When in Rome, Create a Community
Over the course of this year, I had the opportunity to visit Rome and to work with leaders of its community day school. My intended purpose there was to assist them with a new strategic planning effort, but what I saw actually shed new light on the more familiar challenges faced by North American day schools.
My encounter began, like most, with a school tour. Located in the heart of the Roman ghetto, the school is housed in a 100-year-old historic building, renovated approximately 20 years ago to include all the technological accoutrements of a modern facility. The hallways are dotted by student work and flyers for upcoming youth and community events, and the building buzzes with the sort of vibrancy one hopes to see in a thriving school. Security, of course, is much tighter than what we might be used to, with police and the community’s security guards guarding the entrance and guests being required to submit official ID 24 hours in advance of a scheduled visit.
I began my conversation with the school director, Rabbi Benedetto Carucci, as I do with many heads of school whom I encounter in my work: “Tell me, how is your relationship with your board?”
He looked at me strangely. I thought that perhaps something had been lost in translation. His English was slightly stronger than my Italian, and we had been communicating in Hebrew during this initial discussion. After some creative hand gesturing and Google translating, however, it became clear that I had indeed understood his response. He was trying to explain to me that his school did not have a board of directors.
How then is the school governed?
In Rome, as in many European Jewish communities, there is a formal community board whose president and officers are elected by official community vote. This board governs all official community business. Rather than being a separate, independent entity, Rome’s day school is fully owned by the community. Committees are established to manage the details of each area, but these committees bear only recommending power. The community board, therefore, is the governing body of the school just as it is the governing body for the Jewish cemetery or welfare organization. And the school principal is a community employee just as the cemetery manager is a community employee.
As I was trying to wrap my head around what this meant, I proceeded with the typical list of questions on enrollment, admissions and marketing. I was somewhat surprised to hear that this school of 500 students did not have even a part-time admissions, marketing or public relations professional, and I made a mental note to suggest they consider staffing additions in these areas.
To explain why such a professional was needed, I asked the principal what percentage of the community’s children currently attended his lower school. After some caveats about wanting to increase enrollment, he shared that the school currently serves 75% of the community’s children. Suffice it to say that this was the end of my regular line of questioning.
Coming from a North American context, these numbers are downright shocking. Keep in mind that this is a community school, not an Orthodox day school. Best estimates from The Jewish People Policy Institute are that the percentage of Jewish children in US day schools range around 25 percent, and this percentage is skewed upwards by the very high percentage of enrollment in the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox sectors.
As I reflected on this unusual school visit, I was struck by how the confluence of direct governance of the school by the community board, the lack of admissions or marketing personnel, and the high enrollment rates may come together to generate interesting insights for leaders concerned about student enrollment in North American schools.
I was quite curious about what led to the school’s high enrollment rate. As I pressed the principal and others familiar with the school on the issue, they could not easily explain why so many parents chose to enroll their children. In their opinion, enrollment trends were not related to anti-Semitism in the public school system, academic quality or the added value of the Jewish day school. Rather, they suggested that for members of the Jewish community in Rome, this is simply the natural choice. Parents’ working assumption is that, barring special circumstances, they will send their children to a Jewish day school.
What decision-making process is at work here? Is this simply a case of people going with the flow rather than carefully weighing educational options for their children? Perhaps. But a more compelling explanation is that the process at play here is what psychologists term “identity-based decision making” (Dan and Chip Heath & Heath, Switch). This mode of decision-making is one of the most influential we encounter, and each of us makes key choices based on this paradigm. When we are engaged in identity-based decision making, we make the choice that fits with our self-conception.
For example, people who identify as Boy or Girl Scouts may be less likely to litter, not because they are weighing the cost/benefit of littering differently than the rest of us, but because littering is something that scouts simply do not do. It is this same sort of decision-making that is invoked when a coach tells his players to behave a certain way because that is what (insert your favorite team name) do. And it is this sort of decision making that makes Jewish parents in Rome more likely to enroll their children in the community day school.
Why they do so can be traced back to the particularities we highlighted earlier. First and foremost, the school is literally owned by the community. Community members take it as a fact of life that they will be buried in the community cemetery because that is where community members are buried. So too, they take it as a basic assumption that they will send their children to the community day school because that is what community members do.
