Growing Preschool Enrollment through Events — An Interview with Shelly McGuire at GSL

Shelly McGuire.cropI had the opportunity to work with the team at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School (GSL) in Memphis, TN, for a couple of years in my Enrollment Catalyst Program. Shelly McGuire joined GSL in the summer of 2012 as the Director of Enrollment.

What I enjoyed most about working with Shelly is her drive and passion for the enrollment at GSL. She is an innovative and aggressive enrollment director. Through her work this past year, Shelly took a very aggressive and innovative approach in enrolling students in the GSL preschool program by creating and hosting events to attract families to campus.

The following is a recent interview with Shelly about the marketing and enrollment strategies she implemented at GSL:

What did you do to attract prospective families to your campus and to generate interest in the preschool?

“Last year was my first year as the Director of Enrollment at GSL. The main goal of the head of school and board of directors was to grow enrollment. Historically, the vast majority of new enrollment is at our preschool, which is known as Miss Lee’s. But the recent economic downturn had helped contribute to several lower enrollment years. When I came on board, the preschool program was only using five of its eight classrooms. In becoming familiar with GSL and our numbers, I recognized right away that most families who toured did end up applying, so I knew that it would be important to find ways new ways to get more preschool applicants to see the campus.

When I learned that the church-run Parents’ Day Out programs in Memphis were typically closed on Mondays, I recognized an opportunity to offer something for this available pool of children.  We soon launched a program called “Mondays at Miss Lee’s.” Families with toddlers could sign up for three consecutive Monday mornings from 9:00 to 10:30am. The children came with a parent for free-choice play, snack, circle-time, and outdoor play on our playground. It was very much a “preview” of our preschool program.

I also wanted to take advantage of our state-of-the-art library. With our wonderful Librarian enthusiastically on board, we started a Story Time series for the same age group. We soon added sewing, paint-and-play, and gardening workshops.”

How did the events work?

“My main objective was that the events be “soft-sell” admissions events. I did not want parents to feel that they would come to these fun events with their children only to be strong-armed into applying. Since they RSVP’d by email, I did have their contact information to invite them to our Open House events and Information Sessions. Other than those emails, my only role was to be there to greet children and answer questions once parents had developed an interest in Grace-St. Luke’s as an option for preschool.”

How did you market the events?

“We used our traditional forms of advertising (print, school and church e-newsletters, our website, social media, posters, and printed invitations to the area PDO programs) and discovered a local blog that really helped get the word out to all of the parents in our area. We announced the Mondays at Miss Lee’s program via these avenues to our prospect base, and all four of our 3-week sessions filled before we could even hang a banner that we had ordered to help advertise the program!”

What have been the results of your marketing and enrollment effort?  

“I believe the local blog through which we advertised and the word of mouth from our enrolled parents had the most impact in terms of marketing. Due to the high demand for these play times we were offering, we quickly realized that in the modern world of preschoolers, two is the new three! That led us to the decision to expand the preschool by launching an additional grade level for 2’s and young 3’s called “Little Lukers.” We announced the program launch in December and by spring we had enrolled enough students to fill all three of the vacant classrooms when school started in August. We ended up having to waitlist students that could have filled a fourth classroom.”

What strategies are you planning to implement this year?

“We are continuing the same toddler events (gardening, sewing, paint-and-play, and story time), which we hold about once a month in our library or in another available room. We are no longer doing the weekly Mondays at Miss Lee’s, since we no longer have an empty classroom. The beauty of offering these events to children who are 2 and 3 is that we have a completely new group to offer these events to each year.”

What advice would you give to other enrollment and marketing directors seeking to grow their preschool and lower school programs?

“I am a firm believer in using the best of what your school and campus has to offer and allowing it to do the selling for you. By having these events monthly, families are able to get to know us free from any pressure placed on them to apply. This makes them more likely to come often and to bring a friend. Last year, the vast majority of them did indeed enroll. We only had a couple of children who regularly came to our events but enrolled in other schools. But they did so having only great things to say about Grace-St. Luke’s to their friends and in our community.  It is a win-win all the way around.

Lower School in Memphis is a bit more difficult. I did offer our first Come Play at SK Day this fall for children who are eligible to apply for our Senior Kindergarten program (the next largest entry point for new enrollment). The children came to spend an hour in our classrooms with their parents. We ended the morning with Story Time in our Library. I want to further develop this event to attract more families, since most of the children who came to the event did indeed apply.”

Thanks Shelly for sharing your innovative approach to utilizing events to grow your preschool program at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School. By providing an event to meet the need of parents with young children, you provided exposure and attracted them to your school. And, as you said, getting them to campus enabled the school to sell itself!

Getting families to campus is always the most difficult challenge in marketing a private, independent school. Sometimes we need to be innovative and creative to facilitate this exposure. And, as we can see from Shelly’s success, it worked!

Could events like these at GSL work on your campus?

What are you doing at your school to attract to parents to your campus?