Jimmy is a lovely child. He is a good student, quirky and lovely and, through the years, he has met some teachers who have leaned more into the lovely, and others who have leaned more into the quirky. Jimmy has never been a problem. His family, however, is truly hard to get on board. Through two Principals now, the discussions have stumbled upon the difference in approach that the parents desire and consider the best for Jimmy and the one the school has – based on relevant evidence from the classroom. No evaluation is ever needed, parents never go into meetings with an open mind and they have a lot, A LOT, to say about almost every teacher. It has gotten to the point where we look upon the admissions process with regret – if we only knew ….
The situation above is not entirely hypothetical. It is a mélange of various situations I have seen in my two decades at the largest international school in Bucharest and brings to the limelight one of the biggest traps in school admissions: looking only at the student(s) who are registering and not at the family as a unit.
I tell families when we sit down to chat that, should they enroll in our school, they are entering a partnership, one in which the student is in the middle and the school comes halfway and parent(s) come the other half.
Should one piece of the equation be missing, the result cannot ever be the same. But this does not work if the family is not a good fit for the school vision and mission. How do we then establish if that is the case and how do we say no when they are not? Here are some critical steps that you will not regret taking or working on.
It is always fair to all parties involved that you present yourself as a school that welcomes the family and not only the student. Make that explicit on your website and from the first moment you are in contact with the family. I find that, even though it may prompt difficult conversations, all prospective families appreciate the idea that you are looking at the family fit. It makes them have higher hopes for the community quality in general and speaks highly to your school values.
the parents / caretakers directly.
I know it may sound a bit ridiculous, but it is in fact a reality: some parents are too busy to participate actively in the admissions process and handle it through hired help. This speaks loads about the involvement the family is going to have with the child’s school life further on and represents a huge red flag. I always make it a point to stop the process until the parents get involved. We live in the time of Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime. There must be a way in which they can get in touch. It really does not matter to me (and I believe that it should not) whether they are part of Forbes top ten investors or the President’s personal pilot. If they have a child, they are the sole holder of the parent role, and must be present (in more ways than one) when a school is chosen.
the difficult areas, listen for potential conflicts and dig deeper.
I set out one to two hours for each parent meeting. It is by far my favorite part of the process, the most complex and the one that makes the most difference. I ask a lot of questions (both of and about the student and the family), I push into what seems or feels like difficult topics and I don’t shy away from controversy. The admissions office is the port into the school – it is as much the office’s duty to protect it as it is to welcome people in.
What do I mean by controversy? Here is an example: I was meeting family X one day. Mom had made the appointment and both mom and dad showed up. At least physically: mentally, dad was not there. Mom started the conversation, was carrying the excitement flag for the couple and was reading down her list of questions. But all the while, I could not get away from the dad’s distracted, absent energy. At some point in the meeting, I looked directly at him and said “Are you ok sir? You don’t really want to be here, do you?” He was so taken aback (mom, defeated, as in ughh, I did not manage to hide it did I?) that he was unable to make something up and told the truth: he had been dragged there, he did not actually think a move was needed for his child, he was worried about the finances and was rushing into a big work-related meeting that he could not take his mind off. He apologized, became present, we restructured the meeting, walked and talked at the same time so that we could be most efficient and met several times afterwards to continue the discussion. To be honest, I can’t remember if I enrolled their child in the end. It doesn’t even matter. What stuck with me was how paying attention made the difference.
Write it down. Make it a big deal.
There is a very big difference between the IB curriculum and the way local schools teach. And yet many local parents I meet just want the local system in a bigger and more beautiful campus. Many parents come in with ready-made ideas about what our school is and the way it provides education. Unless we get honest about it, the partnership will epically fail. Listening actively to what the parents want for their child, what ideal education looks like and what they think they will get in your school, enables you to, right there, on the spot, speak to the match. The admissions office is the place for honest conversations – later it might be too late. If you feel strongly about it, don’t shy away from saying “this may not be the school for you,” – only to intrigue parents and make them want it more. But this is not the point, you get it.
A conversation like this takes courage and it takes support. You must feel grounded in your knowledge about what mission appropriate families look like and, at the same time, supported and empowered by the leadership of your school to be honest. No fearful admissions office will ever be honest – they would be too scared of losing “bums on seats.”
If you do have the backing and if you are able to establish that a family is not going to be happy in your school, after you have pushed and prodded enough to understand it is not just a biased perspective of yours, make sure your follow up message includes that. The written word has power – so much more power than the spoken one.
One of the most important aspects of a good admissions office is that they effectively gather information from family meetings – and communicate key elements to others when it can make a difference. Listening with intent, paying attention to the way communication flows (verbal, nonverbal, tone etc.), allows the admissions team to offer a window into the family that the admissions committee, deciding on accepting the student or not, may lack at times. The Principals I have worked with over the past 21 years have always appreciated a note or a chat from me about a family they must meet and things to look for. It may just be the difference between a peaceful school year for a teacher or a constant heartache.