Six Steps to Avoid Post-Pandemic Attrition

October 5, 2020 Daren Worcester

The Get Connected podcast logo with a photo of Jill Goodman.

Episode 76 of the Get Connected podcast welcomes Jill Goodman of Jill Goodman Consulting as our guest, along with Stacy Jagodowski as our Blackbaud K–12 Advisory Board co-host, to discuss ways that schools can keep newly enrolled families once the pandemic is over. The conversation includes advice on:

  • Fulfilling brand promises
  • Getting ahead of hearsay with internal marketing
  • Building relationships in the first 90 days after enrollment
  • Creating a strategy for conflict resolution
  • Showcasing public displays of learning
  • Encouraging community engagement

Get Connected to this discussion by listening to the podcast above, downloading the episode, or listening on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, or Spotify.

Additional resources referenced in the episode:


Jill Goodman [Intro]: The real question is, is the school accepting students and families who have needs and goals that your school can realistically meet? Are they aligned? And those tough conversations that maybe didn't happen or should have happened in a different way tend to be the root of future discontent.

Daren Worcester: Greetings, and welcome back to the Get Connected Podcast. I'm Daren Worcester. And in this episode, I'm super psyched to be joined by none other than Stacy Jagodowski as our Blackbaud K-12 advisory board and cohost. Stacy, how are you doing today?

Stacy Jagodowski: I'm great. Daren, how are you?

Daren Worcester: Well, you tell me, did I get the name right this time?

Stacy Jagodowski: You nailed it. Good job.

Daren Worcester: Much better than the first time. Stacy, in the slight chance that there's anyone listening who hasn't crossed paths with you yet, can you please give us a brief overview of your career and your roles in schools?

Stacy Jagodowski: Sure. I've been working in private schools for almost 20 years now. I've been working at schools, ranging from ECC-through-eight schools, secondary schools, secular schools, religious schools, coed schools, and single-sex schools. And I've worked in marketing and communication roles as well as admission roles. And I really focused the majority of my career on the marketing and communication aspects.

Daren Worcester: So our topic today is focusing on private school attrition, given the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, how hot of a topic has this been for you, and your school leadership meetings that you've been in?

Stacy Jagodowski: Oh, it's definitely a huge topic because we're always talking about how the pandemic is going to affect us, what it's going to mean for us in the immediate, what it's going to mean in the future. And with so many unknown factors about what this pandemic means and what's going to happen and how long it's going to last, our conversations that happened back in March and what's happening now and how long we're going to be in it, it all keeps changing. So these conversations are very relevant, and it's one of the most uncertain times we've ever found ourselves in. And there's nothing that's happened like this in the past, so we don't have anything to lean back on. So it's a very new situation for all of us.

Daren Worcester: For sure. And the data that we've been reviewing at Blackbaud certainly verifies what you're saying and going through. To set the stage for today's discussion, a couple of my colleagues recently aggregated enrollment data from Blackbaud Enrollment Management SystemTM, and they published an article outlining how many schools saw a year over year drop-off in applications and contracts throughout the typical period of March, April, and May while families I think were taking stock of the situation themselves. But for the most part, many schools and obviously results may vary here, rebounded in June and July is deadlines loomed. And another soon-to-be-released Blackbaud report found that 60% of public school parents considered switching schools during this time as did 56% of private school parents.

And of those public school parents who looked to switch schools, 23% of them turned to private schools, which begs the question, what can the schools do, A, to keep their incumbent families from turning away, and B, to keep those newfound public school families that have come through their doors to stay for more than just a year and staying for the long haul once the pandemic is over. To help us answer that question, our guest today is going to be Jill Goodman of Jill Goodman Consulting. Jill's done a lot of research around private school attrition. And in a moment, we're going to pick her brain on the subject. But Stacy, first, what are some of the avenues you've been looking at of late to combat attrition?

Stacy Jagodowski: So it's a wide range of avenues that I've been looking at to combat attrition. We have to show that we're partners with our parents first and foremost, and make sure that our school is living up to that promise that we're making to the families. I can communicate all I want, but if we're not delivering on the backend promise of whatever it is that we're making to our families, it doesn't matter how good my communication or marketing strategies are. But it's the basic things of the clear and consistent communication, making sure that we're organized and not overwhelming to our families, and being consistent, so making sure that your email, newsletters, your magazines, whatever the pieces are that are going out are always going out when they're supposed to be going, they're consistent, they're high quality, with accurate information.

And then there's really simple things, making sure that your parents have consistent information across your portals, that your resource boards your calendar events, your community groups, your articles, they're always up to date, they're working together so that there's a seamless experience for your parents, and that they can find anything they need. And if we don't give a lot of value to that as a school, is making sure the parents can find what they need easily, we take that for granted. Just making sure that your functional search works. If parents can't find what they need, when they look they're going to search for it, so if your search function doesn't return what they need, you've got to make sure that it does.

And so that featured search function that we have in Blackbaud is awesome, and so we make sure that keeps rolling. But then there's also providing a way for them to get help. So simple things like adding an email onto web pages that says, "Can't find what you're looking for? Reach out to this person." Those little nuances, make parents feel like we actually care and are paying attention to them. But then we can also go a little bit deeper and we develop that transparency and trust and make sure that we're getting in front of anything that could be potentially negative and owning it. And we want to build those emotional connections.

