate as parents with each other about the mothers club and, the different outreach programs that were available to parents to do with their kids and inside the community that were appealing or the gala or different opportunities for parents to get involved. There’s also something where parents create connections with each other and those things may exist. But if you’re not communicating about them or creating an opportunity for them to communicate to your community about it, then it’s not going to be something that is as effective as it could be in terms of helping to create that community comradery that we’re talking about that’s part of this, actually it’s part of marketing for retention, right?

Aubrey Bursch: It is. It is. I’m so glad you brought that up too, because community, I think, you know, if we’re going to look at the snapshot of time in the past, like two years, community has suffered so much and it’s felt across the board. When I’m doing like third-party interviews and surveys one of the main things parents are commenting on is I used to be able to go into this school, like I haven’t seen my child’s classroom. I used to be able to go in the school and I knew Eddie and Jerry at the front desk and all the new teachers and then, I would get together and have coffee at drop off with a few of, fifth grade parents and like, community is so important. And yet it’s been so difficult to do it the past two years. And I think that’s a key challenge to retention right now, for sure, because when parents are not connected to each other or connected or feeling like they’re even connected to the people in the school, it’s really hard. I think that’s what, one of the reasons that parents want to come to independent schools. They want to have, I mean, if their child is going to spend so much time someplace, they want to have that connection with others there too. So I appreciate you bringing that up. 

Tara Claeys: Yeah, that kind of brings into the whole idea of how COVID has impacted, marketing strategies, obviously we’ve talked with our guests and with each other about how COVID has impacted enrollment and the general marketing process for getting new families. And it’s had a positive impact in many ways on increasing enrollment. But then, as I started out asking about then thinking, being forward-thinking, life returns more to normal and parents are more comfortable with the public school situation, are they going to go back and how are you retaining all these new families that have come in? So have you, do you have any thoughts on the during COVID versus post COVID retention, marketing strategies?

Aubrey Bursch: Absolutely. For COVID, so I think if let’s just take the community piece, right? So you need to connect families with the community. So if you’re a family, like that’s what I’ve seen some schools do is they offer like smaller groups coming into a classroom to get involved, to meet the teacher, to understand what’s actually happening in the classroom. Making sure there are ways for classes to get together, parents and classes to get together and really tying them to the school because you said it so well, is that when the public schools, like when, this is over quote unquote and people have the choice between going back to a public school or they might feel like they might want to go back to a public school versus staying at their independent school. What’s going to be that deciding factor. And if they’re not connected to the school and they’re not seeing the school and they haven’t even been inside their child’s classroom. That’s going to be, they’re not seeing that true value of what the school has to offer. So I think that it’s really looking strategically about how you can continue to build community and how to also showcase the value. And those two things alone will help with retention of those people who might be considering leaving, for sure. 

Tara Claeys: That’s such a big challenge to overcome this lack of in-person connection, which is, I think already starting to come back to some degree. And let me ask, this is a little bit, might seem a little bit strange, but thinking like out of the box marketing things for retention, what role does school spirit and school spirit items play like t-shirts and swag? I mean that I would assume falls under the auspices of marketing. And and does that play a role in retention too? And how should schools be thinking about their budget and how they approach that type of stuff? 

Aubrey Bursch: Absolutely. So glad you brought that up. I think spirit wear and like the school spirit is huge. I mean, In a potential marketing, I mean, if you have, we see this a lot with camps, but also schools, like they have camp t-shirts that they hand out for free. And then all of a sudden Billy is wearing his camp t-shirt around town. And so-and-so asked the mom, oh, did Billy like camp and mom says, yes. So you have that nice word of mouth, you know, kind of oh, referral. So I think when done properly, like swag and stuff like that can definitely help with not only promotion of the school, but also retention because you’re all in this together. And it creates that atmosphere of, you know, you know, you can do spirit weeks, and all sorts of things. I know that people who had those branded online stores tend to see a lot of traffic and a lot of school pride within their community when they launched something like that. How have you seen it? As a mom and also a marketer, I’d love to know how you’ve seen it be effective in this area.

