Changing Mindsets: Can Building the Admissions Funnel Be An Opportunity for Community Partnership?
My position, director of community outreach and partnerships, is the result of a commitment to change how we think about admissions and about the role of our school in the Jewish ecosystem. With it, our school aims to change communal behaviors and create models for institutional collaboration which will impact how people view Jewish high school.
Five years ago, Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in suburban Boston, took a look at its demographics. Roughly 75% of its students came from one of six nearby K-8 day schools (one has since closed). When not spending time with prospective families who came through the school’s doors, Gann’s admissions officers were rightly cultivating relationships with the K-8 Jewish day schools. However, as we know from trends around the country, Gann could only expect to enroll a percentage of those 8th grade graduates. Clearly, the school needed to look at students who came through other channels. How did the 25% of Gann’s students who hadn’t been in day schools end up walking through Gann’s doors? And how could we reach more of them?
We needed a new strategy that would enable us to broaden the top of the admissions funnel. This process is fundamentally different from traditional admissions work, which is focused on stewarding families already in the funnel.
Thanks to support from the Ruderman Family Foundation, Gann created a part-time recruitment and outreach coordinator position. I was hired to create and implement a strategy for introducing more potential families to the school, and was fortunate to work with a thought partner, a parent whose older daughter matriculated at Gann after attending public school. We realized that the initial focus of our work had to be relationship-building. Too many people in the Jewish community hadn’t heard of Gann, and others thought it was a school for a particular type of kid and therefore “not for my kid.” We needed to change mindsets.
Looking at our demographics, we identified key synagogues that had small clusters of students already at Gann. We quickly assembly a team of parent ambassadors to serve as connectors to these synagogue communities, and began to build our strategy around outreach to these communities.
In conversations with parents who had joined Gann from outside of the day school community as well as with some synagogue leaders, we learned about some of the key challenges and questions we needed to address as we built relationships with synagogues.
Synagogues are concerned about membership retention. Why would a synagogue want to encourage children to attend a pluralistic Jewish high school which then draws their children (and possibly parents) to another Jewish space?
Other synagogues were concerned about appearing to promote day school. Would parents who had not chosen day school be offended with a presentation about Gann to them or their teens?
Why would families want to look at Gann when they lived in communities with top public schools or competitive independent schools? Why was the Jewish high school relevant?
Why would families look at Gann if they hadn’t already chosen day school for their children?
The language that Gann uses may not be uniformly familiar to everyone in a diverse Jewish community. For example, we proudly call ourselves a “pluralistic” high school, but many people did not understand what that meant.
Understanding some of the questions and concerns from the community enabled us to realize that we needed to do more than recruitment. We needed to build on and respond to the conversations to move towards partnership.As a pluralistic high school, Gann has been in ongoing conversation with Jewish community leaders throughout our 18 year history. Just as synagogues and other Jewish organizations in our community are deepening the engagement of the Jewish community, present and future, so Gann Academy is providing an education that will deepen the Jewish identity of teens who are preparing to enter the world as adults. Wouldn’t everyone in the community benefit if our organizations were in conversation? In order to do that, we needed to break down the learned behavior that keeps most of our institutions siloed and move towards a model of institutional collaboration. The position shifted from “recruitment and outreach” to “community outreach and partnerships.” We were moving from asking for lists of middle school students to exploring how our institutions could support each other. “Partnership” meant building a relationship, identifying what resources we might have to share and in so doing further supporting each other. Our hypothesis was that by building these partnerships we would raise Gann’s profile in the community, increase Jewish synagogue leaders’ familiarity with the school, and normalize Gann as a high school option for more families.
The ability to approach this work from a point of partnership attracted the attention of our Federation, so that, as the initial grant wound down, we received support from Combined Jewish Philanthropies, whose donors were interested in creative efforts to attract a greater diversity of students to day school.
Once we began to see ourselves as a communal resource, we identified what we might offer synagogues. This included an ideological commitment to working to strengthen our community; thought leaders in Jewish studies, pedagogy and teen development who might be available to speak publicly; a community of nearly 300 Jewishly-engaged students who come from more than 40 towns throughout the Greater Boston area; and a modern building on a beautiful campus with a theater, large gym and sports fields.
