To Thrive, Day Schools Need to Make Parents Feel Heard

surveyBy Chavie N. Kahn

Would you recommend us to a friend? Every business or nonprofit that pays attention to customer satisfaction would hope for an enthusiastic “yes,” and day schools should be no exception.

The Jewish community needs day schools to thrive because research shows that day school graduates are more engaged in Jewish life and constitute a larger portion of communal leadership than people who did not attend day schools. And parent satisfaction is key to helping day schools thrive. Daniel Held’s study, “Learning From Parent Voices,” found that positive word-of-mouth communication by parents encourages enrollment more than the amount of tuition or the quality of the school facilities. Word-of-mouth recommendations, rather than advertisements, drive 75 percent of new admission inquiries.

Conversely, when parents have bad feelings toward their child’s day school, it sets off a vicious cycle: a decrease in perceived value leads to decreased enrollment, and then a decline in the school’s quality because, with less tuition coming in, it has fewer resources to invest in materials, programming, teachers, etc.

Working at UJA-Federation of New York on the Day School Challenge Fund, I’ve heard this reinforced in talking to day school professionals. A good working relationship with parents, accompanied by a willingness to hear and respond to feedback drives enrollment, parent satisfaction, and a willingness of the parent body to serve as brand ambassadors of the school.

One way day schools can increase parent satisfaction is by gathering feedback from parents on a regular basis. Parents who feel they are listened to and respected are more likely to recommend the day school to others. Parents are too often told that their concerns will be addressed, even if there is no real plan to address them in a meaningful way. For example, when a parent complains that the students at the top of the class are not challenged, and is told that the administration is aware of the issue and is addressing it, the parent will be more frustrated when no changes are made than if the administration had been honest about its capacity to address the issue in the first place.

Many parents do not want to funnel their concerns through a parent liaison committee – a committee comprised of parents (typically chosen by administrators) who communicate parental concerns to the administration. The theory behind parent liaison committees is noble – to preserve the confidentiality of the “complaining party.” However, many parents are told that if it is an individual issue, then they should communicate directly with the administrators, which erases any hope of confidentiality and may quash the frankness with which the parent communicates the complaint. A better approach is to give parents an outlet to share their views directly through surveys.

School leadership that surveys parents consistently can set its strategic vision based on data as opposed to anecdotal evidence, speculation, or “this is how we have always done it here.” Surveys can help a school understand more clearly what parents are thinking, identify programmatic strengths and weaknesses, clarify goals and objectives, recognize accomplishments, and evaluate progress over time.

Between 2007 and 2012, 77 day schools nationwide – including several in the New York area – were administering the Parent Survey created by Measuring Success and subsidized by Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. The schools reported a visible increase in positive perception by parents following the parents’ completion of the survey.

Administering surveys to parents reflects an openness to feedback and a willingness to consistently re-evaluate the school’s strategic priorities and direction. Surveys can cover everything from curriculum offerings and the communication styles of administrators to the tuition assistance process or the implementation of innovations such as one-to-one iPad programs.

Parent surveys should be administered and analyzed by an outside vendor to instill confidence in the parents that the data is not massaged in any way. The surveys should be built into the day school’s overall operating budget, because this creates buy-in and an implicit understanding that the survey results will be considered, evaluated, and used to help decide policy.

Parents of day school students, even at the best schools, typically have concerns, whether about the intensity of their teen’s test schedule or why the iPad program starts in fifth grade and not fourth grade. Learning about parents’ concerns through a survey and then making decisions based on these concerns is critical for a day school to maintain its enrollment and generate positive buzz among current and prospective parents.

No school is perfect. But schools that realize that their leadership should be consistently and methodically looking to improve responsiveness and parent satisfaction will have a definite advantage.

Chavie N. Kahn is the manager of Strategic Partnerships for UJA-Federation of New York’s Day School Challenge Fund.