So those are some of those strategies and really looking for how we can combat the attrition. Articles and social media posts, telling that story and pulling at the heartstrings. We want parents to feel like their children, no matter what age they are, are being cared for and loved. That's what families want. So many schools talk about their schools as being a community but also a family, and families need to feel like that's true, and so what we do in marketing that's part of our strategy, is how do we make them feel like they're a part of a strategy? So those are some of the things that I try to do.

Daren Worcester: Yeah. I love the making them feel loved. And I have a hunch that communication is going to be a big point of our discussion with Jill in a moment. In terms of the volume of communication that you're having with families, and you mentioned not wanting to overwhelm them, I presume... Well, excuse me, let me step back. I presume at the beginning of it all, volume kicked up as you probably felt the need to keep parents informed of what's going on. Has that leveled out or is it still higher than your normal rate?

Stacy Jagodowski: We're still a little higher I'm finding, but normal rates are coming back. That daily communication that I think a lot of schools were doing when this all first happened because we felt like we were really in that immediate crisis situation where we had to communicate non-stop, that's moved away and we've shifted to the long-term crisis situation where it's communicate as needed. We're starting to back off a little bit more, and we're no longer saying this is the new normal, we're kind of back into normal, even though this isn't the normal that we were used to, this is now the new normal that we're used to that's becoming our now normal.

So we're adjusting and we're able to adapt and go back to some of our previous communication standards. And so it's coming down a little bit, but as things change, I think some of those standalone outreach efforts are happening a little bit more frequently, but not to the degree that they were back in say, February, March, and April.

Daren Worcester: Understood. That makes sense. So I've got some more questions for you as we dig in with Jill. I feel like if I don't push pause now, you and I will probably fill a full episode just riffing on this. So let's push the pause button and we'll bring Jill in.

Stacy Jagodowski: Sounds good.

Daren Worcester: Jill, welcome to the Get Connected podcast. We're excited to have you on.

Jill Goodman: Thanks, Daren. And thank you to Stacy too. Thanks for having me. I'm thrilled to be here with you today.

Stacy Jagodowski: Excited to be here with you.

Daren Worcester: Absolutely. Jill, Stacy and I introduced you a little bit prior to your joining, but why don't you give us the full picture about yourself and your consulting agency?

Jill Goodman: So I work with school leaders on some of the most concerning things that keep them up at night, those would be enrollment, retention, small shop fundraising, the future of the school, leadership, both their own and those of their division heads and other leaders in the school. And I've been involved with schools and nonprofits for over 20 years in a number of roles, starting with my very first experience as a volunteer, to trusteeship, to a grantmaker, to being an administrator for 10 years. And I'm fascinated by organizational management and the way that organizations move in certain ways that actually are not always forward. And I feel incredibly fortunate to spend my days in a consulting role with school leaders, working with them to uncover blind spots and navigate their really complicated world more effectively.

Daren Worcester: Good. Thank you. And of late, I think you've really focused a lot of research working with families to better understand attrition trends if I have that correct. And you were quoted in a School Marketing Journal article saying that while families usually informed schools that they're leaving due to economic hardship, this isn't often the whole truth. Why is it, do you find, that families aren't fully forthcoming with schools? And have you found a commonality in their real reasons for leaving?

Jill Goodman: I think that claiming that a parent can no longer afford the school is really an easy answer or an easy way out for the parent out of a relationship that's maybe not even a relationship anymore. The family might feel just finished with the school, especially if they found the school to be unwilling to listen, or were defensive when issues were brought to light. But also, by saying that finances were the issue and not an actual conflict being the issue, then the family might feel more confident that the school will still provide a positive reference for the child as they seek another placement, and finances might in fact be part of the reason that they are leaving. But in my experience, families would have been more willing to continue to commit those resources to tuition if other issues having to do with the program or social, emotional issues for their child or not feeling like part of the community if some of those things were better addressed by the school.

Daren Worcester: Understood. That makes sense. So through your work, you've identified six key parent experiences that solidify the bond that families have with schools and help lower attrition rates. For today's podcast, I'd really like to go through these one by one to get your thoughts on it and Stacy's thoughts as well. The first is whether parents feel that the school is living up to the brand promise that the school made through the marketing and admissions process, in what ways do you see schools falling short here? And in the context of today's educational climate, how can schools meet these expectations in the eyes of parents?

Jill Goodman: Well, I think it's helpful maybe at this point to take a moment to talk about a classic sell cycle. As I understand, sell cycles that parents are in when they enter the admissions process, there's generally three phases of the sell cycle with several pieces in it, but let's just concentrate on the top priority in each phase. So in phase one, families want the school to listen and to understand the problem or the pain or the need that's caused them to look at the school. And in phase two, they want to hear your solutions to the problem or the pain or the need that's brought them there. And in phase three, which is when they've pretty much decided to buy the program, risk is the biggest priority, which means they wonder if they've actually made the right decision.

And then right after that, and still in phase three, they are wondering and anxious about, can they actually afford what they've committed to? So in phase two, the parents heard brand promises or the solutions that were offered to them for their particular issues. And when the school actually starts and they're at the end of phase three, they're anxious and they're looking to mitigate this risk. They want affirmation that the school is going to make good on the brand promises that were made. The real question is, is the school accepting students and families who have needs and goals that your school can realistically meet? Are they aligned? And those tough conversations that maybe didn't happen or should have happened in a different way, tend to be the root of future discontent.

