by Patricia Kong
Admission professionals are uniquely poised to lead. With deep knowledge of a school, its mission and programming, a natural ability to connect with children and parents, and exposure to issues ranging from finance to family feedback, directors of enrollment and admission possess the skills and dedication to perform the tasks of headship with assurance.
While I am currently the associate head of school and director of admissions at Pilgrim School (CA), I recently had the distinct honor of serving as our school’s interim headmistress. Pilgrim School is a preschool through grade 12 school located in the heart of Los Angeles. I love and believe in our school, its community and philosophy. Since coming to Pilgrim as a play facilitator, I also served in the roles of teacher assistant, teacher, admission director, and assistant head. Whether you are considering a move to headship or simply wonder what it might be like to fill those shoes, an experience like mine might illustrate for you how it can be equal parts challenging, rewarding, and illuminating.
A proud Korean born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I immigrated to the U.S. after my Quinceaneras. From a very young age, I wanted to be a teacher—and I am still a teacher at heart, who believes that children always come first. When our former head of school, Mark Brooks, accepted a position as headmaster at The Center for Early Education for the 2016-17 school year, I was approached and asked to become the school’s interim head while the search for a new head (our current head of school, Paul Barsky) was underway.
As you can imagine, many thoughts and questions came to mind before I accepted the position. Thoughts like, “ME?” “Can I do this?” “Will I be alive by the end of the school year?” “Will I see my family?” “Will the budget work?” “Will families stay?” “Can I keep our community together through these transitions?” My long term experience at, knowledge of, and love for my school, as well as the experience of working closely with my head of school as assistant head, gave me the courage to face all of these questions and more. I found that I had the judgment and tools to be ready to take the lead, even in a transitional period with many unknowns.
I have always embraced change. While to many of those in our school community these unknowns were frightening, I chose to believe that our unknowns were just going to be differences; not scary or bad, just different. I looked forward to taking the helm and watching as the next phase of Pilgrim School unfolded. I was happy to see that my optimism was justified—the answer the questions I had asked myself was a resounding “yes.”
The best part of taking this headship responsibility was that I had a full community who supported and believed in me to take the lead through this transition and they empowered me to do it with great confidence. Maintaining strong relationships both within the school community and externally with our fellow consortium schools was a critical part of this transition.
That said, I do have some recommendations for my fellow admission directors seeking to tread this path:
+ Keep an eye on upcoming trends.
+ Know who your competitors are and why they are your competitors.
+ Know your families and what makes them proud about being a part of your school. Ask them what can be improved—inquire about the strengths and weaknesses of your school. Your families are your best marketing tool and your biggest advocates.
+ Be present in the life of your school—don’t just admit students and check items off your list.
+ Retain all your families. Find out who is leaving and why they are leaving.
+ Collaborate and partner with your division directors. Observe and learn how the school is run. Be engaged. Learn. Ask questions—lots of questions!
+ Be proactive.
Admission directors have exceptional people skills, planning strengths, the ability to screen families and students. They are organized, empathetic, and ready to listen to everyone’s stories knowing that each family that comes through their doors is unique.
Ensure that you plan strategically and engage not only within the school community, but within the broader communities of which we are all a part. Network and learn from your peers about what is going at their schools. Be a mentor. Be a mentee. My positions as both associate head of school and director of admission complemented each other and gave me the opportunity to understand how the school is truly doing, discover what it needs internally, and find the families that make great additions to it.