Leading in a Crisis: Engaging with Prospective Families During School Closures
June 18, 2020
Here at EdTec, supporting charter schools to succeed is at the heart of everything we do, day in and day out. As we navigate this difficult time together, this blog series will address various topics to help school leaders identify tools, resources, and support that can help them lead effectively. This time, we’re providing a few ideas about how schools can utilize virtual and online tactics to engage with prospective families and drive enrollment for next school year and beyond, and have included a few examples of how our school partners and others are already doing that. We are not recommending or endorsing any particular tools or products, but simply sharing a few ideas for inspiration and further discussion among school leadership teams.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, charter schools relied heavily on in-person enrollment strategies such as school tours and special events that showcase student life and the programs and activities the school has to offer. But what happens when prospective families can’t get to campus?
Like organizations in other fields, there is an opportunity for charter schools to tell their stories and keep their audiences engaged through the use of creative virtual events and other online tactics. We’ve pulled together a few ideas for how your school can focus on digital efforts to move prospective families from consideration to enrollment. Please note that like any other school activities, these ideas and approaches all have to be planned and carried out in accordance with all school policies and legal/ regulatory requirements.
Now is the time to use social media to connect with current and prospective families and the community at large. With many establishments closed for business as usual, folks are using social media now more than ever, and there is an opportunity for school leaders to use the tools at their disposal to foster engagement. Before sharing photos or video content on your school’s social media accounts, website, or any other online medium, make sure you reference your school’s media release policy to ensure you are in compliance and only sharing content featuring those students whose parents or guardians have given the appropriate permissions.
Keep Up with Posting
Rather than curtail your use of social media or scale down on posting, use it as a tool to tell your school’s story and provide a sense of connection within your community. You can use social media to share how the school is handling distance learning and supporting students and families, as well as to highlight what makes the school unique. As one example, Para Los Niños shared quotes from teachers about why they enjoy teaching at the school during Teacher Appreciation Week. These posts serve to both celebrate teachers as well as communicate the school’s strengths to prospective families.
If you could use some inspiration to help you create visually-appealing social media posts, Canva is a free, user-friendly graphic design tool that offers fun, customizable templates and the ability to design communications sized for multiple social media platforms and other uses. You can also upgrade to a paid model to unlock additional graphics and upload your organization’s official colors and logos for easy reference. Canva can also be used to design and order printed materials.
Video on social media is a great way to introduce your school to prospective families. You can ask current students, teachers, and administrators to record short clips about their experience at the school using their phones; these clips can be shared on their own or combined into a longer video about the school. Video is a great way to bring your school to life during this crisis. Albuquerque Collegiate put together videos celebrating their teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week. The videos not only highlight the school’s great teachers, but also touch on why the students like their school. Your school’s videos don’t have to be tied to a specific holiday; anytime is a good time to share stories about how your school community is staying connected, engaged, and inspired during this period of distance learning.
Going live presents an in-the-moment opportunity for your school to engage with families. Your school can utilize live features on either Facebook or Instagram to host Q&A sessions with prospective families. During this series of live sessions, school leaders can answer questions from prospective families about the school’s mission and vision, academic and extracurricular programs, and how the school is responding to the crisis. Buffalo Creek Academy, a school scheduled to open in Fall 2020, holds a twice-daily broadcast on Facebook Live and Instagram Live to share information about their mission and academic programs as well as answer questions from participants. Synergy Academies hosted a live event on Instagram’s IGTV video app the night before college signing day to announce where their seniors would be attending college in the fall.
Create Facebook Groups
Your school can use Facebook groups to connect current and prospective students and families. As a moderator of your school’s private Facebook group, you can share important updates while creating a safe place for prospective families to ask questions. It is important that you set guidelines at the start regarding the goal of the group as well as expectations for conduct.
Across the country, schools are finding unique ways to tap into virtual events to promote their enrollment efforts, such as hosting virtual school tours. In the absence of campus tours and in-person interactions, virtual events provide an opportunity for schools to continue their enrollment efforts. Below are a few ways that your school can use virtual events to meet families where they are and give them the information they’re looking for.
Virtual tours are the new school tours during this time of school closure. It is a great way to engage prospective families and provide an on-campus experience without asking anyone to leave their homes. Success Academies used a sophisticated web-based application to put together this virtual tour of an elementary school. For schools looking for a quicker or less expensive option, a virtual tour can be recorded by anyone using a phone or video equipment, and they can even narrate the tour to include examples of activities that take place in each part of the campus. If your school doesn’t have access to this equipment or the campus is not open for access right now, you can utilize existing photos to put together a presentation that describes the campus so that prospective parents and students can visualize what it might be like to attend school there.