So to get back to your question about how schools may be falling short and how they can better meet expectations, once students are enrolled, school leaders needed to have understood what parents were looking for in choosing the school so that they can communicate if that need's actually being met. And for some families right now in this particular pandemic time, the main need is in-person learning. So if the child can be on campus, the school has fulfilled its promise for the moment for some families, but whatever the school's brand promises are that were made, the school needs to continually communicate to parents how they're making good on those promises. And that can and should happen through a multi-channel approach, through your website, through email, through social media, through texts, which is an interesting way to go, phone calls and certainly meetings with teachers or division heads or counselors.

Granted, this work is really time-consuming, but it's also really intentional. And it's one of the main ways that independent schools can set themselves apart from other options that parents have.

Daren Worcester: So, would you say that at the crux of this is that families come in feeling like they're understood, and there's going to be some personalization in their experience with the school, and then after the fact, they don't feel like that personalization is there for them?

Jill Goodman: That certainly could be part of it. It could be part of it. Or they're just unsure if what they bought is actually translating to the experience of their child and that family.

Daren Worcester: Stacy, you've worked at several different schools, some of them with very distinct niches. What has your experience been with laying out that brand promise, and from a marketing and communications standpoint, making sure that the school is living up to that?

Stacy Jagodowski: Well, a big part of it for me is making sure that we are communicating between sales and marketing. If I don't know what's happening in the conversations and the promises that are being made by the admission office and the administrators and the division heads, I can't communicate properly. So I need to have that communication happening between the internal offices, first and foremost. That way, I can then step in and do my side of things and help to communicate how we are following through on those promises. If we're promising in-person learning, and I'm only seeing digital learning as our platform's coming through, then that's all I'm going to push out because I'm not going to push out a promise that I don't know about.

So that internal communication is huge, and I need to be able to know that what I'm doing is what is actually going to be happening. So that's a big part of it, but Jill's absolutely right, that multi-channel approach to communication is really key. And right now, we have this wonderful opportunity and horrible opportunity all at the same time that we can communicate in so many ways, and that makes my job wonderful and challenging all at the same time because I need to figure out what ways parents want to hear from me. And some of them want the text, some of them want the emails, some of them want personal one-on-one communication. Some of them are going to be just shocked if we pick up the phone and call them.

We have to learn what the families want from us in terms of communication, that's also part of the brand promise. How do you want to communicate with us? Because one of the things that we as schools always are promising is, we're going to get to know you on a personal level. We're not just going to be that chug and churn factory that's just going to push you through, we're going to actually be there to hold your hand help you along the way. So that transparency and being there to be that support for the parent is a huge part of it. But I think Jill's hit the nail on the head with a lot of what she said. We have to just be there for the parents and be communicating with them to make sure that they hear firsthand from us, that we're doing what they want us to do.

And then for me, it's also to show it once it actually starts happening. I think what you're going to talk a little bit more later on in the podcast about what's happening once school's in session, but before school even gets in session, I can talk about what's happening right now in my community, but what's happening right now is not always what's going to happen once these families who are applying are going to be in school.

Daren Worcester: Yeah, that's a great point. I feel like that first tenet there of Jill's recommendations, we could probably keep going on for the entire podcast, but in an effort to get all six in here, Jill, your second focal point is combating hearsay with internal marketing. We know that parents are talking amongst themselves, whether it be in the parking lot or on Facebook. How do you recommend schools approach that and keep it from becoming a burden to attrition?

Jill Goodman: Yeah, you make a great point. Carpool chatter or gossip misinformation can be the downfall of a division or a school. Just a few years of, let's say lower school parents talking about the English and writing program that's lacking in the middle school, or they think it is, can really impact enrollment as parents start to apply out in fourth or fifth grade, based on these rumors that come from who knows exactly where. That's actually part of the research that I work on. But it's important that schools spend this similar amount of energy marketing to your existing parents as they do to prospective parents about the program as an entire continuum and the strength of each part of the program so that parents are excited about what's coming up for their child as opposed to fearful about it at every age.

Here's another example. I worked with a school that was losing students after the early childhood program, and the school wanted to know why they were having trouble enrolling families to continue and to lower school. And it turned out that there were rumors of mean behavior and bullying in the middle school and parents didn't want their children to be exposed to that element, shall we say. But neither parents nor the students had any contact with middle school students at all to see that the overwhelming majority of the middle school students were kind and caring and motivated and just well adjusted human beings.

So the early education parents, they also didn't know that there was this robust character education program and community service program and the middle schoolers and a peer mediation program. And so part of the internal marketing plan for that school moving forward was to create time for middle-schoolers to interact with the early childhood kids. So to read and to play and go on nature, walks with them, forming buddies, they would have buddies with them. And then eventually, these middle school buddies were introduced to the parents during a parent visiting event. So the goal being to eliminate these opportunities for rumors by allowing people to see the school as a continuum.

Daren Worcester: That's really interesting. And Stacy, that makes me think a question for you there in thinking through what Jill was saying. Obviously, schools are communicating a lot to their families and I presume a lot of what you're trying to do is personalize to the level so that families aren't overwhelmed with all the communication that they're getting from the school as a whole. So how do you walk that balance between just giving families information that's pertinent to them, but also giving them enough of a look at the other levels so that they feel comfortable with what's going on at the school as a whole?