Tara Claeys: Yeah. I’ve seen, we’ve had schools that are now selling their spirit wear on their website. So to make it easier because the parents aren’t in school to go to the store at the school store to purchase it. Adding that element of e-commerce to allow that kind of stuff to still continue to be out there, I think is something that we’ve seen happening. And yeah, for sure. I think, I still wear t-shirts from my schools. Just ’cause it’s reminiscent for me and I like the look of it or whatever. So I think that’s definitely something to consider and most schools I’m sure do that. Just maybe they just don’t think about it as a marketing strategy. And I think that’s what we’re trying to cover here. Is this going back to where we started this idea of doing some of these things that aren’t, they’re not paying for ads or even, updating their website or changing their branding or doing any of these big things that you considered that take a lot of time and money maybe to do. But there are some really basic things that schools can be doing as marketing tactics that are really very basic. If you could, and we talk about mindfulness, right? We talk about productivity. And so if you could set aside, even every two weeks, one hour where you are planning out the next couple of months of content, and it could be once a month or twice a month, but why not have, a student blog that happens once a month and you assign a student from each of these classes to write a paragraph, just a paragraph that you can put into a blog post. These are basic things that are that unless you if you set your mind to it and you’re mindful about approaching it and putting it into your into your pipeline of what you’re doing. And making sure that you do that, holding yourself accountable, maybe with another member of your team so that you’re sharing the responsibility and reporting to each other. Those are some ways to implement this stuff and not just talk about it, right? And actually try to put it into action. So I think that’s what we want to try to encourage people to do is think about the different things that you do to market your school but think about this specifically in terms of retention is what we’re talking about today and how to create a process in your school, where you’re implementing these communication strategies that can really make a difference in how your community feels about your school and what they know about it.

Aubrey Bursch: I love that you brought it up because, we can all talk about strategy. We can talk about all the things, but unless they actually get done, they’re not making impact on retention at all. So I appreciate you bringing that up. I’d also like to add that, that setting aside the time on the calendar- when I’m working with clients, I’ll say, okay, so you have an hour, a week blocked off for retention for key administration, for sure. That means making parent phone calls. That means like doing X, Y, and Z, maybe writing some birthday notes to students, like whatever it is, it’s like an hour a week. And I tell them that’s, non-negotiable like you don’t schedule a meeting over that. That is your time. And it happens over the course of the year, right? There’s not a block period for, oh, this is our retention time. Obviously January through March is key retention time, but you want retention to be part of living and breathing in your schedule so that you’re not making that mad dash rush, in January. And you’re like, oh, people stay or not. 

Tara Claeys: Yeah. Yeah, it’s part of your identity and who you are. I’ve been doing following James Clear who wrote Atomic Habits, which I know we’ve talked about a lot, cause we like to geek out on productivity and habits. But what I really like about his approach to setting goals is this concept of identity. So instead of saying, I’m going to run a marathon this year, you say, I am going to be. And you do the things that our runner does. So I’m going to be, we are going to be a popular school, we’re going to be a friendly place. What are the things that you do to be a friendly, successful school? And then you implement those things. And so thinking about it as part of your personality, your identity. It becomes a natural thing that you do. It’s not even, it’s not even this big hulking task ahead of you. It’s just part of your makeup. So I think that’s a good, that’s a good place to leave our listeners today is to think about the identity of your school and just putting some tasks into place to, to continue to communicate that to your community. 

Aubrey Bursch: Absolutely. I really think that’s important because we need to execute things and we need to identify who we want to be, who our school is and then make it happen.

Tara Claeys: Yeah, and you share some great tips on your social media. So I’ll encourage people to check that out if they don’t already follow you on LinkedIn. You have some really great videos you put out there with creative ideas for retention and other marketing strategies. So I appreciate your sharing this talk with us today, Aubrey, and allowing me to ask you some really important questions about the things that you do and see and I hope that our audience has taken some tips from this. 

Aubrey Bursch: Absolutely. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you and I could do it for hours. So thank you, Tara, for this opportunity and I’ve loved our conversation. 

Tara Claeys: Take care!

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