Retention Takes Leadership — A Conversation with Don Johnson

DJ casualI met Don Johnson a few years ago. Don is a one of the most gifted, visionary leaders I have ever met.

Don is the Superintendent of Cascade Christian Schools in Puyallup, WA. CCS has 1,343 students enrolled on five campuses, one of the largest ACSI Christian schools in the country. And, the school is less than 25 years old!

I had the opportunity to partner with CCS and to work directly with Don and his director of marketing and communications, Susan Crawford, a couple of years ago. Because of Don’s concern about retention and the need to increase enrollment, he provided the visionary leadership to focus on improving retention. In this interview, you will discover what Don and his team did to grow Cascade Christian Schools by implementing an enrollment management model and retention plan.

Tell us how you started Cascade Christian Schools.

“Cascade Christian Schools is the result of consolidation of three church-related schools into one interdenominational school system, established in 1992. The vision of three churches, and their desire to do something beyond their own schools to further the Kingdom of God in this area, was basically a miracle! It was an honor for me to be part of leading this effort, and watching God work through His people. The mission, purpose, and core values established at that time are central to our culture to this day. We still marvel at what God is doing here at CCS!”

During the past few years you have been working to implement an enrollment management model. Can you describe this process and result?

“During the recession, we were experiencing some decreases in our enrollment. We were faced with becoming even more efficient, and we knew that the only way to advance our mission was to step up our retention and new student enrollment efforts. Our first step was to admit that we were not experts in the field of enrollment management, so we began the process of seeking counsel. Our Admissions Director had met Rick at a conference and, after evaluating several enrollment management consulting companies, we engaged with Enrollment Catalyst.

Rick Newberry first came to visit our schools, to work with focus groups and survey our parents and staff – which was very helpful for us. It was good to have a third party come in and help us see any blind spots that we had, and to reinforce those things that were going well. The process also gave the sense to our constituents that we were listening to them.

Rick then identified several initiatives for us that would enable us to develop an enrollment management model. We then identified the key initiatives that we thought would help us move forward. The data from the surveys influenced our strategic plan, helping us to inform our constituents where we were improving, and assuring that we would keep them informed of the progress. We developed an Enrollment Management Department that reflected the strategies we were advancing, moving away from just a traditional Admission Department combined with marketing.

One key action was to hire Campus Enrollment Managers (CEMs). Since we have several campuses, this was a big step for us. We have seen many positive results from having a sales force recruiting new inquiries as part of the marketing department, and then following up with relational management steps toward enrollment of our inquiries. Our CEMs also help with retention efforts.

We developed a robust data tracking system so that we knew the status of every inquiry, as well as conversion rates, which informed where to put our resources. A word-of-mouth campaign was developed, and we brought a new website online which has more focus on marketing than our previous site, which was very “current parent”-oriented. The new organization of our website allows us the ability to tell “stories” about the amazing things that are happening in our school, from the voices of the people who are benefitting from our Christian education. These stories also help with our retention efforts. This last year, we saw an increase of 4% of our overall enrollment. I truly believe that having the right plan and the right people to initiate that plan – with much hard work – has helped turn around our trends.”

You have been working to address some retention challenges at Cascade Christian. Can you share some of these challenges with us?

“During the recession, we were seeing a decrease in our retention percentages. Since we have several campuses, one school or level can impact the whole school. The main reason for withdrawal during this timeframe was indicated as “finances.” We knew we had to have a specific plan for retention, just as we have in the recruitment of new students. The main approach in these situations is usually to increase the financial assistance, but we knew we needed to be strategic about it, because there is always more behind giving financial reasons for withdrawal. We needed to demonstrate and communicate the value of our mission to our constituents.”

Why did you decide to take leadership of the retention effort?

“We knew that retention was part of our Enrollment Management department, but as I reviewed the data, it was clear that the only people who can truly help our parents and students with a concern that might impact their retention are our principals and teachers. So I decided, as Head of Schools, that I would lead the way and develop a retention program that was embedded into our leadership processes and meetings. The principals were told that they were responsible for retention – not the Enrollment Management department.”

What strategies have you implemented that have helped to increase retention?

“Once we established that the principals were responsible for retention, we knew that we had to give the leaders the tools and the processes to make it happen. We established retention percentage goals for each school based on past trends, embedding retention into our strategic plan. We started an “Everyone is a Retention Agent” campaign for all of our employees. Rick Newberry spoke at our All-district In-service prior to the start of school, to establish the retention agent concept through related data and examples of how everyone has an impact on retention, and what that impact is, both positively and negatively. Each school developed their retention plans for the year. As a team, we developed retention plans for the transition grade levels.

I wanted to develop a proactive retention approach so, in talking with Rick, we developed a Retention Early Alert System (Rick’s idea). We started in the fall, at parent conferences, identifying anyone that was “on the fence.” Principals then followed up with the parents or students, to see what we were able to do with their concerns or situation. Principals reported their progress every month. Our motto was “no surprises.” We are in the middle of our second REAS year and now have the REAS embedded into a data system connected to our student management system. Principals and CEMs enter into RenWeb if they find a family to be “Firm, Moderate, Shaky, or Withdrawing at the end of the year.” Then, as our Continuous Enrollment process proceeds, we can follow up and make sure we are connecting with families as needed.”

Several years ago you implemented “Continuous Enrollment.” Why did you decide to do this and how has it worked?

“As part of our conversations around retention, we discussed more of a college model whereby it was assumed that you were returning unless the school was informed that you were not. We were seeing that, during our normal “Re-enrollment Days” we were forcing the parents to make a decision every year as to whether to return to CCS. This would bring up many different scenarios with parents, potentially causing them to feed off of each other in a negative manner.

We are now on our third year of Continuous Enrollment. During the first year, we established the procedures and developed a communication plan to educate and inform our parents. This was a big step with everyone, even our school personnel. Change! We followed up with each parent, making sure that they understood the new automatic process. We knew it would take at least three years until the approach seemed normal to our constituents. The second year took the same amount of effort to keep educating and reminding parents, and following up to make sure that the parents understood. We are finding that the Continuous Enrollment process is becoming “normal” for our parents, and they are thankful for how easy we’ve made it for them to stay at CCS.”

What has been the result of your focus on retention?

“We have experienced an increase in our retention percentages based on each campus over the last year. It takes as much effort to maintain these increased retention percentages every year.” 

What advice can you offer to other school leaders about improving retention?


  • Principals are responsible for retention.
  • Everyone is a retention agent.
  • Embed your retention goals into your yearly strategic plans.
  • Get ahead of any concerns through a Retention Early Alert System.
  • Develop tracking systems with reports.
  • A core principle is creating the best learning environment for our students where they feel that they belong.
  • Building relationship with parents and students is essential.”

Don, thanks for sharing how you led the retention effort at Cascade Christian Schools. I know that your work will inspire other school leaders to provide the visionary leadership necessary to improve retention.

Are you leading the retention effort at your school?