Stacy Jagodowski: I approached communication for newsletters in a way that's a little bit different than a lot of schools. I like my newsletter to be very bare. I want it to be just the basics. So I break it down into sections of my newsletter for each division. So there's one newsletter that goes out. Especially at a lot of my schools, I've had a lot of families who have multiple siblings, so one family could end up getting three or four newsletters from me, and that's not a good user experience either. I want them to feel like they have one place to go to get everything they need. So in the newsletter, there'll be a section for each division, and they can just scroll to the division that they need to get their information from. but there's also a chance for them to see what else is in that newsletter if they so choose.

But then I have complementary components on the backend of the site using the resource boards where I've developed tiles that are the e-news built out with a little bit more robust stuff for them where there are the pictures, where there's the events, where there's more links to things, so that the e-news is really just pushing them to the tiles to get more information. And they're clicking off in the e-news anyway. I limit what goes in it, so it's a headline and a really short, brief description, kind of like the Twitter description. And then you go and you get more information elsewhere because I don't want them spending all their time on an email, I want them spending their time on a webpage or on the backend where they're going to get to their kid's information anyways.

So if I put it all in an email, it is going to be overwhelming, but if I push them to the places where they can find this stuff, then they're going to search for what it is that they need. It's important for us to think about what it is that those parents actually need and what we want them to see. And those aren't always the same thing. Sometimes we want them to see things that they don't need, that can be a little bit tricky, so it was important for us to think about, like Jill was saying, those inter-divisional interactions and how we can foster those naturally. At one of my schools, we had a meet the middle school event and we pushed that to some of the lower school students so that we could get them to really think about the next stages.

And one of the things that I pushed out was to move away from just calling us what our grade levels were and to start focusing on what your class year was, even in the lower grades, because that way you're thinking about I graduate from here in 2032, that's a very long way away, but I'm now thinking, "Oh my gosh, I'm here until 2032." And so now you're thinking about the longevity of your time at the school rather than, "I'm just here for this grade." And it just changes the perception slightly. And it's a small, subtle thing, but these little things that we start doing and pushing out to our families, even just subconsciously, are just ways that we start to think about how we change our program to really push, "You're here for the long haul. You're not here for just a short period of time."

And when we say that you graduate from one division and go to another division, that's a breaking point, and that's a time where we give them the opportunity to say, "Oh, I graduated. I can leave." No, you don't need to leave, you need to just continue right on through and you need to stay. You're part of this program nonstop. You are transitioning to the next program, you are into the next program. In fact, my school used to make children from one program apply to the next program, we did away with that. There was no more applying to the next program, you just went straight into it.

And it's a great way to promote that retention. You don't have to prove yourself to us anymore, you're a part of us and you get to stay on with us. A lot of schools are starting to think about the perpetual contracts and that's something that's been put into Blackbaud's enrollment management, so that's something that we can use to keep families enrolled nonstop, you never have to enroll again, once you're in, you're in with us for the rest of your life. So it's those little things that are just subconscious changes that make families feel like they're not leaving us, they're staying with us the whole time. And then when we put that together with the fact that we're getting them involved with the other divisions and letting them see what the other divisions are doing, it's promoting that full tenure experience at our schools.

Daren Worcester: Interesting that you brought up the perpetual contracts because just before you said that I was thinking in my head of the school that did a presentation on that at UC20. And in the notes to this, I can put a link to that presentation for anybody that wants to hear the pros and cons of doing that they found and how they learn to make the process better, etc, through trial and error, a little bit. Jill, what I was thinking, a question for you as Stacy was going on there and giving us a lot of great insight into some of the strategies that she's seen and employed. As you've talked to parents, what's their feedback on getting that insight into other schools? How much did they appreciate that?

Jill Goodman: You mean into the other divisions, shall we say?

Daren Worcester: Yes, excuse me, the other schools is a different marketing conversation altogether.

Jill Goodman: I think there is some anxiety about different divisions. Parents are very much focused on their own child and their own time and space and what their child needs right then, but it is important to think about what families need each year and each time. I had a conversation with a school leader just this week, she was feeling a little frustrated because she had several current parents, so we're in the second week of school, several current parents who were feeling really anxious, calling her all the time, having a lot of questions. And we talked about how your current parents are also feeling vulnerable and have a lot of risk anxiety because their child is different and they've grown and they've changed and there are new teachers and a new schedule and new things happening, whether it's a new division or even just a new grade within the school.

And we're not always acknowledging the difficulties and fears that parents are having wondering, will the school acknowledge how my child has grown and changed? Will they now see their challenges now that I have to create a new trusted relationship with these series of teachers? How can I do that? How soon will that happen? So we're not always aware or acknowledging, we assume that our current parents know the drill and they're fine, but they're not always fine in this first few weeks of school.

Daren Worcester: I think that's such a great point too, just to not assume that all is well and that they know what's going on throughout the school. We got into this a little bit with the first question about your recommendations, but you've identified in the first 90 days after enrollment, that that's the most critical times when families are at the greatest risk of issues forming and I guess probably feeling disconnected from the school. Why is that 90 days so critical, and what common pitfalls do you see and how can schools avoid them?

