More and more Catholic schools are closing, and unfortunately this is not a new trend. According to the NCEA, over the past 10 years more than 1,500 Catholic schools have closed or been forced into consolidation. I just recently read about 5 more Catholic schools in the Chicago area closing.
And this is not just Chicago. You see this trend playing out across the country:
One of the common themes in any story about a Catholic school closing is that enrollment has been declining, and they no longer have the students to support the school. It doesn’t have to be this way! If you are a school leader (Catholic school or other) who is nervous about this trend, here are three simple things that you can do to help prevent the heartache of your school closing. These ideas are not rocket science, but unfortunately, most of the schools that end up closing didn’t do any of them.
Don’t let your enrollment get to a crisis point
I constantly get calls from customers who have reached this point: five years of declining enrollment, and they have a deadline from the Archdiocese to fix it or they will close that year. When they ask me for advice, I always try to be helpful, but honestly, warning lights should have been going off years ago.
The best thing that you can do is to have a constant eye on your enrollment and be prepared to make changes when you start to see the trends dip. Part of a standard dashboard for any school leader should include total enrollment, total school new enrollment and new enrollment based upon grade level. If you have those three-metrics plotted out over multiple years, you can understand trends; you can understand what a typical enrollment year should be like; and most importantly, you can spot immediately if there is a problem.
I worked with a school recently that had seen their incoming kindergarten class decrease by 50% for three years in a row. The first year that they saw a 20% decrease year over year should have been a huge wake up call that they needed to take action and take it now!
Student recruitment takes time and money. It is much easier to get in front of these issues when you have both. When you are in crisis mode and you only have six months and a depleted budget from lower enrollment, your ability to attract students is considerably less than if you had gotten serious about student recruitment a couple of years before.
Be transparent and engage with your parents to help with recruitment
Word of mouth is always going to be your best means of recruiting new families. Make sure that your parents understand how critical it is that they actively engage and help you in student recruitment. The worst examples of school closings that I have seen is when parents say that they had no idea the school was under threat of closing if they didn’t enroll more students.
Parents want the school to succeed and will help, but they need to know that you need them. Be transparent and active in finding a way for them to help your school. If this is drafting them to be part of the admissions team, or helping to subsidize some marketing activities, parents will help! They want the school to survive as much or sometimes more than the administration.
Don’t lose focus once you have managed through the crisis
So now that you have reached the absolute minimum threshold that you need to stay open, what do you do? Now is the time to double and triple your efforts to build your recruiting efforts. Again, marketing takes time to pay off and you can not take your foot off the gas. School marketing needs to be a 12-month, 365-day a year effort.
The Bright Minds Marketing blog has a number of articles and resources to help school marketers improve their efforts. These are all free resources and built from my experience at helping schools attract more students. Take advantage of ways to help your school. If you are on a downward trend, stop doing the things that you have done for 20 years. They are not working. You need to try something new.
School closures are horrible. But they can be prevented if you get in front of the issues and work hard to attract new families. The market has changed. What worked well five years ago to recruit families is not as effective as it used to be. If you want to chat a little bit about how Bright Minds Marketing has helped other schools enroll more students, please shoot me an email or give me a call. I am happy to help.
Nick LeRoy is the president of Bright Minds Marketing and former Executive Director of the Indiana Charter School Board. Bright Minds Marketing provides marketing and recruitment consulting to private and charter schools. For information about how Bright Minds Marketing can help your school improve your marketing, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 317-361-5255.