The Many Paths to Increased Enrollment
Contra Costa Jewish Day School, a community day school in Lafayette, California, has always offered its families an exemplary academic environment. But with the onset of the financial downturn in recent years, the school faced greater competition from the local alternatives, in particular the high-quality Bay Area public schools.
With a steadily rising enrollment in its early years, the school outgrew its old campus—7,500 square feet that it shared with a neighboring synagogue. A beautiful new 18,000 square foot campus solved the space issue … but enrollment didn't keep up with the expansion. While the new building could hold 180 students, only 127 students were enrolled in 2010—the same year that 11 students left.
According to Contra Costa's Board Secretary, Lisa Sadikman, the problem wasn't just about enrollment. "The day school was flying below the radar in the Jewish community—not enough people were really out there talking about it," said Sadikman. "And the school wasn't leveraging its main supporters, the current families, to get the word out in the community."
Contra Costa took a dual approach to its enrollment challenge, focusing both on the internal and external messaging of the school's value. The school's "roads" to increased enrollment included:
- Focus on Finance Sessions. Head of School Dean Goldfein invited parents to the table to talk about the school's finances. He explained why it was so critical—economically and socially—for the school to maintain a high enrollment. The "Focus on Finance" sessions introduced a new level of transparency and empowered parents to take a greater role in spreading the message about the school through word of mouth.
- Sibling Discounts. As a gesture of gratitude, the school offered reduced tuition to families with multiple children in the school.
- Positioning CCJDS as an Alternative to Public School. Recent funding cuts in the public sector resulted in increased class sizes and reduced extracurricular opportunities for students. With its small class sizes and outstanding extracurricular options, CCJDS got the message out that their school was not only a viable alternative; it was also a better choice.
- Marketing in the Wider Community. Through advertisements on the BART (a local transit system) and in other nontraditional venues, the school reached a different audience and attracted new families to visit the school.
Goldfein explained Contra Costa's approach this way:
The sibling discount responded to the economic downturn in 2008. We wanted to do something with some substance to show [parents] we understood their sacrifice and their value to the school. I was inspired by the Catholic School community. They make a huge investment in sibling discounts, including free tuition after the third child in some cases.
I should also mention that we learned a great deal from PEJE over the years. A combination of attending annual conferences and getting advice from PEJE staff positioned us to think strategically for both the near and the long term. In particular, Rheua Stakely was a superior admissions consultant, vital for me as that was a role I would play in the early years. [Coach] Rae Ringel also inspired many of our lay leaders towards fundraising success.
As a result of its efforts, Contra Costa experienced a growth in the number of students coming from local public schools, as well as a drop in attrition of current students. In the 2011–2012 academic year, the number of new students enrolled rose to 31, up from 25 last year (21%). In 2010, 11 students left CCJDS for public schools; this school year, only 4 students left. Overall enrollment at the school rose from 127 in 2010–11 to 143 in 2011–12 (13%), with a positive outlook for further increases next year.
- With parents, transparency and gratitude go a long way. Engaging parents in the fiscal life of the school, and acknowledging their investment in the school with the appreciation it deserves, helps to transform your parents from "customers" into active advocates for your school.
- Be holistic. Look at both current and prospective families when you think about increasing overall enrollment. The investment of each of these groups can be mutually reinforcing.
- When it comes to marketing, think outside the box. Do your research and figure out where your prospective parents go throughout the day. It might pay to put your school out there in some unexpected places, if that is where your audience is.
- Keep the faith. Make sure you're thinking about the big picture and not getting bogged down in what might be a simple bump in the road. CCJDS stood upon a proud history of increasing enrollment over its first decade and saw that a couple years of down enrollment could be turned around with focus and hard work.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADRIAN WALLACE