We brought synagogue leadership—board and professional—to visit Gann. At a minimum, each visit included a tour, a meeting with our head of school, and an opportunity to speak with one or two students who were members of their synagogue. These visits gave them a sense of the mission of the school and a feel for the environment.
Next, parent ambassadors and I went to the synagogues. We learned about their community. Yes, it was clear that we wanted to raise Gann’s profile in their synagogue; we brought brochures for them to share. But we also discussed our work more broadly and explained what resources we had to share. We didn’t expect every Jewish student at each of these synagogues to enroll at Gann, but we wanted more families to explore Gann. We weren’t there just to get names—we were there to build a relationship.
Some synagogue staff readily shared that they had no idea which of their members attended Gann. They loved visiting and seeing their teens there, and soon began sending professional leadership to have lunch with their teens periodically during the year. This simple action provided an opportunity for youth engagement staff to build or strengthen relationships with some of their teens at Gann. It also brought the staff into our building, which increased their comfort and familiarity with us, and kept us in conversation with them.
As our conversations continued to explore what resources we might have to offer, we found that synagogues were looking for thought leaders to speak to their communities. This has opened up opportunities ranging from faculty teaching in adult education programming, to college counselors participating on panels for teens and parents, to our head of school speaking regularly on teen engagement, creating an authentic high school experience, community, inclusion, character development, leadership and more.
Synagogue leadership now see more opportunities to use our space. A large Reform synagogue has begun to present their high school play annually in Gann’s theater; for at least two evenings, 200 people are walking through our building to see their child or friend perform. Youth groups have rented our gym for communitywide teen basketball tournaments. Regional and local youth groups have held shabbatonim at Gann, bringing as many as 300 teens into the building.
Additional partnership opportunities have built upon our desire to play a greater role in the local Jewish ecosystem. Gann has been a co-sponsor at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, with a teacher or student moderating a conversation at one film annually. The school has become a founding partner in the newly launched Jewish Teen Foundation of Greater Boston, a teen philanthropy program through the Jewish Teen Funders Network. Working in collaboration with other Boston institutions, we staff one of two teen boards which include students from throughout the Boston area. This provides an opportunity for Gann teens and other teens to work together to build a philanthropic foundation, while giving us another opportunity to connect to synagogues and their families. Our head of school reconstituted a Pluralism Advisory Committee which brings together Boston-area clergy from synagogues across denominations to discuss how questions regarding Jewish practice and education might be addressed at a pluralistic school. In addition, our head of school currently serves as the scholar-in-residence for a yearlong Federation leadership development program.
These partnerships have borne fruit in an increased willingness by the synagogues to promote Gann. For example, the Reform rabbi of a local congregation has written directly to his families to encourage them to explore Gann and to come hear our head of school when he speaks. Several Reform and Conservative rabbis have begun to send out personalized emails to their 8th grade families encouraging them to attend Gann’s Open House. Synagogues are more willing to share information on Gann’s activities. Thanks to the direct relationships with synagogue staff, when students and families contact their synagogue youth engagement staff to ask about Gann, the staff can now talk from direct experience. Over the past four years, applications from the synagogues with whom we’ve worked closely have increased nearly threefold.
It takes a few years to see this growth. Nor have we been successful in every community. In some cases those questions and challenges identified in the beginning of this article override the promise of building a partnership. Our success has been strongest when our parents are also leaders in their synagogue communities, when synagogue leadership believes that by working together we each become stronger and contribute to a more robust Jewish community, and when our students can also be motivated to talk to the synagogues and to their friends.
We are in the midst of a marathon, not a sprint. We need to engage more parents so that we may deepen our relationship with more synagogue communities and continue to explore opportunities for partnership beyond synagogues. We are formalizing a student ambassador program so that students see this as part of their role. We will explore conversations with additional organizations in the Jewish community to learn about their needs and explore what role we might play.
The key to success lies in conceiving the day school as a resource, thought leader and connector in the community. The enrollment department then is empowered to play a much larger role. It no longer needs to limit the focus of recruitment efforts to the addition of prospective names in the database. Instead, it becomes the hub for creating partnerships with local Jewish institutions. At Gann, this work started by identifying a handful of thriving synagogues with parent ambassadors. By creating a mindset of plenty rather than scarcity, our school has been able to engage parents as ambassadors, to foster relationships with synagogues, and in so doing to deepen the exposure that more families have to our high school.