Now consider the fact that the school does not have a professional admissions or marketing director. Of course, it may be that the school does not have such a position because it does not need one. But it may also be that the school does not need one because it does not have one.
Researchers have shown that we tend to make decisions either based on an emotionally driven response (such as identity-based decision making) or based on rational analysis. They have also proven that if we are primed to think in terms of emotional response, our decisions will proceed along those lines, while if we are primed to think in terms of rational analysis, we will proceed as such (Dan and Chip Heath, Made to Stick).
If it is true that Rome’s parents are flocking to the school based on identity-based motivations, a marketing or admissions department that extols the school’s academic excellence, strong extracurriculars or university admissions rates may be just enough to push parents out of their identity-based assumptions and into a mode of questioning whether the school is indeed the best choice for their child. Precisely because it does not employ an explicit marketing effort, the school supports parents’ identity-based decision that if they are community members, then this is the right place for their children.
An analogous phenomenon can be seen across North American independent schools. Leading school heads note (and often bemoan) that a generation ago they could count on a family’s allegiance to the school. If the eldest child was enrolled, in another example of identity-based decision making, the family would be a “____ school family” and the rest of the children would follow. Today, it is the norm for families to choose a different school for each child based on their assessment of that child’s needs. Whether this is a positive or negative development can be debated, but it is clearly the result of moving from an identity-based decision-making model to a mode of point-by-point analysis.
Rome is indeed very different from our local context. Yet I would argue that we can extrapolate important lessons from their story. As we work to increase enrollment in our schools, most of us tend to work only along the lines of the rational analysis approach. Our marketing and admissions departments advertise our schools’ wonderful features, academic, Judaic and extracurricular, and communicate the benefits to students and their families in a nuanced and sophisticated manner.
Alongside these approaches, or in some cases in their place, we should consider consciously cultivating supporting parents’ identity-based decisions to enroll their children. Admittedly, this will not be a quick fix. It is both more subtle and more complex.
Many of our schools are not organically situated within a community that supports enrollment decisions as does that of Rome. As a result, we must begin one step earlier. The most important, innovative step that our schools can take is to first build the community we seek. Most schools already aim to create a feeling of community among our parents, and to this end we support efforts such as parent associations. These are indeed important, but to be truly impactful we need to reach beyond them in terms of scope and depth.
Parent associations, by nature, are typically focused on our current parents. In these efforts, we must consider expanding them to a broader circle, to include all those who we hope may become school parents in the future. To be clear, I do not mean that we should hold an annual event for the following year’s prospective parents. If we are to take this seriously, it means fostering an ongoing, year-round connection to those who may be many years away from enrolling children.
Some schools are fortunate to find themselves situated near a proximal community which they can use as a partner for their efforts. For example, many parents in a school may participate in a certain congregation, JCC or Jewish federation, or send their children to a certain summer camp. If that is the case, the school may be able to use these partners to help expand its reach beyond that of the typical parent association. If not, the school can make use of its current parents’ social networks to include non-parents in its community-building efforts.
Non-parents may suspect the school is motivated by enrollment or fundraising goals. It will take time to convince them that we are fundamentally driven by the desire to build community. To do so, it is essential that we do not include fundraising or marketing materials in any of these programs. This is a classic case of doing well by doing good, and we must be clear that our primary intention is to do good.
In line with this principle is an imperative to add depth to our activities. Many parent associations are fundamentally activity or social programming groups, and some are veiled attempts at fundraising. Instead, we must attempt to create a deep sense of authentic community for the sake of community, not just through programs but also through appropriate services, connection-building and all-encompassing connection. Examples might include regular parent learning and cultural activities, Friday night dinners, volunteer days, or relocating synagogue services or other community programs to the school.
Is this a case of mission creep? Aren’t schools supposed to worry about the children more than the parents?
Perhaps. But I would argue that it is both necessary and justified. Justified, purely in dollars and cents, because we understand the exponential return on investment of any effective enrollment strategy. Justified, fundamentally, because it is our responsibility to build the community of shared value and identity that will lead parents to choose our schools.