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Growing and Sustaining Enrollment

High retention always precedes growth. Marketing expands your bandwidth, but only leadership expands enrollment.Because the California-Nevada-Hawaii District of the LCMS has been a leader in training admissions professionals, I am often asked to comment on the effectiveness of the work they do. Do they help a school increase enrollment, and maintain it? It depends. If a school has a high retention rate, an admissions professional will help it grow. If you give them a compelling story to tell, they will tell it. But if you have trouble keeping students, do not expect any form of marketing to correct that problem. High retention always precedes growth. Marketing expands your bandwidth, but only leadership expands enrollment.

This was true when I trained the first admissions professionals in the CNH district in 2005-2006, and it remains true today. But I made an error naming the first training we offered to a national audience, the National Admissions Counselors Conference. The topic was admissions, but the target audience included principals and lay leaders. We always stressed the importance of retention — it was the first step in our marketing plan template — and we still do today. However, if the school head is not in the room, an admissions professional’s excitement about possibilities is often sobered by reality. Most admissions professionals have little or no influence on issues concerning retention.

Through my work with the National Admissions Counselors Conference, and Funding Academies I and II, I have had contact with hundreds of schools and their leaders. Marketing in Lutheran schools has improved, and we owe much of this improvement to the dedication, creativity, and hard work of our admissions professionals. Unfortunately, marketing has not, and will not, solve enrollment problems in Lutheran schools. Leadership is the problem. Low enrollment is the result. I’ve seen schools grow with immature leadership. But I have never seen a school sustain full enrollment, over many years, with poor leadership, at any level of the school or parish. Getting to full enrollment is easy compared to maintaining it.

You can grow without a clear, focused, and compelling vision and mission, but you cannot sustain full enrollment without one. You can grow without fully knowing what makes a school great, but you cannot sustain full enrollment if you have significant information gaps. You can grow with fuzzy or lazy thinking, but you cannot sustain full enrollment without thoughtful, informed, and hard working leaders continuously thinking smartly.

You can grow without a clear, focused and compelling vision and mission, but you cannot sustain full enrollment without one. You can grow without a fully formed educational philosophy and plan, but you cannot sustain full enrollment if the staff makes decisions and takes actions that are consistently inconsistent. Families leave schools that act that way. You can grow with new facilities, alliances, technical novelties, or other unauthentic changes, but you cannot sustain full enrollment without a professional community of teachers and staff that fully embrace their role in fulfilling the mission of the school. You can grow with short sighted and manipulative financial strategies, but you cannot sustain full enrollment without banking more than you spend. There are lots of ways to manipulate growth, but you cannot sustain full enrollment with any strategy that you cannot afford to repeat. Once you start fudging the numbers, it is really hard to stop. You can grow with platitudes, but cannot sustain full enrollment if you cannot deliver on the promise. At some point, no matter how much you care, you must meet the expectations you created.

Is the solution elusive?

The above list is well known, and has been for years. The solutions, however, seem elusive for too many Lutheran schools. Why is that? I have heard a lot of reasons for losing enrollment. All of them have one thing in common. The school has little or no control over their lack of enrollment. They are stuck in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. If your parish, and its community, is out of resources, you are in trouble.

However, if you have both intellectual and capital resources, and you have the will to succeed, you have hope. Although our theology proclaims that our good works are worthless before God, and that we totally depend on his grace and mercy for our spiritual success (our faith makes us holy), Lutherans also understand that success in God’s temporal world (loving one’s neighbor) requires reason and hard work.

I am suggesting that understanding and acting on the Lutheran doctrines of the two kingdoms and vocation is a good place to start when revitalizing a school. I am suggesting that the purpose of schools is so fundamentally different than the purpose of churches, we must be governed differently, and organize differently, than a parish church. I think our lay leaders have been right. Schools are more like businesses than ministry. Schools are ministries, and they are private, but they serve a public purpose in a public community.

Schools are in ministry, but they are not in word and sacrament ministry. Churches are. Schools are staffed by ministers serving the public, but they do not hold the office of the public ministry. Pastors do. Other than an IRS deduction, educators have more in common with lay people, than they do with pastors.

Until we learn how to govern and lead, Lutheran schools will struggle with enrollment.There are many other significant differences between the ministry of churches and the ministry of schools. For example, churches are accountable to an ecclesiastical authority, the synod. Schools are accountable to the state. Clergy are approved by synod. Educators must have a state license. Church income comes from donations. School income comes from the sale of professional services.

I am suggesting that the only way to build a sustainable school in the 21st Century is to govern Lutheran schools with the same principles and style that govern other private schools. They do not use a council model and the private school community has concerns with policy-based governance as well. Until we learn how to govern and lead, Lutheran schools will struggle with enrollment.

Joel Koerschen is the District Education Executive for the California-Nevada-Hawaii District of the LCMS.

Photos © iStock/Kim Gunkel, Bart Coenders, Kristian Sekulic.

 

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