Senior Director of Central Operations at STRIVE Prep
Finding Success in Recruitment and Retention
This week Jean Lo Nguyenloc, Senior Director of Central Operations at STRIVE Prep, joins the podcast to describe the enrollment efforts at STRIVE Prep, including specific steps they have taken to enhance their strategy and emerge as a leading choice for students and families.
Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.
The ChangeAgents in K-12 podcast is presented by SchoolMint. SchoolMint is a pre-K to 12 education technology company, providing strategic enrollment management solutions and positive classroom support to schools across the U.S. See for yourself how we're working with educators to create bright, sustainable futures at Schoolmint.com.
Welcome to the ChangeAgents in K-12 podcast. Join our host, Dr. Chris Balow, Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint, as we dive into thought-provoking in-depth conversations with top educational leaders. Our goal? The advancement of education and improved outcomes for all students. Listen in, be inspired, and ask yourself, are you ready to be a change agent?
Welcome to the podcast ChangeAgents in K-12. This is Dr. Chris, Balow your host for the podcast today. It's our pleasure to have Jean lo Nguyenloc, who is the senior director of central operations at Strive Prep. This is a network of 10 public charter schools throughout the Denver Colorado area. In this role, Ms. Lo is responsible for network wide events and operations, including senior signing day, graduation, procurement, and student recruitment and enrollment. Ms. Lo holds a bachelor of science in actuarial science from university of Illinois, champagne, Urbana. Uh, so she's a numbers person. Definitely. Um, her first school operations role was with Achievement First in Hartford, Connecticut. And in 2014, she joined Strive Prep as founding director of school based operations at one of the schools. And later joined the central office as director of campus operations coaching and supporting the operations of teams throughout the, the network of schools. So welcome Jean lo Nguyenloc. All right.
All right. Well, let's dig in here. First of all. Um, I know a little bit about, uh, strive prep because in a former life, I actually did some work in your district, uh, for a software company, a different one. Um, but tell us about, uh, your charter network.
Absolutely strive. Prep has one elementary, seven middle schools and two high schools. So 10 in total are located all throughout the city of Denver, in different regions of the city. Over 80% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. And many of them speak English as a second language strive. Prep is just a place of possibility. Um, it's a place where students can come to become the person they want to be and be welcomed and celebrated for the things that make them special. We challenge our students, support our students and love our students during and throughout their time in our schools and support them throughout their future careers.
Yeah, thanks. Um, in Denver, we've seen several years of declining enrollment with the pandemic recently further exacerbating. This Denver's housing market has just continued to rise in costs with rent prices being literally through the roof. And there continues to be more open seats at schools. Then there are school age children in Denver since the economic crisis of 2008 with birth rates declining nationwide, and 2008 born children would have been 12 or 13 years old by now. That's right in the middle school years. This year, we've seen the number of families who would normally apply during their non transitioning grades, which at strive prep would be rising first through fifth graders, seventh, eighth, 10th, 11th, and 12th be significantly less than normal. My hypothesis there is that with this year, being anywhere from virtual to hybrid to in-person learning students did not get to experience this year at their other schools and generally want to stay and give their school another year. And feedback that we've heard from parents guardians with entering kindergartners is that many of them are waiting for confirmation that the fall will be fully in person before deciding to apply geographically. Our Northwest Denver region of schools have been hit the hardest with enrollment challenges. Um, next would be our Southwest Denver region and our Montbello neighborhood. And then our green valley ranch area of the five Northeast Denver region is where housing is both generally more available and more reasonably priced as compared to any other part of the city. Um, so they're doing pretty well. There, we are currently in round two of school choice, um, which is the first come first serve period. And if we have an opening, we can accept the student right away. Um, and if we do not have room, then they're next in line on the waiting list. And despite the pandemic and economic challenges, our team has just really rallied together. And we were able to finish the first round of school choice full with several wait-lists at half of our schools, and then our currently either even, or trending above this point last year at all of our other schools.
Wow. That's super interesting. So, um, then I, I I'm gleaning from this, that Denver public schools may be experiencing a decline while your charter network is maintaining or maybe even growing a little bit.
I think that a lot of it is just laying out all of the options and opportunities that we offer to their students and allowing the families to have choice. And I think one of the things that's really important to us as being very transparent with our families about what we offer and what we don't offer. There have been a lot of families that have asked us for specific Spanish instruction in Spanish courses. And some of our schools currently don't offer that, but we will tell them about the other things that we do offer. Um, we've also expanded a lot of our programs from certain schools that have been very successful, such as our speech and debate program at our high schools. We had, um, five students who are national received national awards, um, for their speech and debate excellence. And so we are working on bringing speech and debate and, um, different types of verbal assessments and presentations to all of our schools to allow more school, more of our students to have those opportunities across our schools. And I think it's also just really important to give them an opportunity to see a day in the life of our students. So we put together some instructional videos and showed, you know, classrooms and hallway transitions and allowed them to experience what some of our athletics and activities look like to see what the holistic picture of the school environment is within and outside of that.
