Enrollment Growth Through Experience Design: Watershed's Story

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This article was originally published on the NAIS Independent Ideas blog in September 2017.

When educators visit Watershed School, an intentionally small 6-12 grade school of 99 students in Boulder, CO, they’re drawn to our innovative program: the interdisciplinary coursework, the ways we send students into the field, and the focus on character development.

So we’d love to be able to tell you that our modern learning methods were enough to make Watershed financially healthy. They weren’t.

Four years ago, Watershed was facing a deep financial challenge because our enrollment just wasn’t large enough to cover our operating costs. Although the school has always been a magical place for students, we struggled to keep our enrollment consistently above 60, or to retain the families who were enrolled.

But over the last three years, we’ve turned it around. Enrollment is up by 82 percent, and every one of our seats is full. We’re running a 7 percent operating surplus, and as a result, we’re building the financial reserves we need for our future.

Collecting Stories and Outlining Strategy

How did we do it? We’d love to say it was seamless, that the team showed up to Watershed with a grand turnaround plan and executed it immediately. But instead, the two of us — a newly arrived head of school and an admissions director — took a year to solicit and listen to families’ feedback.

We called all the families who had left the year before, and set up a time with each current family to understand their experience at the school. We asked questions such as, “What did it feel like to be at Watershed?” or “Tell me about a time you felt disappointed in the program.”

We collected stories. We put sticky notes on empathy maps and created user profiles to understand our customer. We identified not only what they were telling us, but – using the design thinking tool of an “empathy map” - also what they were feeling, what they were overhearing, and how we saw them interacting with the school.

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In the spirit of design thinking, we “played anthropologist” and worked to identify trends: What parts of our program were seen as the weakest? What feelings kept families connected with the school? Where did they feel engaged — or forgotten?

As we collected these stories, three strategies for growth emerged:

●      A rebrand that replaced an outdated presentation with a fresh look and an emotionally compelling story. Our mantras became “visuals, not words,” “emotions, not logic,” and “specific, not general.” Investments in high-quality photography and a new logo made an immediate visual impact on our website, and the conversations we were having generated the kinds of stories we wanted to tell.

●      Strengthening perceived weaknesses in our program — and creating unique offerings that strengthened our value proposition. Math, for instance, was a perceived weakness for our parents. While we heard that math was never the reason families came to Watershed — they come for experiential learning — perceptions around our math program undermined our value proposition. We identified a reliance on part-time teachers as a key driver of dissatisfaction, and prioritized investments in full-time math positions in our budget moving forward.

●      Improving customer experience by identifying key touchpoints on the user journey — beginning with a family’s first inquiry and continuing when they become alumni.

It’s that last point we’ll focus on now.

Focusing on Touch Points

As Watershed made small tweaks to the school experience and received useful feedback from both current and prospective parents, we started making parents’ experience a larger area of focus. Spearheading these efforts was Mishel, who comes to her work with a background as a math teacher —  and a small business owner, something that taught her to focus on customer service.

While the school was growing to our target of 98, we redefined Mishel’s role. She evolved from admissions director to chief experience officer (or CXO) in 2016. She now manages a three-person team that includes our development, events, alumni relations, front desk, and registrar, with responsibility for end-to-end stakeholder experience at the school. Stakeholders include prospective families, parents, donors, alumni, and the community. (Student experience remained the responsibility of our assistant head of school.)

We’ve started to see that the customer experience was about more than having a responsive admission office — it was about the way the whole school, including faculty and staff, responds to our parents and prospective parents.

What are some key customer touch points?

●      The first time a prospective parent comes to campus.

●      The experience a child has on a shadow day, and the school’s follow-up afterward.

●      How easy it is for a family to figure out how the school works, and how families’ questions get answered after enrolling.

●      The first time a family gets a report card, or has a conference with an advisor or a teacher.

●      The call a family receives when a child twists an ankle during an outdoor trip.

●      The first graduation, when families see how well the school knows each child.

●      When a parent’s son or daughter comes back from college for winter break, and is invited for an alumni experience on campus.

We’ve learned that these touch points are critical because so much of what families perceive about the quality of our program is communicated in such moments. We have a well-thought-out, research-based program that’s usually invisible to parents because it happens when they’re off campus. These short touch points become shorthand for “we know what we’re doing.”

A rebrand alone might have spiked the number of families participating in our admission process. Our success was in coupling a rebrand with a focus on families’ end-to-end experience — from first inquiry to alumni status.

