Communicating Strengths Through Campus Events

August 8, 2016 David Baker
Communicating Strengths Through Campus Events

by David Baker, Director of Admission & Financial Aid, St. Mark’s School (TX)

As always, my summer project ambitions have greatly exceeded the fleeting number of remaining summer days. As an aficionado of summercrastination, I have learned that the piles of summer projects on my desk (ignored in favor of TV binge watching and golf game rehabilitation) must now be hastily prioritized as waning summer days herald another busy admission season. Naturally, project panic results in meditating (if not actually working) on those items that are scheduled early in the admission calendar. I have officially moved past ignoring my summer to-do list, and now I am at least thinking about thinking about them. Campus events are at the top of my list of things to think about thinking about.

At The Enrollment Management Association conference in Las Vegas last fall, I had the honor of working with Carson Roy (The Potomac School, VA) and Jenna King (Riverdale Country School, NY) on a Speed Innovating session titled, I Wanna Go to THAT School. The program addressed a number of essential questions for planning campus events. Through the planning and production of that program, the three of us (from very different schools) concluded that school event planning should start with a message in mind. From large open house events to much smaller affinity group meetings, there are countless ways to structure and produce campus events—several links (including campus programs at St. Mark’s School of Texas) are included below as resources. Ultimately, thinking about campus events starts at the end: What are you trying to communicate? If you could poll everyone who attends your event, what would you most like to hear? For example:

  • I learned a lot that I didn’t know about your fine arts program.
  • I was somewhat skeptical about a single sex school, but after meeting your students and hearing them talk about their experiences, I am much more comfortable.
  • I was amazed with the poise and professionalism of your teachers.
  • Your headmaster has a clear vision for the school—his words were comforting and positive.
  • Your facilities are amazing.

While “all of the above” would be ideal, it is important to start with an overarching mission for the event, starting with an inventory of strengths. Ask your staff, teachers, administrators, and parents to help you compile a list of your school’s greatest strengths. Then, think about programs, speakers, activities and event structures that might best accentuate those strengths. Simply, start with a message and then design the event to effectively communicate the message.

Designing campus events around strengths - two examples 

Last year, I worked with a new director who was concerned that her open house was not fulfilling expectations because her campus facilities did not compare favorably with those of other area schools. We decided that rather than adopting the traditional opening session/campus tour model, she would instead focus the event on her school’s unique curricular offerings. Campus tours were offered, but the bulk of the program was built around acquainting guests with the school’s unique programs through panel discussions, guest speakers, and demonstrations. Rather than draw unflattering attention to her campus, she focused the event on the school’s outstanding programs. It is important to remember that there is not a universal model for campus events - start with an inventory of strengths and then build your campus events around those strengths.

Designing an event model for our school was (and continues to be) a process of trial and error. I inherited a traditional open house model—an opening session followed by campus tours and a few programs/performances. I noticed quickly that our Saturday morning open house was attended by smiling parents accompanied by disgruntled young men who were obviously attending under protest. These boys (the very boys we hoped to attract to our all-boys school) had been forced to miss athletic contests and a variety of other weekend activities in order to attend, and they were not happy about it. I mentioned the general malaise of our target audience at a post-event staff meeting and a member of the staff asked, “Are we doing these events FOR these boys or TO them?” Another staff member added, “Are they guests or hostages?” Good questions. We subsequently moved the event to a Wednesday evening and added more interactive programs. In subsequent years, we have noticed much happier boys and much better attendance.

Crafting events around strengths may also suggest designing different events for different audiences. The goal, as always, is to showcase strengths. About ten years ago, we created a coffee series designed to provide parents with a smaller and less formal way of connecting with the school. The one-hour event starts with a mix-and-mingle (lots of administrators and some teachers also attend) session followed by a welcome from the headmaster and a brief presentation from a guest speaker. A few years ago, we replaced one of the speaker sessions with a class visitation opportunity. The class visitation coffee (the program from last year is linked below) follows the same format, but rather than hearing a speaker, parents are given a schedule of available classes they may visit. Class visitation offers our guests the opportunity to see our teachers in action. Our coffees are for parents only and these events offer us an opportunity to discuss aspects of the school that are interesting to parents (scheduling, curriculum, financial aid, etc.) but probably not interesting to their sons.

For me, one of the most valuable benefits of membership in The Enrollment Management Association is the opportunity to learn from my colleagues. Shared information informs our collective thinking and allows us to evaluate and implement ideas that work best in our individual schools. Campus events can take many forms and there is no universally accepted model. Large gatherings, tours, coffees, presentations, event related meetings, interest group meetings, class visits, and performances should all be structured in a manner designed to communicate the unique strengths of your school.

Open Houses: Thinking Outside the Box
Amy Sayfie Zichella, Director of Admission, Ransom Everglades School (FL)

Open House Management Series Part 1: Building Attendance
Peter Anderson, Director of Admission and Enrollment Management, The Episcopal Academy (PA)

Open House Management Series Part 2: Strengthening Each Event
Peter Anderson, Director of Admission and Enrollment Management, The Episcopal Academy (PA)

Secrets to Open House Success
Debbie Williams, Director of Admission, Crane Country Day School (CA) & Julia Davis, Admissions Associate, Crane Country Day School (CA)

St. Mark’s School of Texas Open House Program 2015

Class Visitation Schedule - St. Mark's School of Texas (TX)

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