By Melanie Horton, Senior Marketing Manager
April 29, 2019
When thinking about how to spread the word about our charter schools and create an enrollment pipeline for future years, we often target parents of prospective students. We organize school tours, hang up flyers at community events, and advertise upcoming open enrollment dates on the school marquee. These are all smart, important marketing actions, but we also need to remember to pay attention to our largest group of built-in ambassadors: parents of current students! When parents are happy, good news about our schools will spread among their networks through word-of-mouth – a powerful marketing tool that can also do much damage if this important stakeholder group is unhappy or ignored.
Assess the Current Situation
Before you can attract new families to your school, you want to make sure the current school community is satisfied with your performance, so you’re not caught off guard when parents of prospective students ask you to explain something they’ve heard. Parents of current students are a great resource when you want an honest review of what is going well and what isn’t. Here are a few easy, helpful ways to solicit parent feedback.
Most schools already administer an annual parent survey as a state requirement. Take advantage of this opportunity to understand how happy parents are with current school operations, including areas such as extracurricular activities and course offerings. Make sure the survey is comprehensive but not too long, as we want to encourage high response and completion rates. It’s also important to include optional, open-ended questions that do not limit answer choices. This way, you’re making it easy for busy parents to provide quick feedback, while also giving those with more to say an opportunity to share their thoughts.
Consider sharing the survey results in a parent newsletter or other medium; the more transparent you are with the results; the more parents will feel you recognize and care about what they have to say. It doesn’t stop there, though – to show parents that we value them as critical members of our school communities, we must show a commitment to progress toward improvement. For example, if most parents reveal they are less than satisfied with the availability of extracurricular activities, open this up for discussion at committee and board meetings and invite parents to join a task force to explore options. If we’re all talk and no action, parents will eventually catch on and assume the school has no interest in their opinions.
While surveys are a great way to get high-level feedback about broad categories of school operations, it’s also important to be able to take a deeper dive into more specific topics. We can accomplish this by organizing parent focus . Keep the groups on the small side – no more than ten participants – so that all parents have the chance to speak up and don’t feel overwhelmed by a large group. Make sure to offer participants the chance to provide written feedback as well in case there is something they don’t feel comfortable sharing in a group setting. While you can still structure the discussion around more broad categories to make sure you touch on various topics, be sure to invite parents to comment on anything that is on their mind.
During the focus groups, make sure to encourage participants to share thoughts about what they are happy with as well as what they think needs improvement, so we know where we should continue to focus resources and where we might need to make changes. For example, if parents share that they are dissatisfied with the current library hours, school leadership can open this up for discussion at committee and board meetings to decide if it is financially and operationally feasible to extend library hours. If parents express excitement at the new STEM-focused programs, we know this is a valuable investment we should continue to explore.
The focus group initiative can be led by a school site council, on its own or in collaboration with a parent advisory group. It’s important to advertise the focus groups in multiple places to encourage participation of diverse groups. For example, schools can include a call for focus group participants in the parent newsletter, in materials for various parents’ group meetings, or by making an announcement at a parent event such as a regular “Coffee with the Principal” or information night. While continuity among participants is important and helps us to stay accountable, we should open the groups to new participants every now and then to make sure we’re receiving feedback that is representative of our audience. If the group gets too big, it can be split into multiple groups. In terms of meeting frequency, because these are more intimate conversations that we want to be able to build on, try to meet two or three times per year.
Create A Culture of Feedback
If we make the feedback process a regular part of school operations, parents will get used to sharing their thoughts and the quality of feedback will continue to improve. This will also train school leaders to become comfortable with both positive and negative feedback and consider it an integral part of school site planning, as well as alert school leaders to potential areas of improvement to be considered when putting together the school budget or setting the class schedule or activities calendar for the upcoming school year. Most importantly, it will signal to parents that your school values their feedback and wants them to be happy with the choice they made for their child. Happy parents translate into positive word of mouth marketing and a stronger pipeline of future students!
Moreover, this culture of feedback will lead to stronger relationships with parents and encourage them to get involved with school initiatives. This increased engagement will allow you to build a critical support network of volunteers and advocates with a genuine interest in helping the school to meet its goals and strengthen its presence in the community.
Use Feedback to Inform Marketing
In addition to promoting positive relations with parents of current students, feedback can be used to inform marketing efforts that aim to attract new parents. For example, if several parents of current students mentioned in a focus group that they are impressed by the school’s robotics program, school leaders can plan to include a stop by the robotics room during the next school tour to show it off to families considering the school as an option for their child. Similarly, if survey results have shown that access to Advanced Placement courses is of high importance to parents of current students, school leaders will know to highlight this on the school website and in marketing materials distributed to parents of prospective students.
While it is important to be thinking of how to attract parents of prospective students and secure enrollment for future school years, it is also important to remember not to lose sight of our most important stakeholders – the families we currently serve. This group is our most helpful window into what we are doing well and how we can improve. After all, we can only provide new families with a quality public school option if we’re successful in our current endeavors!