Awesome. You know, and I've done quite a bit of research on, you know, families, educational choice decision-making factors, and, uh, several of them are around innovative special programs. And it sounds like you've definitely hit that another student performance that parents look for schools that, that are fairly high performing and also school climates, positive school climates. Could, could you speak to that?
Absolutely. We, um, frequently survey our families and students just to get a sense of how things are going and what their feedback is. Um, a lot of times this is worked into conferences. So when they meet about report cards multiple times a year, it's a great opportunity to connect with our current families and see what they're happy about, what they're hoping could change and really get that firsthand information on the climate and temperature of how things are going across all of our schools.
So you really treat a customer or a parent, a family as a valued customer, like gold. It sounds like, and just really value their input. And I think when people feel involved, they're more likely to stay.
And, um, just talk to their friends about it. So we know that word of mouth is so powerful. And when our families have really positive experiences with our schools, with things like their teachers going above and beyond for their children, they will tell their friends, they will tell their relatives, their neighbors, their church, going community about the school nearby. Um, and sometimes it's just the word of mouth. That's more powerful than any billboard or advertisement that they might see while those items add to the brand awareness. When they hear about it firsthand from someone who they know the child, who's been a member of our school community and they know the parent and their involvement, that is the difference maker.
Well you're absolutely right. And, and I read a research article recently that absolutely said that that parents will take the word of a friend or relative over state test scores. If they're looking at school in the, in the school scoring low, that'll be overridden by a really positive recommendation of a family or friend. That's like the number one factor and definitely you guys are hitting it out of the park there. So how have you structured your staffing model regarding student recruitment and enrollment?
Well, Chris, the key people in our staffing start with our schools. So our principals and assistant principals, the office manager, and then at some of our schools, there's also an operations coordinator. Principals are setting the tone and the strategy around enrollment for their schools, setting their enrollment targets and rallying their staff for these initiatives. So many times the families want to meet the sixth grade teachers or the ninth grade teachers. And they want to see the kindergarten classroom in action, where we've seen a lot of success is where this is an all hands on deck effort across the staff of a school. And when making a phone call to a family, if that family indicates that, for example, the child has a real interest in talent in art, then we will follow up and directly loop in the art teacher and any art club representatives to have a video call showcase some art projects and get them excited about that school while getting to know the person who would be their future art teacher, and then our office managers are the face of the school. They're often the first person that our families interact with and set those first impressions. Our office managers are resourceful and extremely well versed in their schools, talking points and identities as well as knowledgeable about all of the upcoming events and opportunities for the family to have opportunities to get to know the school better. Um, our office managers are also a really close knit team. So they, even though they all work at our 10 different schools, they help one another. So if they contact somebody, who's now moved to another part of the Denver Metro area, we will see the office manager tag comments in our shared list, spreadsheet tracker to the other office manager near where that family moves so they can receive a follow-up and this mindset of a win for any strive prep school is a win for all of us is really key to that. And then at our network central office, we've hired our first ever full-time employee working on enrollment. This school year, it's a manager of enrollment whose role is dedicated to supporting and furthering the enrollment efforts at all of our schools while strategically developing community partnerships and feeder school relationships. It worked out really beautifully that our manager of enrollment was also an alumni of our network and part of our very first founding class as a sixth grader way back one 15 years. So she has now come back to work at strive prep and truly understands the perspective of our parents in thinking back to her own mom, when her mom was choosing middle school for her and our students, when she was recruited as a fifth grader, when our founder and now CEO knocked on her door. And we have an amazing team with our director of communication, who always knows the right approaches for how to communicate with families, coordinating graphic design and creating out of home advertisements and all of our mailing campaigns. And then our fantastic director of data who always knows the right strategies to focus on and where additional attention would be helpful. So it's truly a cross-functional team that works together on a weekly basis to move the work forward across our network. And then finally, this year we brought on a new role called the new family ambassador. This is a paid part-time up to 20 hours per week position, where they are supporting our manager of enrollment with follow-ups with prospective families and additional community outreach. Um, our ambassadors are bilingual and Spanish and also have ties to our schools with many of them having a child niece or nephew as a current or prior strive prep scholar. And we're actually currently looking to expand our ambassador program to have regional teams of ambassadors that could help one another in each region of our city, as well as bringing on ambassadors who speak our other, um, top languages, such as Vietnamese and Arabic.
Oh my gosh. I am just blown away. So impressive that the comprehensive nature of your tactics and strategies, and, um, while I'm assuming you have many other charters coming to you to learn from the way you guys do things.
We have some colleagues and friends and we're friendly competitors where we connect with one another. Um, during round one, it was really hard for all of us. So we had several email chains with one another and calls, um, just to connect and see how we're experiencing things and what we're doing to overcome some of the challenges with the pandemic. Um, and then we're also, um, prior attendees of events that the charter school growth fund has held where they've previously held convenings in person this year virtually where different charter leaders regarding enrollment and recruitment marketing have gotten together to talk and brainstorm and share best practices with one another. Um, and there's an ongoing communication channel as well as a large amount of resources available for all of us. So a lot of best practice sharing within all of the different charter networks. And we truly feel like this is a whole team, we're all in it together. And we're all facing a lot of the same kind of challenges.
