Enrollment in childcare is predictable. When you are sitting in the hot seat it doesn’t feel that way. I often felt like there was some incomprehensible force moving the families to surge into and dribble out of my centers. If you have felt this confusion, I am here to help!
When school is about to start in your area, or has just started is your best chance at a fully enrolled school. Parents think about enrolling at this time of year.
Many have been planning this for months and toured centers months before honing their search criteria and evaluating the prospects. They came by in March, toured, and dropped off your radar. Then in August they show back up with the forms you gave them earlier in the year filled out, ready to start. What? I don’t have room for another 4 year old girl in Ms. Melissa’s class. Has this ever happened to you?
Other families seem oblivious to the concept of touring and evaluating and simply show up on a Tuesday ready to fill out paperwork so their child can start school on the first day of school, like big brother in second grade. Of course there is room for their child. The school district doesn’t turn anyone away, they just make it work. It doesn’t matter if the program is a good fit, it is on the way to the elementary school and they have seen your bus during pickup time, so can you get Jimmie in the afternoon, too?
My favorite type of August/September enrollment is the family we have had on the waiting list, who was on the books, has paid the fees, and come by with their child before the school year starts to help the child feel at home in your center. Sometimes families are enrolled, but don’t come by between the tour and start date, but we have had communication between times, and have solidified their spot in our records. I am good with them too. There can also be those who are on your list, have filled out forms, but not paid or responded to emails or phone calls. They make me nervous, but I have them penciled into the class roster.
All of these families are responding to the societal norms that school starts at X time. That is when their child will start. I have been baffled by parents of infants waiting until late August to enroll their child, when they return to work in June, but different strokes for different folks. I presume they are also the type to not wear white for half of the year. I can live with that. Most teachers and directors know this enrollment shift. They plan for it and have events, crafts, or lesson plans adjusted for this period of transition. By the time October rolls around everyone presumes the classes are pretty solid. This is what our school will look like this year. Cool.
But no school has had 100% the same student body at the end of the school year that they had at the beginning. When we’re in it, it seems like folks just trickle in and out. From the outside, I can tell you, you are missing something.
Here is the thing, the first 60 days of enrollment are key to cementing a relationship. It is like dating. You agreed to be in this thing together and at first you are learning about the other person and it is exciting. Then you discover they eat tacos like a heathen. You get to decide if you can live with that. Will you just stop eating tacos? Will you talk to them about the different ways to consume this wonderful food without having to take a hose to the area afterwards? Will you decide this is a deal breaker? You have choices. So do the parents.
During those 60 days the parents find out that no sick kids, means they can’t give their son Tylenol and bring him in. They learned that you were closed on Columbus Day, when else is the school closed?!? Their child may have gotten sick or injured and you didn’t handle it exactly how they thought it should be handled. You found out they want texts every time their child eats. The teacher is concerned that the child came in the same clothes they went home in last night. The child is super into rough housing and her teacher doesn’t know how to handle it. So there are thoughts of breaking up.
The Director starts getting calls from parents who are, “just getting information for a friend.” Children disappear for half a day with no explanation (they are trying out another school). Dads drop in unannounced on lunch breaks, both enrolled and touring. Moms come by at 4pm to just hang out. Parents bring friends and family members with them at pick up or drop off. These are signs of shopping. Some are signs that they love your program and want to make sure they aren’t missing anything before referring you to their friends who are unhappy at their school, and others are signs that they are unhappy with you, and looking to move.
So if a child enrolls on August 22, 2016 (first day of school in the district I grew up in), 2 months later is October 22nd. Do you think the parents want to change schools right before Halloween? Then comes Thanksgiving and Christmas. Families generally wait to actually make the change until January. Some move sooner, but most wait. But they are shopping in October, November and December. Are you marketing to them?
The Third Shift
Some folks held out through the January shift thinking things would get better after all the holidays and excitement of the new school year were over, and are still unhappy and moving in the spring, but not many. Those have a lot of loyalty and will be a great addition to your school if you are a good match.
The last large shift happens at the end of the school year. This is not a surprise to any teacher or director. We have seen it many times. Families pull out in June to have Cousin Susie watch the kids. They shift to part-time because that works better over the summer. New families enroll for summer activities. Three year-olds are enrolled so they will be settled in for their pre-school school year.
The spring is spent in planning summer programs, going to the area schools, and talking to your existing clients about all the fun stuff you will be doing over the summer, if you stay open. For many centers this is a period of dormancy, where they close or reduce staff for the summer, so the spring is the time to nail down enrollment for the coming year. Because a mass exodus can be such a blow to the budget, few Directors fail to plan for this shift more than once. One lean summer is a powerful reminder of the need to get ready for the summer enrollment change. On the other hand a super full summer with a budget cushion built is a fabulous way to go into the fall.
So, How do I prepare?
I thought you would never ask. You start marketing 2-3 months before the shift is expected. If you aren’t marketing your summer program before Spring Break, you are behind. Many programs know that, but almost no one is marketing their school in October, November and December. That means you will have less competition.
Step 1Start with checking in with all of your newly enrolled families. Schedule a time with each of them to visit. See how they are liking the school. What questions do they have? Is there a way to get them involved on a project? If you can get them involved in planning the Halloween festivities, you might cement the relationship. Having them survey the parents in their class about what day would be best for a parent’s night out in November and December is a way to get them involved and remind them of your additional services to help busy families.
Step 2Once you have confidence that you have strengthened your relationships with the new families, take what you learned from them about what they particularly like about your center, and figure out what you should highlight for prospects. Knowing what is resonating with your ideal client right now is important.
Step 3Develop a marketing plan. Assess your most recent marketing plan. Does it take advantage of the social media networks that your ideal client uses? Are you sending newsletters out to parents who have toured and/or inquired over the past 12 months? If blogging is more your style, set up a blog on your website and use that as the basis for your social media and/or newsletter.
Step 4Set up a system to track all calls and tours and make sure that you follow up with them to get the desired 6-12 contacts with each client.
Enrollment Surge 2016
If you want help putting all this together, I have good news! We will be working with Directors to develop customized marketing plans to take advantage of the second surge in enrollment. Together we will make 2017 the year of the full classroom!!!
The Enrollment Surge Class starts October 28th. You can use Halloween as your kick off event for your second surge. Set up your marketing, events and program to bring in the RIGHT families for the new year without breaking a sweat!
You will learn from Kate and Carrie, who have been in your shoes and worked to get full programs with waiting list following this program. When we have offered this class in the past all the programs met their enrollment goals. Click the link below and join us for this 4 week class.