I spent the days right before we broke for Christmas vacation huddled with several other English teachers and school administrators trying to devise a marketing plan for our school.
Yes, we teach English, and also work in advertising. We are the new “Madmen.”
The poor economy has caused a drop in enrollment at private schools like the one where I teach. This means cutting back, and layoffs for teachers and support personnel. We are forced, like so many other industries in these troubled times, to do more with less.
But the other reason why we lost students last year has nothing to do with the economy.
Parents now are shopping for better extra curricular activities, or additional sports teams, or more music, art and dance programs. The greatest interest, however, is in whatever school can guarantee their child’s acceptance into the college of their choice. In effect, they are school-hopping in a search of the Holy Grail of education: college admissions.
No school can guarantee college acceptance, and every school has its problems, its strengths and weaknesses. I should know; I’ve been at four schools in twenty-four years, and I have observed my wife’s experiences in six schools over the same time period. We are lifelong teachers, and we know the story. Schools can have tons of extra curricular activities, field all the sports including golf and lacrosse, have great programs before, during, and after school, topped off with the best academics in the world, but a good education is up to the student. The student must seize the day and excel, and good teaching and programs can only go so far. We cannot do it for the kid.
That does not stop parents from jumping ship if there is even the hint of a question about college acceptance, or a school offering one additional elective or sports team. Or what I find most frustrating, when one parent pulls his kid out of the school and four or five others follow suit just to “keep up with the Joneses.” Rumors start, and parents flock to the new school.
The kicker is that they often come back a year, or even a single semester later, discovering that what’s new really isn’t.
Time after time, admissions officials at major colleges and universities will tell you that the best preparation for college is a challenging academic program where a student puts forth his utmost effort and achieves at the highest level. Many schools, including mine, offer such a challenging program.
In the last year or so, I have seen participation in our school’s Advanced Placement program decline. When I ask students why they want to leave an AP class, they tell me they do not want to do the extra work required for challenging classes. What’s more, college counselors have told them that their grade point averages matter most. If they take an AP course and get a B, it would be more beneficial in the long run to take a standard class and get an A. For good students, playing it safe for the future is better than taking on challenging course work for the love of learning.
So does it pay to jump from school to school? No.
And what damage is done to the kid with school-hopping? It’s tough to adjust to new schools, new environments. Students need stability to do well, and shifting schools can be traumatic. A kid must start over trying to fit in and find his place in the school culture.
My school has one of the lowest tuition rates, offers many comparable programs and amenities of higher priced institutions, and we have a close-knit family atmosphere where teachers truly know their students and are accustomed to working with them across several years because we are a preschool through twelfth grade program. Do we have problems? Sure. No school is perfect. But a student can get a very good education at my school at a competitive rate.
Still, here we are, trying to sell ourselves to a fickle clientele looking for the sure thing. Ladies and gentlemen, the sure thing does not exist.
So on Saturday, the faculty and staff will gather on campus voluntarily to hold an Open House for perspective students and their parents. We will talk curricula, course offerings, sports teams, clubs, activities, and offer tours of the campus. Refreshments will be served.
Teachers and staff volunteering their time on a weekend says a lot about their belief in what they are doing. We are committed educators who want our students to achieve, to excel, to go on to become productive members of society who succeed in their chosen fields.
We are also, in these strange times, salesmen. We are selling a school, an education. It is not enough that we work fifteen to eighteen hour days, that we support, encourage, and advocate for our students. On Saturday at 11:00 AM, we will try to sell ourselves to the world. These are strange days, indeed.