Thirty-eight million dollars.
That’s how much state funding Baltimore City Public Schools lost to declining student enrollment in the 2018 fiscal year.
Baltimore is just one of several major city school districts in recent years forced to wrestle with the economic reality of declining enrollment, due to shifting demographics, school choice, and other challenges. Los Angeles Unified, Detroit Public, Cleveland Metro, and dozens of others have attributed funding losses to a precipitous loss of students.
But declining enrollments aren’t solely a condition of city school districts. At least 18 states are projected to report public school enrollment declines over the next decade.
Facing the prospect of empty classrooms and empty coffers, administrators and advocates have sought new ways to attract and retain students and families.
In a recent report, the team at K12 Insight (which produces TrustED) outlines five practical strategies for school districts looking to reverse the trend.
1. Listen intently to students, parents, and staff
Students and parents want to be heard on the issues that matter most. The recent National School Walkout is but one of a growing number of student protests tied to festering safety concerns.
Bringing students, parents, and staff into the conversation around school safety and other critical issues means actively seeking their feedback, and giving them a safe place to communicate their concerns and feelings.
Regular school surveys are one way to gather broad insights into what students and parents are thinking, the report says. Increasingly, districts need to listen and participate in community conversations through other channels–including social media. As the report states, the conversation about school safety and school reform is always on. The question is whether schools are actively listening.
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2. Conduct exit interviews with families who have left your district
The best way to understand why families choose to leave your schools is to reach out to those who have already left. Research suggests that the decision to leave is often based on one or more negative parent experiences, and not the quality of classroom learning, for example. The report suggests conducting honest, confidential discussions with erstwhile parents and students to identify blind spots in your communications, programs, and services.
3. Offer more choices than your competition
A 2017 report from the Center for Public Education found that public school systems routinely offer more program and curriculum choices than their private and charter counterparts. Unfortunately, many don’t do a good job of promoting those choices. Find out what programs students and parents want–whether it’s more AP classes, extracurricular activities, or school settings–and invest in creating and effectively promoting them to your community, suggests the report. Choice doesn’t have to be something that is found exclusively outside of your school district.
4. Pay close and careful attention to your brand
If you don’t tell your district’s story, someone else will tell it for you. In a world of increased choice, polishing and promoting your school district’s brand is critical to your success. That means highlighting your accomplishments and constantly nurturing community perceptions, whether via your website, email, social media, even in print. No achievement is too small to share. Bad news requires attention too. When mistake are made, take care to address them quickly and honestly, and let your community know what you’re doing to improve.
5. Make customer service a priority
How you treat parents and students in everyday interactions has a lot to do with how your community ultimately perceives your schools. In today’s consumer-driven society, parents have come to expect great customer service. Public schools are no exception. Do teachers and staff routinely meet students and parents with a smile and a positive attitude? Do people know how to reach you? Are your responses always timely and accurate? In a world where negative experiences can translate to lost students, and lost funding, it’s critical to pay close attention to every facet of the school experience, from what’s happening in your classroom to the feeling parents get when they interact with the district.
For a closer look at these strategies, check out the full report.
Is declining enrollment an issue for your school or district? What steps are your taking to win over parents, students, and staff and keep them engaged this school year?