Jill Goodman: Well, schools put a lot of resources into the admissions process to acquiring new families and also to some degree retaining families as well. And admissions does a really good job of this curating of parent experiences, and current teachers do form relationships with their current students and families since we were talking about the idea of where our current families are at too, but those are those initial trusted relationships that have formed with parents. And there is no new trusted relationship yet, so that's why the first 90 days is so critical because you have parents and students in this odd, vulnerable situation. And I was talking recently with an admissions director, she's at a pre-K–8, day school in the Midwest, and she was being called into these multiple meetings in the first few months of school.

And the meetings mostly had to do with social issues for their very young children and parents who were feeling anxious that their child wasn't making friends or they had been inadvertently placed in somehow the wrong section or classroom. And the admissions director was the trusted source and the maker of the promises. So she was requested in a lot of these meetings that clearly seemed to stem from worry about the risk like we talked about in the sales cycle. So my question was, well, what can schools do to alleviate this parent anxiety and submit this idea that this was in fact, a good decision. And so I've two thoughts on that. The first is to decide whose job it is to create a seamless transition out of the admissions office and into the greater community.

At larger schools, sometimes they have a person in the development office who's responsible for parent engagement. And I had this great conversation with an advancement director, a large school who decided to move a parent engagement director out of the development office and into the admissions office, the woman's role bridged both pieces, but she had contact with families through the admissions process. And it ensured that this engagement director met with and got to know each family from the moment that they entered the admissions office and through the entirety of their time at the school.

And she then formed the beginning of these trusted relationships that could continue from year to year, right from the start, and would remain with them as they move from grade to grade and division to division. And so she was the architect really of the experiences and information flow that new and re-enrolling families needed to feel connected. The second thought on that is the actual creation of those experiences and the content that parents and families need to form the relationships within the community. And the top priority is to make sure that parents have an opportunity to meet the child's teacher, the division head, the counselors, the front office staff, the before and aftercare staff, the student club leaders, all of these people before the start of school, or as close to enrollment as possible.

And student leaders sometimes think that parents need a minimum of information before school starts, and perhaps that could be true, but then parents start to feel anxious and they start feeling adrift and students start feeling anxious. So they play off each other. And then this fire hose of information shows up in the first two weeks of school, and then of course, schools get complaints that there's too much information. So it's this odd cycle that needs to be moderated in a certain way. This year, of course, was particularly hard because schools were focused on trying to deliver their online learning content in the spring. And so then they had to rethink how to communicate and what to communicate and when to communicate to newly enrolled families and families that were moving to a new division.

But some schools did an amazing job and were able to create this whole menu of recorded and live content over the summer for families to get to know many of the people who would be so important in their child's life. So I'm sure that Stacy has a lot of wonderful thoughts on this as well about how she translates these thoughts to her own school settings, but it is certainly a challenge.

Stacy Jagodowski: Oh my goodness, I'm listening to you talk and I'm thinking, I have so many memories of the fire hose of information, and then the communications director saying, "Please, I want to communicate something now, let's get something out right now." Because for me, the key is just to start communicating. So many schools ignore the newly enrolled students until the end of the summer when we need them to take action and provide information to us, like complete the forms. And we want to avoid that whole situation of sign on the dotted line and then we're not going to talk to you for a few months. That's a terrible situation.

And to me, that's the definition of an unhealthy relationship. We've courted this family, we got them to sign and give us money and then we ghosted them until we needed something else from them. And they're left thinking, "I thought we hit it off." We want to foster this relationship right away because it is in many respects, a very odd relationship because as a school, let's be honest, a good portion of our relationship is us asking them to do things for us and give us money. And so we have to make sure that we're also giving them enough value back to them. And part of that is making sure we're communicating properly and making sure that throughout the summer, just like you said, we're giving them opportunities to meet people, even virtually.

When people have enrolled, I've done this at three schools, when people are accepted and enrolled, we have a meet the school page for them, a welcome to the school page. And that web page has pictures of the people that they're going to meet. So even before COVID, we were doing this so that you see the faces right away, and you're like, "Okay, so this is this person, and this is that person." So that when you came to the events, you were like, "Oh, that's so-and-so. And I know that I need to go and talk to so-and-so about this." And so there's already that familiarity that's getting to be developed. And it's just a great way to start bridging that gap and foster those relationships.

I also love the parent ambassadors to help us out, but that parent engagement director that you were talking about, Jill, oh, I wish every school had that. That's an important thing. Sign me up, I want that at my school.

Jill Goodman: Yeah. It is an advancement director who is thinking wisely about how to use her resources.

Stacy Jagodowski: Absolutely. And it's such a great way to use the departments, and think about how our departments work together because it still supports the development office or the development aspects of the advancement office. And it's supporting the admission office, and it's also supporting the parents themselves because, at the end of the day, we're all in this together. And I hate when two departments will battle over each other and it's like, "Well, I need my stuff to work, and I need my stuff to work." We're all together, we're all on the same team, and we're all trying to get the same end result going and that's to keep our families happy. So, yeah, I love that idea.

Daren Worcester: There was a lot of great ideas and suggestions for how to keep families happy and coming through the door, and I did love that idea of the parent engagement director, switching hats, if you will, a little bit there, but as we know, conflict does come up from time to time and conflict resolution is Jill, your next pain point that leads to attrition. I'm going to presume that your answer to how to go about this isn't to just give in and give the parents what they want. So, assuming that that's not the way to go about this, how do schools get parents to see conflicts as being resolved in those cases where what the parent wanted or was looking for is not the outcome that's given to them?

