Enrollment Turnaround at Lutheran High School — An Interview with Ryan Bredow

I like learning and hearing about school enrollment turnaround stories. Recently, one of my faithful blog readers, Ryan Bredow reached out to me about his school’s turnaround story. Ryan is the Director of Admissions and Marketing at Lutheran High School in Parker, CO.

I asked Ryan to share his enrollment turnaround story in my blog through this Q&A interview:

Describe the enrollment growth that you have experienced in the past three years at Lutheran High School:

“We have been blessed by steady growth the past three years from 180 students to a current student population of 330. The increase has been at a rate of roughly 20% each year.”

What was the situation of the school before you experienced this exponential growth?

“Two years ago, we launched a major re-brand, and in many respects, launched a new school. While our “new school” launched two years ago, it really has been a three-year process as significant planning took place throughout the previous year. I’ll summarize here as best I can…
Prior to 2011, we operated two high school campuses: one in Denver and one in Parker. Our Denver campus was founded in 1955 and was the original campus. The Parker campus was founded in 2001, and eventually moved into a new facility in 2004. For the next seven years, we operated out of those two campuses. Due to significant financial challenges, declining/stagnant enrollment, and various other difficulties, we made the difficult decision to sell our Denver campus and consolidate both campuses to the Parker location. This transition officially took place during the summer of 2011.

Challenges included determining items like: Blending teaching staffs and administration (which unfortunately included reduction in force), making decisions about which mascot to use, school colors, blending handbooks, merging academic records for Denver students making the move down to Parker (of which there were 43), honoring the traditions of both previous schools, determining athletic affiliations, block schedule at one campus vs. eight-period day at the other, not to mention liquidating a 55,000 square foot building with over 55 years of stuff! We had approximately six weeks to complete this transition before the 2011-2012 school year was to begin, not to mention that it was critical to our sustainability and viability that we have a clear vision and strategic plan in place for the “new school.”

Navigating the waters of not only communicating this decision but coming to this decision in itself compounded what was already a stressful time. However, God is so good, and with Him at the forefront of our discernment, He has since blessed our efforts more than we could have imagined.”

What research did you conduct and what strategic decisions did you make that led to your enrollment growth?

“1) Communication’s audit. We began with a significant investment of time and resources into a communications audit. In consultation with a communication strategy group, we needed to gather as much feedback as possible from current students/families, former students/families, donors, pastors, staff members, board members, and so on. It was very extensive, and was critical in quantifying what our investors valued most about our product. These values must always drive the message, and in our situation, the message needed to be re-evaluated. Our niche, our target markets, and how we could best be an asset to Douglas County and beyond were all requiring attention and assessment. To do that, we had to begin internally.

2) “Whoever tells the story creates the culture.” While this is a common understanding for many non-profits, our situation called for us to delve into that truth in a more practical fashion. I broke it down into three parts: What’s the story of our school, who’s telling it, and how’s it being told? As a result, many of our initial efforts focused on internal marketing and equipping our staff with the correct messages. It’s very important to note that this step came after our communications audit mentioned above—this research was the fuel that helped us quantify what the story was.

The last two parts (i.e. who’s telling the story and how’s it being told) followed accordingly. Examples of this included everything from staff training on how to greet guests in the building to taking teachers on a tour of the school and giving them a cheat sheet of updated, important bullet points about our school. Building the framework of context for how each person in our building fits into our marketing plan was tedious, but extremely vital (and I would argue, even fun for our staff to experience a different piece to the “bigger puzzle”). I know that Enrollment Catalyst does an excellent job of endorsing and promoting WOM marketing, and there certainly is no better place to start with that then your own employees.

3) Market analysis. I felt like the first month on the job, most of my time was spent in my office fully diving into three questions: Where are the fish, what ponds should we be throwing the most lines in, and how can we get them to bite? (I actually hate fishing, but this analogy always made sense to me!). I realize that these are elementary questions in the world of admissions, but they are questions our school did not have adequate research on. Furthermore, many of the ponds we were previously fishing in were losing fish quickly, so our marketing strategy required a deeper analysis. For what it’s worth, the results of this analysis were staggering to me, and as I work with other schools, I encourage them to give this step a significant amount of attention. I believe this piece rarely receives adequate time and resources at many schools, which makes it difficult to assess quantifiable data as to who to target. The metrics we derived from this research still fuel many of our current efforts.”

What marketing and enrollment strategies did you implement to grow Lutheran High School? What strategies worked the best?

“I once had someone explain it to me this way: You can have a great product, but if no one needs it, it’s not going to sell. In the same way, you can have a great product, but if no one wants it, it’s not going to sell. In a service industry (which Christian education certainly falls under), the answer often lies in creating a product that exceeds consumer expectations. While your question does not speak directly to this approach, it is critical to understand that at the core of all the strategies, meetings, analysis, and MUCH prayer was a deep belief in our school and passionate convictions for the blessings that abound through Christian education—that in effect, there are ways to exceed consumer expectations (much of which includes a deep understanding of your competition, but I’m going to guess that’s for a whole different blog post…).

That said, we honed in on a diverse networking strategy based on the metrics established that I mentioned above. First and foremost, the core goal was simple: Get bodies on campus. Our data told us that we retained roughly 67% of all prospective families that visited our school, and that the product best sells itself when they get on our campus around our people. Everything then became driven around that core principle.

Therefore, we ramped up our building rentals, our shadowing program runs three days a week the entire school year, every inquiry we receive is a follow up one-on-one meeting on campus, we eliminated group tours in place of individual tours that run year-round at the consumers convenience, we added another full-time admissions person, all of our branding/messaging became very personal (which meant investing in all new photo and media pieces), we launched a new website, invested time and resources into a completely re-vamped social media strategy, launched “LuHi TV” which live streams numerous school events online, developed a new logo (which then meant new apparel, uniforms, etc.), and made personal visits (often regularly) to all of our “ponds.” Most initial visits were a “thank you” (i.e. providing lunch for the staff at schools where our students come from with a simple message of, “Thank you for how well you prepare students for high school, and we are one school that benefits from your efforts. Thanks for your partnership!”), followed by invitations during the year to events on campus that we would love to host them.

As a result of our school’s collective efforts in these endeavors and various others I didn’t mention (and certainly not all mine by the way! I want to make sure that’s clear! In all sincerity, I’m just one piece surrounded by many, many incredible co-workers), we have now seen back-to-back freshmen classes where the students have come from over 30 junior high schools, and our student body as a whole comes from 68 different churches. Praise God! Those are startling numbers for a school our size, and what a blessing to see Him work through our school to so many different junior high schools, churches, and community groups.”

Thanks Ryan for sharing your enrollment turnaround story. It is encouraging to hear about your successes at Lutheran High School.

Do you have an enrollment turnaround story to share?

What strategies worked to grow your school’s enrollment?