San Diego Jewish Academy (SDJA), an ECE-12 community day school, has an enrollment of over 700 and has grown 27 percent in just two years. While we know that many families enrolled in private schools as a direct result of the pandemic, SDJA was also uniquely set up to meet the needs of our community thanks to several recent initiatives: middle class tuition modeling, increased tuition assistance and an enhanced learning center to meet the needs of a wider group of students.
Within this context, in our recruitment campaign for 2021-2022 we created new and different opportunities for our prospective families to learn about our community, school programs and educational opportunities. We transitioned smoothly to virtual tours with a four-step approach in which I learned about the prospective family, shared about the school, gave them a virtual tour of the campus and discussed next steps. While the enrollment outcomes were positive, I recognized the challenges, the near impossibility, of creating a virtual campus experience that would reflect our dynamic school. Creating the feel of community, sharing the excitement and the true feel of campus, is difficult through a computer screen.
To find best practices and understand what worked for other similar schools, I leaned on colleagues from other day schools in Southern California. I participated in their virtual open houses and informationals. I was inspired by their creativity and how they captured the excitement on campus, the passion of their teachers, and authentic student experiences. Participating in their events inspired me to create a virtual framework that more effectively shared the dynamic story and the strong community encompassed in the SDJA experience.
In addition to our virtual tours, we created other virtual experiences, including A Day in the Life of a Kindergartner, a student Taste of Kindergarten, as well as a middle school informational, a high school informational and parlor meetings. Creating virtual events presents challenges, and I am proud that our staff and community rose to these challenges and embraced the urgency to create new experiences for our recruitment process. As we did, we began to appreciate the several important positive developments that came from hosting virtual events: We expanded our reach to a wider audience, in part by being able to share event recordings; both parents attended these events, as opposed to only one parent during in-person events; and we reached families that were considering relocating to San Diego before they made the move.
Transitioning to Hybrid
Now, as we begin the 2022-2023 admissions recruitment season, we remain under the shadow of the pandemic and the many unknowns that come with it. Thankfully, our local ordinances enable us to welcome students and our prospective families on campus, giving us more “tools in the toolbox” as we move forward with recruitment efforts. We will implement a robust hybrid approach to recruitment so that those on-campus experiences for prospective families are paired with virtual experiences. That might entail an online meeting between parents and administrators, or a more dynamic virtual tour of any one of our campus learning spaces—from the garden, to the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking, to a Hebrew class and more. By embracing hybrid, we will create more touchpoints than ever before throughout our recruitment process.
As I plan for recruitment for next school year, I’m excited for the following: We will be conducting a study to learn more about our 150 new families from the last two years and the current makeup of our school. Those new families constitute one third of our community. We want to know where they come from, what languages are being spoken at home, their synagogue affiliation (if any), which families are alumni, and why they ultimately chose SDJA. With this information, we will be able to target our recruiting efforts even more effectively to reach more prospective families, as well as better understand our current families and address their needs and expectations accordingly, with retention in mind.
Last May, as Covid restrictions loosened, we began small group tours for new families who had never actually stepped foot on campus. We look forward to continuing these, in which our administrators offer brief welcoming remarks followed by a campus tour led by our admissions team with our parent ambassadors on hand to answer questions. We give our teachers notice ahead of time so they are not caught off guard when guests arrive in their class.
In line with the strategic reasoning for small group tours, we will host additional targeted events that meet the needs of our community. We have learned that an open house experience—and all the planning that entails—did not offer a strong ROI. Over the years, families expressed appreciation for events clearly planned with their needs and backgrounds in mind. We enjoyed success with this model for a number of different groups, including events with our Spanish speaking families entering ninth grade and incoming kindergarten families from a particular synagogue. We have found that the families that join our smaller events are more likely to apply and enroll, and this will be an integral part of 2022-2023 recruitment strategy.
We again will hold our virtual Day in the Life events—for middle school and high school, as well as kindergarten—and informationals. It was clearly beneficial for families with busy schedules; they are able to Zoom in from anywhere to join the event, continuing the wide reach of our recruitment efforts.
Importantly, we will continue to use our engaging and successful parent ambassadors to follow up with our prospective families and to help recruit their friends. We have found that the personal relationships and insight provided by our parent ambassadors are invaluable to families looking at SDJA and provide an important personal connection to our school as new families join our growing community.
We will continue active engagement with our key community partners, such as PJ Library, youth group directors, the local JCC, and other key leaders and organizations. These relationships enable us to get in front of more families, showcase the opportunities SDJA could present for their child, and inform them of our affordability initiatives.
If this last year has taught us anything about recruitment, it is that we must meet families where they are. This past year, it was mostly virtual. We found that much of the virtual programming was beneficial and believe that a hybrid effort combining the success of the past year with an even stronger in-person connection when possible will be a winning combination for our recruitment efforts going forward.
Once again, we will continue to be adaptive to the current situation and be nimble enough to change course to create opportunities for our community to learn about the benefit of a Jewish day school education and experience.