Jill Goodman: Unresolved conflicts in my research are conflicts that are not really resolved on either side, frankly. It's not so much that the school thought it was resolved and the parent didn't, it's more that there was no systematic process for conflict resolution at all. So when I conduct an attrition study, which is when I talk with parents specifically about why they left the school and then report back to the school to help them with these blind spots, I also map the ways that parents try to resolve the conflict. So generally, there is a minimum of two meetings and upwards of six or eight or more meetings as parents bounce around the school.

Jill Goodman: And parents will keep trying different angles and trying to find people to listen to them and listen to the problem and help them resolve the issue because the school's not coming together to triage and discuss the issue. And often the head of school becomes aware of the problem after the issue has gone on for a month or two or three, and the family is getting ready to withdraw or not re-enroll. The problem as I see it tends to be one of school culture, some schools don't have a culture that allows teachers or division heads to seek out help with issues. And I recommend that schools develop a conflict resolution process.

It's almost like opening a case or a file and then the school creates a protocol for how the conflict is considered, the steps that are taken to resolve it, and then finally, a mutually agreed-upon resolution for this particular situation. This particular system has a point person for the parent to continually communicate with, to find out the progress of this conflict, and where we are in the resolution process. But if parents are left to try to manage the conflict resolution themselves, the school has already lost control of the situation and it has eroded parent confidence and it's eroding the school's word of mouth in the process. So it's not really a good situation all the way around, and it is often the root of attrition.

Daren Worcester: What I'm taking from what you're saying is that it really, the most important part is to have an open, ongoing, transparent dialogue with the family throughout the process?

Jill Goodman: Yes. And for the school to help manage that they understand that they are guiding the process, that they acknowledge that there is a conflict and that they are going to help guide the process. The most anxiety comes from parents not understanding how to resolve the conflict and having it get bounced around from person to person where school leaders will continually pass the buck or they won't talk together about the situation, which seems to happen a lot.

Daren Worcester: Stacy, in your experiences, have you seen really good systems or practices for going about this?

Stacy Jagodowski: I think the best systems I've seen are what Jill's talked about, where there's actually a committee that meets to discuss what the issue is. Jill nailed it in the sense of the biggest problems are when it's just not addressed, and that's where we run into problems. And sometimes when the conflict is something that is controversial, we do tend to dance around a little bit or potentially controversial, we tend to dance around a little bit, and it's not until a back is against the wall that we finally say, "Okay, yeah, we really have to address this now." And that's a problem. And so, it's important for schools to really think about, "How do we address something while it's small and not a big issue before it becomes a big issue."

Stacy Jagodowski: And I've seen this at many schools, and not just the schools that I've worked at, I've listened to speakers talk about this in crisis communication conversations. Every school faces this from little things to big, huge ordeals, and it's uncomfortable and we don't want to deal with it. And so it's easy for us to try to say, "Well, so-and-so can deal with it. And so-and-so can deal with it." Or, "This parent is just making a mountain out of a molehill." But at the same time, while it seems like a molehill to us, to that parent, it is a mountain. And like Jill said, just being heard is such a big part of it for the parents.

They need to feel like they've been heard and that their problem is going to be addressed no matter what it is. And sometimes the resolution is not going to be what the parent wants, and that's okay too. It's just a matter of us saying to the parents, "We've heard you, we've addressed this. And this is what we believe is the right thing to do." Sometimes the outcome is going to be that the parent's not going to be a part of our community anymore, and sometimes that's okay. That's actually the best thing for the community because if a parent's having that big of a problem, that the school looks at it and says, this really isn't a problem, then there's a different problem that we need to address. And that's whether or not the parents' issue is one of fitting in at our school is, are they the right fit?

Stacy Jagodowski: And that's something that's hard for many schools to face, especially when enrollment can be tight and we don't want to lose a parent, especially if they're full pay or a high-pay family, but it's important for us to not upset the full parent body because of one that doesn't really fit in well.

Jill Goodman: And sometimes as painful as it is for school leaders, just like you said, Stacy, about having a family leave the community that is a valued member of the community, sometimes by picking up the phone and calling one of the other schools in your community that is going to be a better fit for this family, goes a long way for your word of mouth and your future relationship with that family that even though they're leaving the community, they know that you cared enough to do what was right for their child, which is a hard thing to do, which is a really hard thing to do, but the most effective school leaders are able to see that big picture.

Daren Worcester: And as you guys were talking through that, I was thinking when you come to that philosophical impasse with a family to say, "You know, we're just not the best fit here," Jill, I presume that goes back to your earlier focal point of combating hearsay in that, trying to keep that family onboard in the situation that just isn't right for them, it was going to lead to frustration and more of those conversations throughout the community that you just don't want happening.

Jill Goodman: No, you don't. And sometimes you really have to own it. I talked with one family, they had issues for two years, but because the family was so involved in the school, they stayed and listened to promises and it was painful to listen to this poor family. They should have been counseled out a year and a half before. So it was fascinating.

Daren Worcester: Your next key point, you call it public displays of learning. Can you explain instead of me butchering it on your behalf, can you please explain how you look at public displays of learning?

Jill Goodman: Sure. A public display of learning are plays or skits or recitals or chapel talks or athletic events, art shows, any other large or small gathering where students are showing the gathered people that they have stretched themselves and they are performing in public in front of these interested people. And one of the questions that I always ask my focus group participants when I'm doing a brand study is, describe a high point experience in your role at the school? And that would be a time when you felt most alive, most engaged, most connected to the community. And this question helps me understand how each constituency emotionally connects with the school.

