Admissions in Times of Abundance…and Otherwise

Admissions in Times of Abundance…and Otherwise
Sarah Donovan, Senior Director of Advancement and Parent Relations

The First Academy, Orlando, Florida 

Enrollment. It rocks our independent school worlds. It’s the survival and sustainment of the school community, culture, and ultimately our calling to grow His Kingdom. And at the helm of this driving force: The Admissions process. 

Currently, Admissions teams are celebrating the fruits of an abundant enrollment season. Now more than ever, families are craving a strong, Christ-centered educational experience for their children and are willing to sacrifice for it. This, along with the movement of families from one state to the next, has equated to high demand and wait lists. Thus, this is the perfect moment in time to pause and reflect on the rise of the Admissions process:  What have we learned? and Where are we going in the future?

There are several common themes of success that have been captured recently in the Admissions process. These tools of the trade have been freshly honed due to pandemic shifts and a focus on the highest yield strategies in consideration of time, resources, and team energies. While there are many noteworthy lessons of success, five have risen to the top.

Admissions Strategy
First, the Admissions process has officially crossed over to a sales process for independent schools. While there have always been sparks of ‘sales’ in the wind, the Admissions teams have embraced these strategies and are working closely with marketing efforts to drive a pipeline of mission appropriate families to their schools. If you were to look at your school’s Admissions process now compared to the past, you would witness a tangible shift to a defined sales cycle of prospecting, nurturing, closing, and onboarding. This has arrived in tandem with the digital marketing efforts now available to schools, such as lead nurturing campaigns and creative website design. Like many businesses, independent schools have begun to depend on their website as the ‘first tour’ for families and are using these digital features as a launching point to the warm, inviting campus tour experience. One feature of the Admissions sales process that has remained tried and true, is that families will remember how we made them feel during the Admissions journey, long after the details fade away. 

A Cohesive Approach Across Teams
The Admissions and Academic teams are not always paired as best friends. However, in light of (or in spite of) the pandemic, teamwork between Admissions and Academics has been crucial to our schools’ viability. Healthy discussions that go beyond the standard “applicant file for review” about the value and needs of a prospective student have become more of a practice and collaborative effort between the Admissions and the Academic side. There is a proactive balance between the ‘courting’ of a family during the Admissions process to ensure a mission appropriate fit when the family is ‘married’ to the Academic side. Dr. Whitaker, Head of School at The First Academy, has wisely noted, “Admissions is the common work of the institution,” and schools who truly live this out are reaping the reward. When schools retain, they gain.  We have learned that retention numbers are directly correlated to the Admissions process including Academics in the ongoing conversation, not just in the final decision. 

Welcoming New Families
Onboarding new families has become an art for Admissions teams. Gone are the days when a family enrolled, received a brief orientation, and was sent on their way to the academic divisions. Admissions teams have learned that a variety of welcoming efforts have a significant impact on the student and family experience in the first year and beyond. Personally delivered welcome packages with yard signs, social media shout outs, and ‘thrive guides’ have become commonplace in welcoming new families. Onboarding has become just as much about the heart of new students and families, as it is about the information being shared. Events are planned and communications are sent that leverage the power of connection with current families. As an example, one school launched ‘Snowcones and Schedules’ as a time for new middle and high school students to connect with a current student and walk their schedule. The goal of both connection and information is rooted in these Admissions process efforts. With the enrollment season beginning earlier each year (what was once a January start, has become a September start), creating these new family experiences has become a year long effort. 

Speaking Truth
The fourth lesson gleaned in the Admissions process is catered to Kingdom education schools. One meaning of the word Admission is to speak the truth. And that is exactly what the Admissions process has begun preparing and vetting families for- the Biblical truths. Admissions teams now have the beautiful, and sometimes complex, work of walking families through the realities, while explaining the value of a rigorous, Christ-centered education. A Christian independent school’s Admissions process may now include both a parent and/or student questionnaire to gain a fuller understanding of their walk with Christ. The goal is simple, prevent surprises. This helps to confirm that prospective families’ expectations of a Christ-centered education align with the school’s experience of learning, growing, and living in His truth. 

Staying Connected
The final lesson came as a welcome surprise. Wait lists. If you had told an Admissions representative in 2020 that their school would be at or near waitlist status in the coming enrollment season, they would probably have laughed into their masks. Working creatively to engage waitlist families has become an important part of the Admissions process. Check-in calls and email touchpoints are just a few of the methods Admissions teams are implementing to ensure families on the waitlist, or swimming in the wait pool, are followed up with until either a spot opens or the family secures a seat elsewhere. The word of mouth with waitlists has also become a strong advocate for independent schools and has motivated the Admissions process to include ‘getting on the list’ for one to two school years ahead. It’s a delicate dance to ensure a school stays within their correct size while mission aligned families are comfortably waiting in the wings. 

It is important to  pause and study the current state of the Admissions process, but it is also crucial that we  look and plan ahead for the future of Admissions. While we prayerfully work toward the continued momentum in a feast season, it is wise to consider famine trends. This could be proactively planning for a grade level, division, or a schoolwide need. Admissions teams work with families on two important possessions, their children and their worldly means. The value-add of an independent, biblical worldview education needs to continuously speak to both. So how do we proactively plan ahead for the Admissions process? 

First and foremost, pray. Pray with your Admissions team and beyond. Prayers of gratitude and prayers of growth. If we all pray together, imagine the impact we can have in making disciples out of disciples at our schools. 

Second, continue to lean on and collaborate with CESA and benchmark schools. Water raises all ships, and sharing ideas during times of growth is just as important as during times of need. Keep the Admissions connections flowing. 

And finally, keep the data collection rolling. Continue to analyze data trends such as ‘how did you hear’, word of mouth versus digital referrals, and geographical locations of prospective families. When the wave of strong enrollment hits, it’s easy to put this to the side. However, making strong data-based decisions for marketing and admissions efforts never goes out of style and can help provide smart, steady growth for years to come

While the 2022-2023 school year is upon us, Admissions teams are gearing up for the 2023-2024 enrollment season. It’s an exciting time full of celebration, hard-work, and His provision. The Admissions process forges on, and with it, strong schools honored and humbled to do it all for His Glory.

Sarah Donovan, MEd, MEd
Senior Director - Advancement & Parent Relations

As the former Director of The Extended Educational Programs and Admissions Director, Mrs. Sarah Donovan served as the leader of The First Academy Preschool, The Classical School (hybrid homeschool program), and The First Hope (special needs program), and Admissions Department. More recently Mrs. Donovan worked as the Director of Global Programming at ASU Prep, where she cultivated global relationships and business partnerships. Mrs. Donovan was raised in the rolling hills of northern Pennsylvania, and attended Penn State University where she received a Bachelor of Science in Elementary and Kindergarten Education. She continued her studies of Early Childhood Education at the University Chichester in West Sussex, England. Mrs. Donovan earned her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Central Florida. She then went on to obtain a Masters in Educational Leadership and Supervision from Stetson University. Mrs. Donovan’s endorsements include Exceptional Student Education and English for Speakers of Other Languages.

Mrs. Donovan previously served in the Orange County Public School district for ten years as an assistant principal, curriculum and instructional coach, and classroom teacher. She was honored as one of the district’s ‘Teacher of the Year’ and also received the ‘You Make a Difference Award’.

Mrs. Donovan has a passion for sparking a love of learning and leading in students. She is honored to serve with a team who shares the same joy and dedication to serving children in Christ. Mrs. Donovan and her husband Hart are proud parents of their daughter, Elle, who attends at The First Academy Lower School. They enjoy spending time together boating on the water.

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