Increase Retention from Early Childhood Education to Kindergarten Through an Interactive Open House
For many Jewish day schools, retention from excellent early childhood education programs into day school kindergarten classes is a central focus of the admissions office. Retaining students in high-quality infant, toddler and preschool programs, when parents have no choice but to pay for care, can sometimes seem effortless. However, the tables often turn when a plethora of free public and other competitive independent school options becomes available at kindergarten. Even the most dedicated families begin to weigh their options financially and logistically when considering the entire Jewish day school journey for every child in their family. It is at this juncture that the stakes get really high.
We all know that the conversation about the value-added from a Jewish day school education needs to begin the minute families walk in the school door. Potential families, no matter how young their children are, need to see a warm and nurturing community and thriving classrooms where academics are top-notch and students’ connection to Judaism and the Hebrew language are strong and palpable. A well-done tour of a Jewish day school has potential parents picturing their children, in various stages into the future, as part of that school’s community. Once families are enrolled and happily settled into a school, this envisioning needs to continue, and it is the responsibility of the admissions office to nurture it through various retention efforts and events.
One small adjustment that can have a transformational impact upon parents of rising kindergarten students is an interactive open house, which was an idea presented to our admissions team at Independent School Management’s Advancement Academy. This approach can replace the standard, less-effective model where families learn about a kindergarten program from staff, then passively visit a current classroom to see what is going on in the grade above and assess if it is right for their child. The interactive open house enables parents to actually see their children engaging in the environment they are considering, giving them a real picture of what it will look like. Additionally, the excitement that students feel from their experience of spending time as a “real kindergartener” can be contagious, affecting conversations at home and leading to children positively influencing enrollment decisions.
A secondary benefit that comes from an interactive open house as a retention event is that the perception of low enrollment in certain classes can be managed. Many schools have certain grades that are smaller than others simply because of demographic and environmental factors; it is crucial to make sure that the public does not perceive those small classes as the norm. The negative implications on a school’s image when people believe a certain grade, especially kindergarten, is “always low” can be hard to mitigate. Therefore, when considering an interactive open house, one immense benefit is mixing prospective kindergarteners with current kindergarteners to create a robust cohort of students in the classroom. Additionally, the current kindergarteners can serve as the leaders in the lesson or activity the kindergarten teacher plans, giving the observing parents another opportunity to witness the leadership, confidence and poise developed in a Jewish day school education.
After the kindergarten experience, it can be powerful to culminate an interactive open with a visit to the last grade of your Jewish day school, whether it is fifth, sixth, eighth or twelfth. In this part of the program, parents witness the end result of the day school experience and hear anecdotal stories about value gained from a rich day school education, straight from the mouths of the most senior students at your school. In front of parents stand the confident and smart mensches that were created from and fostered by your day school’s dynamic program. This can be a very compelling moment in which parents decide that what they see is exactly what they want for their children, now and in the future.
As with all day school programming, the execution of this type of dynamic retention event requires a great deal of coordination and planning by the admissions team, administrators and staff. The early childhood education teachers who are responsible for the rising kindergarteners’ day-to-day activities have to devote time to executing smooth visits for their students into the kindergarten classroom. They also become tasked with preparing their students way in advance for their “special day as a kindergartener,” discussing what will happen and what will be expected, as well as cultivating their excitement for their day as a “big kid.”
Current kindergarten teachers also have to plan for their typical routine to be disrupted for this type of event, and they have the important task of carefully selecting and planning a lesson that will impress the potential kindergarten parents, one that is infused with strong academics, a clear connection to Judaism, and a whole-child, loving approach. Teachers in the final grade of the school also have the responsibility of planning highly engaging lessons and preparing their students to serve as ambassadors for the school. Additionally, the admissions and administrative staff coordinate all the moving parts of the actual event, including inviting parents, timing and staffing the event, reserving physical spaces, creating a strategic agenda, and making sure that every school professional involved clearly understands his or her role as well as the overall purpose and importance of the event.
Once all of this is accomplished and the interactive open house takes place, schools are likely to see retention data that reflects the success of this type of programming. Our school in particular saw a 5% increase in Pre-K to K retention in the first year that we redesigned our “Taste of Kindergarten” event. We believe that this revised model, which left parents and students excited to take the leap from a thriving early childhood program into the rich day school kindergarten experience, will pave the way for increased day school enrollment in years to come.