Willowdale Christian School principal Justin De Moor says it is important to engage families and see them as the school’s best promoters.
He says for growth in a difficult time for Christian schools, engaging parents and giving them lots of information about the exciting things going on encourages them to share with their friends about what their children are doing.
Schools need to share constant updates celebrating successes within the community so parents can pass that on to others, he notes.
“If kids love school that is going to go a long way with the parents,” he says.
A successful way of fostering word-of-mouth buzz within families was through a change in the school’s church ambassador program.
When De Moor started at the North York elementary school three years ago, the church ambassador program was done on a volunteer basis, with a couple people responding to a call for volunteers in the newsletter.
With more than 30 churches represented in the student population, De Moor took a more proactive approach to the church ambassador program and approached people going to each church to ask if they would be an ambassador.
He says when recruiting people it helped to frame it as the school needing people who are committed to the school community to take on the responsibility and share about the school with the people they know.
There is now an ambassador in each represented church, equipped with brochures and event flyers. More people have been inquiring about the school as a result.
“I’m confident that if I can get them in the door a few times that they will see the strength of what happens here,” says De Moor, noting this can be as simple as inviting them to the school for a worship time.
“The more connected people are the more likely that they are to come,” he adds.
Willowdale had two new students this year out of a total 130. De Moor says they hoped more students would come, but there are several families are on the bench saying they may enrol mid-year.
There are several factors that may be contributing to lower numbers in the kindergarten area, he says. More public schools are moving towards the all-day, every day kindergarten programs the province is rolling out, which could be affecting new enrolments, though Willowdale has offered the option for many years.
Convenience could be another reason for holding back, with some families indicating they would like to move closer to the school before enrolling. There is also a Christian day care that is now offering kindergarten, so for parents with children in the day care and kindergarten they may like only having one place to take their children.
In addition to fostering the word-of-mouth buzz, Willowdale has made some bussing changes to accommodate families. The school has two mini-buses, one from Richmond Hill in the north and for the first time a route from the Young and Lawrence area in the south. There is also a new shuttle bus running between Willowdale and Toronto District Christian High School.
De Moor says the school has had a 99 per cent retention rate for the last two years, with the two leaving students planning to go to another school to prepare for their high school.
“I think that’s a huge tribute to the teachers here at the school and really to the whole staff,” he says.
De Moor notes that discussions around enrolment seem to be the most common measuring stick for success in a school, which isn’t fair. He says there are a lot of good schools that aren’t growing, and just because you are growing doesn’t necessarily equate to being a good school.
“Just because we’re up a couple students doesn’t necessarily mean that we are being successful in all the ways we need to be,” he says, noting if the school had a couple less students the value it offers wouldn’t be any different.
“The perception of people is you are growing if you’re good and you shrink if you’re not, and I just think that is not always a helpful way of looking at things,” he says.