When Rhonda Rose enrolled her twin toddlers at Beit Rabban Day School last year, she jumped in with both feet.
Before the school year even started, she was discussing ideas with the Upper West Side school’s marketing director, promoting the school on Facebook and writing articles about it for a day school parent website.
A former fundraiser and website editor at a Jewish nonprofit, Rose organized class gifts, a parent get-together and joined the school’s parent association and its marketing, gala and parenting-education committees. She edits the weekly and monthly newsletters, and on Fridays, she helps the kids bake challah.
Day schools have welcomed parent volunteerism for decades. But, as they struggle to attract new students and donors in the wake of the 2007 recession, some schools have begun cultivating parent engagement on a whole new level.
“One of the emerging findings for day schools is that word of mouth is the single most important form of marketing,” said Steven Lorch, founding headmaster of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan and a leader in the field of day school education. “Not paid advertising or articles in the press or the website, but really the parent-to-parent feedback.”
In a recent study, the private school consulting firm Measuring Success found that 59 percent of parents who contacted day schools for information were prompted to do so because of word of mouth. An additional 26 percent did so because their older children already attend the school or their child’s current school is a feeder school. Of their 6,522-parent sample, only 8 percent were drawn to the school through advertising, 5 percent through the school’s website and 2 percent became interested for other reasons.
Further, the study found that only one factor increased enrollment: perceived quality.
“Schools attribute a lot of things to driving enrollment: price, new facilities, paid advertising, but the only thing that makes a difference is how good parents think the school is, said Sacha Litman, Measuring Success’ managing director.
Looking at the tuition of 200 day schools between 2005 and 2010, Litman found no correlation between lowering tuition and an increase in enrollment. The same held true for schools that built new buildings. Of the 40 Jewish day schools that built new facilities between 1995 and 2005, only half gained students. The other half lost them.
Finally, of 30,000 day school parents surveyed only half said they would recommend their school to other parents, and fewer than half think their school is stronger academically than the public, charter and non-Jewish private schools in their area. About 15 percent said they would encourage other parents not to send their kids there.
The study did not find that day schools are worse academically than their competition, only that the majority of day school parents believed them to be worse.
“Jewish day schools don’t do very well in terms of perceived quality,” said Litman.
Litman suggests a few factors: “Some people feel like they’re in a captive market,” he said. “That there’s nowhere else appropriate to send their children. Others think their schools are low quality because they’re so easy to get into.
“The most important factor in perceived quality is how well a school supports Jewish development in its students. If a school can do that, its perceived quality will rise,” he added.
“It’s a vicious cycle, unfortunately,” he said. “I sometimes joke that what a Jewish school could do to increase their perceived value is to set up a waitlist.”
But he’s not joking. Many schools, he said, hover between one and two classrooms per grade, with say, 30 students per grade. Instead of trying to recruit an additional 10 students for the second class, schools should have just one class and a waitlist. The school’s reputation will rise and in a year or two a second class can be opened, the theory goes.
In order to improve their reputations, day schools across the country have begun to cultivate “parent ambassadors” to promote the school through word of mouth. And two years ago, the Jewish Education Project launched the “Parent to Parent” initiative to train day school parents to use use Facebook, Twitter and other online networks to talk-up their schools.
While these techniques have to be exquisitely effective, within a few months it became clear to the organizers that the project’s mission was far too narrow.
Struck by the groundswell of “creativity,” “passion” and “drive” of parents to strengthen their children’s schools, Irene Lehrer Sandalow, the program’s manager, realized that many of these resource-strapped institutions were underutilizing their parents, the one resource they had in droves.
“And so another goal has evolved through this initiative to work with and support parent leadership among day school parents,” she said.
Sarah Daignault, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College who specializes in private school financial sustainability, says that in her experience private school parents “expect to have an active role” at their children’s schools.
But, she said, some schools do a better job of harnessing parent energy than others.
“The best way to engage them is though authentic stuff,” she said. “When the school administration tries to tell them what they should, or could, do it never goes well.”
The lingo for this distinction is “involved” vs. “engaged.” Involved parents volunteer at the school, doing specific tasks. Engaged parents take leadership roles.
Edward Harwitz, a director at the Jewish Education Project, who has been working on the initiative with Sandalow explains engagement this way:
“Fundraising is a high-level task but it’s still a task: Help us run the gala. Here it’s thinking more globally: How do we make our school sustainable? Imagining where is the school going to be in five years or 10 years and how can we help get there,” he said.
That kind of parent engagement will naturally lead to sustainability, he said, because the more parents are engaged, the better the school becomes.
“And then that [the school’s high quality] becomes an instrument for student admissions and fundraising, not the other way around,” he said.
Sandalow agreed. “If we treat parents as clients or customers, they’ll stay in that mode: ‘OK, I paid my tuition and you educate my children. Goodbye.’ But if they become part of it, it becomes part of who they are and they want to share it,” she said.
Funded by the UJA-Federation of New York, the Parent to Parent initiative links 150 parents from 14 New York City-area schools through bimonthly training sessions, as well as a Facebook group and a blog that includes profiles of parent leaders as well as parent-written posts with topics as divergent as technology and blended learning to Thanksgivukkah ideas to requests for advice on choosing a middle school.
At Parent to Parent’s first “Parent Summit” at the UJA-Federation headquarters in Manhattan last month, Judy Brenner whose two daughters attend the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield, Conn., said her experience at the conference was completely new.
“As a layperson who works very closely with the school, I’ve never been to a conference like this,” she said. “It’s fascinating to me to come in and listen to everybody else’s concerns.”
Brenner, who chairs her PTO’s recruitment and retention committee, was particularly interested in a program one school implemented to streamline communications between parents and educators. Called (inexplicably) the “Board of Education,” the committee of parents serve as liaisons with teachers and administrators.
“There’s a logical organization so that the administration doesn’t have to hear from every parent in the class and they can do their job and all the concerns of the parents are actually being addressed in a logical manner. I think that’s brilliant,” she said.
Comparing notes with parents at other schools also gave Brenner the chance to learn what her school is doing right.
“Compared with some big schools, our school, which is a tiny, tiny school, has amazing differentiated learning,” she said. “I feel like: ‘Wow we have that one under control, but now we’re going to try this Board of Education thing.’ It’s great.”