A Three-Pronged Approach to Boosting Day School Enrollment in a Low-to-Slow-Growth Market

3 prong approachBy Dr. Harry Bloom

Jewish day school growth is getting harder and harder to come by these days. According to a 2006-2010 survey of 50 cross-denominational schools across nine communities, enrollment declined by 14% in non-Orthodox schools and was virtually nil in Modern and Centrist Orthodox schools. 2012 enrollment research by The AVI CHAI Foundation directionally supports these findings. In a low- or no-growth context, schools face an inexorable rise in costs-per-student despite attempts to hold down spending, which further pressure enrollment.

In this environment, some innovative approaches are emerging as savvy Heads of School and Boards recognize that remaining passive in the face of these pressures will surely lead to decline. What are they doing? An increasing number of these schools are going on the growth offensive and investing in three strategies. First, they are surveying their families and responding to weak results by upgrading faculty and programs in order to strengthen their value propositions. Second, they are hiring enrollment management professionals or increasing enrollment management staffing levels and mobilizing parent ambassadors focused on high-potential market segments. Third, they are carefully defining their brand positioning and messaging based on consumer research among current and prospective families.

Fuchs Mizrachi, a Modern Orthodox Nursery-12th grade school in Cleveland, Ohio, is a case in point. The school has faced years of flat enrollment in a low-to-no-growth population market. Fuchs Mizrachi’s new Head of School, Rabbi Barry Kislowicz saw that unless he increased capacity utilization in the school’s new facility, cost-per-student would soon outpace household income – and price many potential families out of the market.

So Kislowicz sought growth from some unconventional sectors, including enticing families from the higher cost Northeast to move to Cleveland, and capturing families slightly to the left and to the right of its ideological center who would be drawn by the high quality of the school’s educational offerings and impassioned Zionistic ethos.

Fuchs Mizrachi followed a three-pronged approach to growth, beginning with a strategic planning process that included research about parent perceptions/satisfaction. This led to investments in high school academic quality, community-focused programming, and inspirational Judaic programming. He also invested in a dedicated admission professional who focused on outreach to new constituencies, including out-of-town physicians in New York City. Finally, at the suggestion of Board member, the school engaged a branding consultant. This proved catalytic. The consultant identified that the school’s multiplicity of messages – and their uncoordinated expression in print, electronic media and word-of-mouth support – was blurring its image among current families and prospective ones. Research resulted in the adoption of a simple but ultimately powerful message and the implementation of ambassador training among parents, staff, and Board members.

The results have been impressive:

  • Fuchs Mizrachi’s school-wide enrollment grew from 407 students in 2010 to 502 students in 2014. This growth is more remarkable given the fact that due to the school’s Zionistic values 63 students made Aliyah during the same timeframe.
  • Growth from unexpected sectors, as families slightly to the left and to the right of the school’s ideological center, felt that Fuchs Mizrachi’s educational offerings compensated for ideological differences. Such students represented 50 percent of enrollment growth in grades Pre-K through 12 this year.
  • Communal growth, as families are drawn to relocate to the community in order to enroll. In 2009, only four students enrolled as a result of family relocation; in 2010 through 2014 this rose to an average of 20 students per year.
  • A side benefit of the new alignment around brand and message has been a corresponding growth in parent engagement as measured through Development efforts. Parent participation in the school’s annual campaign rose from 50 to 75 percent during this same time period.

The best part of the Fuchs Mizrachi story: It can be easily replicated by many other day schools facing growth challenges. But theirs is not the only innovation out there. If your school has taken another approach to affordability, let me know (harry@peje.org).

Dr. Harry Bloom is Strategy Manager, Day School Sustainability at PEJE.

cross-posted at PEJE.org Blog