And a lot of parents will respond with a story about how their child surprised them, delighted them by showing them ways that they had grown or matured or grasped very difficult academic material or memorized a ton of lines for the play. And the way that parents see this growth is through a public display of learning generally. And so by observing their child and community and seeing this remarkable progress, they often view this as a high point and they feel really bonded to the school or to their child and the teachers, the coaches, and the community at large that joined them in this point in time.

And so, the big question is, how does the school recreate that during this time of distance or hybrid learning? But the interesting thing is that some families, particularly in the spring when this started, they are experiencing this power of the public displays every day, by being able to drop in on the learning and see how their child operates in class and how they interact with their classmates and how they interact with the teacher is often different than what they do at home. And it's very similar to this traditional power of the public display since all the parents are having a similar experience and they're all having this together, which makes me wonder if there's the same need for these really big events.

And perhaps as we eventually return to in-person learning for all of us or a hybrid, that schools would spend more time considering what parents need or what they want in terms of understanding of what goes into the classroom experience and are there ways to see progress in smaller steps without mounting these giant public displays? I wonder if there's other ways to incorporate that into smaller ways for parents to see this.

Daren Worcester: I think that's such a great point and similar but slightly rephrased way of looking at it or question to that is as you mentioned, when my kids at home doing remote learning, I see this all the time, I've got intimate knowledge of what they're doing and obviously helping them to some degree too that I didn't have that before, and it is really enjoyable. When they go back to school and for families that are doing remote that are going to go back, how does schools keep up that level of public displays of learning?

Stacy Jagodowski: As a school, I'm thinking about that because like you said, our families are witnessing it every single day. And from a marketing standpoint, I love that because they are seeing their children engaged all the time and so many parents are watching their children learn. The teachers may not see it, but they're doing their own work in the next room or the same room and they're watching their kids on the computer. And some of the parents are literally sitting at the kitchen table with the children and they're watching them, they're next to them. So they're witnessing all of this happening one-on-one and mom and dad are watching as the kids are working through a math problem, or even speaking a foreign language.

And they may have no clue what their kid is saying or if this accent is on point, but they're witnessing that growth and learning firsthand, which is just awesome. And when we go back in person, they're not going to have that same intimate knowledge of what's happening, they're not going to see it. So I'm going to have to step in as a marketing director and say, "This is how we're going to showcase it in social media, and this is how we're going to tell the story." Because we really have to pull on those heartstrings of the parents that they're not getting at home anymore and tell that story, and show them their children at home.

So, getting those teachers to help us taking pictures in the classroom and doing videos in the classroom. So many schools have the owls and the swivels that are up in their classrooms right now, I hope that we can continue to keep using those and periodically let the teachers have an open class that the parents can log into and see how their kids are learning, even when we're fully remote and back to the way life used to be before COVID hit. There's no reason why we can't use this to open up our classrooms and let parents see, let prospective students come in and witness a class. What's exciting to me and a silver lining of all of this is we've opened up a new avenue for showcasing how we learn and what we do.

I think that's great. We've been pretty good over the years at athletics, by streaming athletic events for parents who couldn't be here, but the idea of why not live stream the first grade book report when we're back to full in-person learning so that parents can log in at lunchtime or after their meeting at 10 o'clock in the morning to see how the book report went or grandparents, wouldn't it be fabulous for grandparents who live across the country to be able to log into a live stream of the second grade play? How fabulous would that be?

And that's great stewardship for the development office as well for getting grandparents to get involved and really see what we're doing for the school, and they're passionate about that play, then they might want to support the arts department and help us put on an even better play next year. So it's got multi-pronged approaches to help benefit the school.

Daren Worcester: That's all fantastic. And just a point of clarification in case there's anybody that didn't fully follow that when you said owls, you're talking about the webcams and not the actual birds.

Stacy Jagodowski: Yes.

Jill Goodman: Maybe Stacy's teaching at Hogwarts. We don't really know.

Daren Worcester: That's what I was thinking about, I just wanted to make sure there weren't some people thinking, "Wait, what? Why would we put owls in our school?

Stacy Jagodowski: Yeah. I'm going to Hogwarts.

Daren Worcester: You also had me laughing at the foreign language piece because I literally was administering my son's Spanish quiz earlier today to keep the integrity of that. And I think that the Spanish teacher reached out to me about that knowing that there's no way I could possibly help him. All right. Moving us back to something productive to talk about here, last, certainly not least, we are getting towards the end here. Jill, you emphasize the importance of community involvement, and I think we really just started digging into that already. How are you encouraging schools to keep parents engaged in the community at a time when many events and large gatherings simply can't occur for safety reasons?

Jill Goodman: I'm amazed at how creative schools have been and development offices and admissions offices alumni associations, it's amazing. They've certainly changed their course for large events, and one school that I was talking with changed their beloved 10K run to a virtual event. So each runner ran on their own or in small groups that train together, and the school encouraged these training pods and the parents association jumped in and the alumni association helped in to help coordinate so if someone wanted to run in a little pod to try to help connect runners to each other. The athletic director joined to offer virtual training tips and stretching routines.