Virtual Information Sessions
Your school can organize virtual information sessions or town halls by using a video conferencing platform you are familiar with, such as Zoom. These town halls can follow the format of a typical school information session, where an administrator gives an introduction to the school and moderates the event, and other staff or school ambassadors (including teachers, students, and parents) participate by sharing their experiences and taking questions from the audience. Always make sure to check your video conference platform’s security recommendations to minimize the risk of unwelcome guests and other concerns.
To help ensure the event runs smoothly, require folks to register in advance; this way, you can manage crowd size and know what to expect. You can also request that participants submit questions in advance so you and your team can assign them to the person most equipped to answer and prepare to have the information needed to provide a meaningful response.
Ethos Classical Charter School gives prospective families the option to set-up a one-on-one information session by using the Calendly scheduling tool. A callout is included on their home page, along with an email address for those with questions. The sessions are led by members of the school’s leadership team.
To advertise the event, post the details on your website and share it on social media. Include links to additional information and prompt folks to sign-up, if applicable. You can also record these town halls and post them on your school’s website and social media to both build your content bank and share it with those who weren’t able to participate live.
Just like with in-person events, it’s important that everyone who represents the school during virtual events has had the training to ensure consistent and appropriate messaging.
Other Virtual Sessions
Beyond more formal virtual events such as town halls, some schools are planning virtual office hours or “coffee chats with the principal”. While most of these events target current families who may have urgent questions about the school’s distance learning plan, they can also be used as a fun, informal way to engage with prospective students and parents.
Schools may also want to consider thematic virtual events that target specific interests. For example, school leaders could partner with a few coaches to organize a “virtual sports chat” to share information about the school’s athletic programs and accolades as well as take questions from prospective students interested in joining sports teams. A similar event could be organized with college and career counselors to discuss the school’s track record with college admissions and spotlight a few students who were recently accepted into the colleges of their choice.
Your school website is a primary source of information about your school, and it’s the first place many current and prospective families go when they have a question. Families are likely looking for information about how the school is responding to the current environment and how it might impact the school’s plans for next school year. It is important that your website includes a section about how learning continues at your school, and that your home page includes a straightforward link to this section, so visitors don’t have to dig for it.
Create New Landing Pages for Virtual Events
Since your school’s website is a primary source of information, it is an ideal place to include details about all your public-facing virtual events. A good way to make the event information easily accessible is to create a new page dedicated to promoting your virtual events. This page would host the event details along with registration information, if necessary. You can also use this page as a media hub and post photos and videos that highlight your school’s mission, culture, and achievements. Method Modern Public Schools has an events page that also includes links to virtual tours of universities, museums, and other sites with no specific dates attached.
To encourage attendance at your virtual events, include them in the newsfeed on your home page for increased visibility, and link to them on your social media.
Provide Enrollment Information
To make things simple for parents and students looking to submit an open enrollment form, include all relevant deadlines and information on your website and link to it on your homepage so it is easy to find. You can also provide a form on the website where parents can submit questions and get answers regarding enrollment and/or address this information on a frequently asked questions page (more on this below).
Create a Frequently Asked Questions Page
Create a Frequently Asked Questions page to address the most common questions you receive from parents. You could include questions about enrollment, academic and extracurricular programs, and school culture, and also use this as an opportunity to highlight what makes your school unique so that parents don’t have to search for it elsewhere. Rocketship Public Schools has a robust FAQ page that also includes questions and answers about charter schools to address common misconceptions.
While there are lots of creative ideas and easy–to–use technology tools for virtually engaging with current families in your school community and prospective families, it is always advisable to step back and to evaluate in advance what is to be shared online by your school, and by representatives of your school, for appropriateness, compliance, and security. Leverage the appropriate legal and related expertise, including recommended training for your team, for smoother virtual family engagement.
While school doors are closed for the remainder of this school year, now is the time to look ahead and think about how you will make next year a success. Although using in-person events as an enrollment marketing tool is unlikely for the near future, there is still a tremendous opportunity for your school to use digital tools such as social media and virtual events to build up your enrollment pipeline.
I love these ideas – so good! One other idea that we see many charter schools using ParentSquare as their school-home communications platform do: set up prospective families in their comms system before they enroll.
The school can then include prospective families in the same public-facing announcements that students and their families get, all going out over text, email, app, social media. They can also of course create specific messages for them as prospective families, The dashboards and reporting can help them gauge who’s listening. If you’d like to connect with some schools doing this, happy to set that up. And good luck at CCSA for your session in March! Looking forward to it.