An Interview with Laurie G. Hurd

September 16, 2019
An Interview with Laurie G. Hurd

Associations serve as the front line in the collision of trends and tradition, as schools gather to share their experiences and collaborate on ways to meet current and upcoming challenges. The Yield sat down with Laurie G. Hurd, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of Northern New England (ISANNE), a membership association of schools with proud independent traditions, to explore ways in which her association is watching the market and helping enrollment professionals prepare for the future.

Tell us a little about who you are, your background, and your career path.
I grew up on independent school campuses and I feel fortunate that beginning in my student days and throughout my career, I’ve served in many different departments, working with all the constituencies that embody a school community. One of my first jobs was establishing an after-school program at Norfolk Academy in Virginia; before becoming executive director at ISANNE, I was director of development at Oldfields School in Maryland. In the early 80’s and 90’s, I returned to my alma mater as admission director for The Hyde School (ME). I helped establish Hyde campuses in the public and private sectors and served as head of school at Hyde’s founding campus in Bath, Maine. I’ve been executive director for ISANNE since 2014.

Tell us about your association and the schools you serve.
ISANNE consists of 64 independent schools located primarily in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, plus a school in Connecticut and one in Canada. They are day, boarding, and town academies with a diversity of missions. Our smallest school has less than 10 students and our largest has over 3,000. Twenty of our schools operate under the town academy model, as independent schools with the majority of student tuition paid by sending towns that don’t have a public school option.

What trends are most likely to impact school enrollment in your region over the next five years? Many of our schools are feeling the impact of trends including:
+ Shifting demographics (meaning fewer students)
+ The scarcity of the full-pay domestic students—more schools are going after the same kids and often offering competitive financial packages
+ Canada has become very attractive to international students compared to the U.S. It’s easier to get visas in Canada, tuitions are lower, and the political climate is friendlier to international students

What, if anything, should schools and associations be doing now to plan for these trends?
For most of us, the planning and doing began a while ago! Know what distinguishes your school in the marketplace and be intentional about communicating it. Don’t take the fundamentals for granted and assume everyone understands them. Start with brutal honesty and identify the realities and how they could impact your organization. Revise budgets. Most importantly, everyone needs the right attitude. While the realities are sobering, tackling the challenges ahead requires an inspired (and informed) positive team mindset. Figure out who you are—your defining difference in the market—and do your best at it. Consider partnerships and collaborations with other organizations in ways that might have been unthinkable in the past. These might be the disrupters that change the game.

What are the new and emerging skill sets that practitioners must have to be successful in today’s enrollment management climate? How is the job changing from what was needed a decade or a generation ago?
The job has changed; it’s responding to a changing market that has become intensely competitive for most schools today. The skills I’m thinking about will be new to some professionals; for others it’s sharpening skills they already have. Understanding and using data and looking for impacting trends are much more on everyone’s radar today. A high emotional literacy is necessary to understand and connect with people because it’s incredibly important to identify and appeal to the decision maker in the family. The fundamentals aren’t new, but bear repeating:
+ Have integrity and honor
+ Go above and beyond what’s asked or expected
+ Think on your feet with confidence
+ Be an effective public speaker

Traditionally, admission and enrollment professionals have not had a place in the boardroom. Why do school leaders need to rethink that?
Admission is the lifeblood of the school, enrolling families and future stewards. The person in charge of bringing in the major revenue steam needs to be part of the school’s senior leadership team. Working with the board underscores the responsibility and commitment required for the job. Without a seat at the table, admission is a silo department in its own world. A great admission operation is a community-wide effort that transcends the department. Everyone has a role to play in attracting and keeping families.

Tuition discounting has become a topic of much discussion. How do schools best balance the need to respond to the growing demand for affordability without approaching discount rates that might threaten their financial viability?
The business, admission, and development offices need a healthy partnership to navigate these challenges ahead. They can’t operate in isolation—and they won’t if they understand each other’s objectives. The truth is, some schools won’t be able to balance these competing realities. As we know, some aren’t balancing them now. Accepting that we are in a state of tremendous imbalance will help open us up to considering options such as school mergers, curriculum collaborations, and mission revisions.

In what ways do you envision effective collaborations among schools and associations in order to ensure thriving enrollments and to fend off perceptions that our schools are unaffordable?
Perception is reality, and for many families our schools are unaffordable without significant financial packages. Similarly, associations are aware that our schools are paying membership fees to multiple associations. We are working with other associations on ways to collaborate and bring more value to our members. Next year, ISANNE is partnering with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) to pilot New England Leads, a yearlong program that includes mentoring, leadership development, and accreditation training for our members. This is based on the ISANNELEADS program we started 6 years ago with the help of an E.E. Ford Foundation grant. By joining with NEASC, we integrate the accreditation experience with the broader professional development experience, which benefits both of our organizations and our members.

Millennial parents will begin showing up on our campuses over the next five to 10 years. What should schools do to be ready for this next generation of parents?
Millennial parents will continue the trend of parents being very involved in their child’s school experience. School safety is becoming parents’ number one concern in a dimension that is new to most of us. Parents want assurances that the school has a thoughtful and current approach for keeping students’ welfare the priority. They will expect new protocols that protect their kids from potential internal and external threats in physical and cyber spaces while fostering a welcoming, creative school environment.

Many schools say they address the whole child and respect the individual. I suspect millennials will have new expectations and definitions for these terms. Schools could start by looking at their traditions and practices with a new lens. How well do those traditions fit today and with the future? Do they need revisioning? What is the purpose of our time-honored practices and is there a new way to carry them out? It’s hard to see the changes that are needed while we are immersed in our schools; visiting other schools can create new perspectives on existing approaches.

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