And the school actually had more runners than ever before because alumni could participate from anywhere in the world. So there was a huge benefit to that. And then as an example for a really small school, I worked with a very small school and the head of school is teaching an elective cooking class virtually with middle and high school students. She does this late in the afternoon once a week, and she's teaching the kids to cook dinner, knife skills and chef skills, and they plan the menu together and they work it all out. But 12 families are sharing that dinner experience each week with each other and the head of school.

And I think Pasta Primavera was on the menu last week, which was a big hit. That school also is hosting regular happy hours and game nights for parents, and they're considering inviting the kids to game night, but they're not actually sure. So those are very popular events that they're doing virtually that are equally as... and even maybe more popular than if you were asking parents to come to school to do those things. But again, in this time it's all about communication and connectedness and transparency. And since we're talking about all these retention strategies, there are things that [schools] can definitely do like making sure every family gets a call or text from parents and administrators, just to see how they are, how are they doing.

We can host webinars events with key staff members that they don't get to see anymore, but families feel really connected to, like the front office staff who normally they would see every day and have a real relationship with them, and now they never see them. Surveying your families about their virtual experience and then actually meeting and talking about it and making changes. And then also telling parents what you need from them and how they can help. And you'd be amazed at how parents want to be helpful and needed during this time and really not just by their own child. So one of my schools needed more space for the kids to meet and do work outside, and sometimes you just don't know how much you need until you get into it because we're all working this out as we go along, but they put the plea out to the parent association that they needed more space, more spaces for kids to meet.

And the parent association appealed to local businesses and friends, and within a week, they had a whole array of picnic tables for the students to use outside. So this is a really unique time and opportunity to have more one-on-one and small group conversations via video or phone, rather than relying on a large event where we bring everyone together. And frankly, it's really hard to forge real relationships in those environments. So I do have a lot of thoughts on parent associations and community involvement, and I'm happy to put some of those articles in the show notes, if you would like.

Daren Worcester: That would be excellent. And Jill, what I really loved about those suggestions that you're giving, and as difficult as a time as this as this is been for everyone, there are some silver linings in that we have learned new ways to do things. And a lot of those suggestions that you gave, like the remote cooking class and the parent game night, there's no reason schools have to stop doing that when the pandemic's over. Those are all great ideas that they've come up with can keep going and start new traditions. Stacy, along those lines, I know your schools have recently done some tremendous things. Can you share with us some of those?

Stacy Jagodowski: Oh sure. Online exercise and activity groups have been a huge hit, yoga and Zumba are always popular offerings as well as art classes. Parent-faculty book clubs are awesome. It's a way to do some independent non-screen work because everybody's looking for a way, like, "How do I get off the computer for a little while?" So you read that book independently and take your notes and then come together online, of course, to share, but you're still doing some work offline. And then we've also done some outdoor park events in small groups. So a classroom, which is a small pod, can come together in a socially distanced manner, all of the proper protocols in place, but they can actually see each other and their teachers in person.

Stacy Jagodowski: So, there are ways that we can still stay engaged and stay close and stay in touch just in a different way than we've done it before. It's exciting to see the way that our communities are coming up with new ideas and ideas to share with others. I took notes as Jill was talking about the 10K training pods and the virtual tips from the athletic director and the cooking classes. We all just keep sharing with each other, all the different ideas that we have. And in many respects, we're doing the same things that we've always been doing, we're just altering them and pivoting. I think that's been the buzz word of 2020, is let's pivot, pivoting to do them in a slightly different way. And we're making it work, and in many respects, it's bringing our communities together and it's showing how strong our communities are because we're not giving up.

Daren Worcester: I have to assume too that for faculty to get involved with parents, if you're a librarian, and now you've got the opportunity to host a book club with parents and get to know them better, that must be an exciting opportunity and a good change of pace for them as well.

Stacy Jagodowski: Yeah, absolutely. It's a way for us to get to know each other in a way that we didn't before, and we can share intellectually. And that's not something that we've been able to do all the time. So it's a social engagement between faculty and parents.

Daren Worcester: That's wonderful. Thank you both for your time today. I really appreciate it. And I'm sure our listeners do as well. Jill, starting with you, for anyone who wants to continue this conversation with you, how can they get in touch?

Jill Goodman: Sure. I encourage listeners to visit my website,, and there listeners will find blog articles on aspects of enrollment management, fundraising, leadership, and parent relations. And I would certainly love to hear what your listeners are doing, what's happening in their schools and how they feel about their role at this time and in the future. Anyone can contact me through the website and I'm happy to have a conversation.

Daren Worcester: Wonderful. Thank you. Stacy, how about yourself?

Stacy Jagodowski: You can reach me on my website, or Stacy Jago on any of the social media outlets or just Google me. I'm pretty easy to find if you Google me. Stacy Jagodowski is a pretty unique name if you can spell it.

Daren Worcester: That's why it's Stacy Jago, right, easy to find?

Stacy Jagodowski: Easy to find, easy to spell.

Daren Worcester: Glad that you've optimized for that. Once again, thank you both. I really appreciate it. It was a great conversation, we probably could have gone on for several more hours with this. And again, to our listeners as well, thank you for tuning in and listening and we'll catch you in the next step episode. Bye.

About the Author

Daren Worcester

Daren Worcester has been a member of the Blackbaud K-12 team for 17 years, assisting hundreds of independent schools through a variety of website development roles. A former copywriter and a published author with an appetite for SEO, Daren currently serves as the senior content marketing manager for K-12.

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