The Value of Flexibility in a Pandemic: Recruitment and Retention

In the cycle of Jewish day school admissions offices, summer and fall are very busy times for team building, strategizing and planning. It takes an enormous group effort to coordinate and implement a successful admissions campaign, and each year we infuse new vision and ideas into our process. However, this year is like none before, and while the methodology is the same, the delivery is different. There are no balloon bunches being designed for open houses, nor in-person tours and interviews.

This year, the stakes are even higher to bring in a full class, and our retention goals are more important. At Gann Academy, we have fostered a high retention rate and are cultivating a strong recruitment season. This success has been achieved through a new communication strategy, expanding financial aid programs and dollar amounts, re-structuring our educational model, and varying our admissions process.

We began with an inside-out approach to our community, initially focusing on the retention of current families. As main stakeholders, current families deserve transparency in communication. Messaging was, and continues to be clear, concise and prompt. In addition to town hall Zoom meetings over the summer, we sent frequent communications to keep our families updated on our thoughts and planning. We realized that parents appreciated our emails in their inboxes, and while there is such a thing as too much communication, we settled on a flow and volume of emails that seemed right. This clear communication strategy proved beneficial in terms of retention; we knew what families needed from us in order to continue a Gann education, and we were able to provide that support.

For example, it became abundantly clear that families were worried about affording our education. In partnership with our board of trustees, we created a new campaign, “Gann Cares,” built as a Covid relief fund, to support both new and returning families. Additionally, we were able to allocate an extra $1,000,000 in financial aid, and more than 30 families were retained as a direct result of our Gann Cares campaign.

We next focused on re-opening to in-person learning, not only to secure retention but also to increase recruitment prospects. Our school day had always been long, with eight academic classes, prayer and extracurriculars; students stayed on campus from 8 am to 5 pm. With a shift to hybrid learning, the possibility of having to go fully remote at any time, and feedback from our stakeholders, we knew we needed to change our program. After research and consultation with academic leaders across the country, we chose a two-semester model, with four academic blocks each semester. This approach gave us the ability to work intensively in a subject, but also provided flexibility for our learners.

Classes last one hour and meet four days a week. On Fridays, we are fully remote, and students have the opportunity to work with teachers as needed on independent study. For students who are unable to attend in person, we created an online option which included academic classes, minyanim, sports, arts and wellness.

This holistic approach to academics and safe re-entry to in-person learning has positively impacted our recruitment and retention. Current families are thrilled to know their children will continue a high-quality education with physical and mental health supports, and prospective families are beyond excited to have a school committed to in-person learning. Committing to in-person learning alone earned more than 12 late applicants.

The continuation of our robust in- person academics, vibrant student and Jewish life, and strong learning supports ensured a successful admissions yield. Families outside of Gann suddenly found themselves without classes, without friends for their children, and without clear communication from their school systems. Suddenly, we had an influx of new families looking to come to Gann, as well as new families with financial concerns. To balance this influx and promote recruitment, we again relied on flexibility.

In previous years, we were not able to offer late admits financial aid. This policy presented a barrier for families who were off-sync with the traditional admissions cycle; changing it has rolled out the welcome mat for the high number of late applicants. Concluding that there are many other ways to assess a student, and understanding that testing is less accessible now, our admissions team decided to make Gann SSAT-optional. We are now using the “character snapshot,” affiliated with the SSAT through the Enrollment Management Association, as part of our process.

As we look toward our upcoming admissions cycle, we are retaining the beneficial changes implemented last spring and continue to be open to veering away from tradition. Like most schools this year, we are not allowing visitors to our campus. A critical part of our admissions cycle is our large,

in-person open house in the fall. Now we are creating a new way to showcase our school, involving virtual tours and interviews, engaging online information sessions, and more nuanced and individualized outreach. We are also continuing to partner with our feeder schools on outreach programming. The evolving nature of the Covid-19 pandemic requires recruitment efforts to be digital but also interactive, nimble but focused, and above all creative.

Reopening in a pandemic has required learning. We have learned the value of being flexible and are reminded each day of the importance of proactive planning and communication. This learning has proven its worth; our successful programs, both in person and remote, have become so popular that we have an overall retention of 98%, a waiting list for grades 9-11, and interest in providing an online learning program for students outside of Gann. Though the flexibility required of students, faculty and staff is intensive and ongoing, our school has proven that both retainment and recruitment are indeed possible during a pandemic. We will continue to be flexible in our approach, our pedagogy and our operations as we anticipate the shift back to post-pandemic school.

Wendy Falchuk
Knowledge Topics
Recruitment and Retention, School Policies and Procedures
Published: Fall 2020