Distilling Lessons

Here are four lessons we’ve applied to our work:

1.     Personalize the admission and re-enrollment process.

Every parent believes his or her child is special. So after shadow days, we sent postcards to students with handwritten notes from their student ambassadors. (Even better, each card had a striking image with one of Watershed’s seven character traits.)

When Mishel asked for time to get teachers in on the act, Greg resisted as head of school — our time during faculty meetings already felt tight.

But then we set aside 10 minutes during every meeting for faculty to add their own notes for students with whom they had connected. The teachers loved it, it broke up the agenda of the meeting, and the response from families was phenomenal. One parent said, “We were on the fence between you and another school, but this is what we’re looking for in a school.” Now we use that time to write individual birthday cards for each student — as well as students who’ve graduated, or have left for another school.

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2.     Remind families why they chose your school — every day.

We dropped print media entirely and focused where prospective and current families go to learn about schools: online. As a small school with limited resources, we chose to put our time and money into developing a new website.

At the same time, we learned that social media storytelling was critical for our current families and for the people most likely to be our next inquiry: their friends.

Parents love Facebook (and while we’re on Instagram and Twitter, we find that’s where our customers are). They love seeing what their students are doing and sharing it with their friends. A daily cadence of visually rich mini-stories — where the sixth grade did their fieldwork on organic gardening, or the guest speaker we had in our high school — provides our families with lots of reminders about why they chose Watershed. In the small town of Boulder, it also created an echo effect among our likely prospective families, as current families shared the updates on their own page.

The more we did this, the more we’d wear Watershed spirit gear to the store and hear  someone in the check-out line tell us: “I feel like I’m hearing about your school all the time. It sounds amazing.”

3.     Build parent-to-parent connections.

Mishel took the lead in creating a Parent Ambassador program, which included eight visible advocates for our school among the parent population as well as an easy touch point when new families were trying to navigate our program. The truth is that our program is unusual. For starters, teachers and students use a lot of insider jargon (POLs are Presentations of Learning! SLOs are Self-Directed Learning Opportunities!). To help new families acclimate to our culture, parent ambassadors reach out to them at key points in the year, such as immediately before our orientation backpacking program to let them know what’s coming and how the school prepares to keep everyone physically and emotionally safe.

Parent ambassadors have also become a source of information flowing back to the school: What are parents worried about? What’s not working? Where do we need to pay more attention? They now have a regular monthly time to share parent feedback at our administrative team meetings.

We’ve embraced social events for parents with no agenda other than mixing. It developed into grade-level get-togethers at the beginning of the year organized by those ambassadors, which allows parents to meet the families of the kids they hear about at dinner. But it also includes all-school mixers, such as a winter event where we invite parents to a local bar for a cocktail.

In a town with many transplants, we want Watershed to become a core part of the community for our parents — and we don’t want parents to imagine leaving Watershed.

4.     Make information easy to access.

Speaking as a head of school, I’ll admit that I have privately grumbled about parents who email me with a question that could have easily been answered if only they read their email or looked at the website.

But I’ve also been that parent at my daughter’s school, too distracted to catch all the details.

In our early conversations with families, both of us found that getting access to information was a real pain point. A newsletter (which we call “FridgeNotes”) that was once published haphazardly needed to come out at a regular time, with predictable information in a clear format. Now, FridgeNotes comes out every Monday. It contains details of upcoming events and logistics as well as short news stories. With a small staff wearing many hats, this required a conscious focus — but it’s paid off in our annual parent surveys.

We learned about other challenges from our parents. Our experiential program takes kids all over the world, and when taking students abroad, our adventurous culture led us to tell anxious parents: “No news is good news.”

That wasn’t cutting it. We had to make sure our global leaders could send out information and photos regularly — and that parents regularly received pictures of their  children. Another staff member took the lead here, and we made these practices part of  our culture.

Now we’re investing in a modern LMS (learning management system), and looking forward to making it even easier for parents to access the information they need.

 

Interested in doing this kind of admissions work? As many of you know, I am moving to Tacoma, Washington to serve as Associate Head of School at Charles Wright Academy, a leading K-12 school. We are looking for a Director of Admissions and Financial Aid to work directly with me and do innovative, strategic work in defining our place in the market. Interested in working with me? In taking on a challenging, senior-level role? Find the job listing here. 

 

Greg Bamford