Well, I think you're going to be hearing from people across the country when they listened to this podcast where they can tap in, you know, the at SchoolMint, we, we have a very comprehensive strategic enrollment management system that we work with, uh, with schools and districts on, and you're, you're hitting all the points. And what's so interesting to me is that you've allocated significant resources to, to recruiting and retaining students and customer service and marketing, and even hiring specific to those roles. But in the long run, when you think about we're going to increase enrollment and you've got enrollment targets, you're actually going to come out ahead from a financial standpoint. So it's a win-win for everybody.
It definitely is. And it's such a competitive environment. There are just so many schools sending information to these families. Um, one of the unique things that I found about Denver is that they provide the schools with the transitioning students that are known and all of their contact information. So because of that, everyone, all of these schools have the same information. It's just a matter of how we use it. So we have been doing a lot of phone calls and just calling and following up. And then when families also receive follow-up text messages and emails, they start thinking about the school a little bit more and being able to experience it virtually. But we know that all of the other schools out there have the same contact information. It's just a matter of how we're going to make the most of it and really engage with those families and make meaningful outreach instead of more of just checking boxes and having it be let's make all the phone calls, but having them be, take some more time and have them be more quality phone calls where some of the conversations last 20 to 30 minutes among others. So you never know.
This year, we've really rooted everything in, why do families choose strive prep, and really bringing it back to what makes our school special? What makes it a place where they want to trust their baby and understanding that, um, from the parent's perspective in everything that we do to train our staff and our schools for supporting this initiative, we previously Nively viewed student recruitment as a seasonal project and have been constantly working to shift that culture across our network to ensure that this is a truly year-round workflow. We've held two training and collaborative working sessions during principal professional developments, one in the fall and one in the spring while also mirroring that with training for the operations teams that compliments the principal training, and the principals also returned, uh, excuse me, received a turnkey training to give to staff during a staff meeting in the winter. And then additional support was also spread out with our COO, our manager of enrollment and I each being responsible for supporting a portfolio of schools to meet with them on a regular cadence about enrollment. So for some of our schools, this is a weekly check-in and for others bi-weekly and others are monthly, just depends on the needs of the school. We've really been differentiating the support and ensuring that every school's personality and characteristics can shine through in their enrollment messaging. And we've spent a large part of that first training session just to finding what makes their school special, what is the wow factor and how to articulate that to interested families in a way that's both concise, um, and really showcases what the school has to offer. We've also been constantly sharing best practices within our weekly email communications to showcase the incredible and innovative work that has been happening across our strive prep schools and encourage them to steal ideas from one another. Um, there's a lot of competitiveness that happens even within our network and everyone wants to be the first one to get to a hundred percent of their call completion, a hundred percent of their sibling, um, uh, applications. And so just getting that competitive spirit going, one of our schools took the initiative to make sure their entire admin team was well versed in how to navigate the Denver public schools, great schools guide, which is kind of a brochure that walks through a summary of every school. And then the school finder tool, which was an online way for them to search filter for only schools that offer before and aftercare only schools that offer uniforms or transportation,
As well as the rest of the SchoolMint application itself. Um, and so the principal reached out to the manager of enrollment, asking her to conduct a training for their full admin team on all of these components. So no matter who was there at the front office at that time, or if the office manager was helping someone else out that any of them could step in and help families walk through the entire process with SchoolMint and the application on the spot.
Awesome. And so really, you know, you've engaged in ongoing deep systemic professional development for all of your employees, you know, from the office managers, to the teachers, to the leaders. Um, that's, that's amazing a huge undertaking Jean and, and kudos to you and the team. And, and what's interesting too, is you you've established targets for things even like how many parent phone calls you made. Um, I worked for a, an organization and we have a sales department and that's what they do. It's about making, making sure you're connecting and, and keeping track of the data.
Fantastic. So, you know, moving past sort of the PD and training with staff, tell us about some of the best practices that have taken place at strive to recruit prospective students and engage, uh, newly accepted students.
Yeah, absolutely. So I think the enrollment and zones have made it really interesting because we have the awareness of who is transitioning in ECE for fifth and eighth grades. So with this, we took this as a huge opportunity to increase our phone call volume because we couldn't do traditional in-person events or meet and greets. So we enlisted the help of current staff temp staff that we brought on board seasonally and those ambassadors to just call, call, call, and then following up with invitations to virtual open houses, sending them postcards in the mail, blasting out emails and text message campaigns as well as flooding people's Facebook feeds Google advertisements, and even next door this year with digital ads. So just getting the brand out there as much as possible and creating those multiple touch points with strive prep.
Our school is held at a minimum six different virtual events for prospective students. One of our schools went well above and beyond this and held two open houses per week, as well as once a month on the weekends, to be able to offer opportunities for families with different work schedules, to engage with the school. Some of our schools held drive-through food drives and vaccine to establish themselves as more than just a school, but rather a hub for the entire community and to provide resources such as the libraries, bookmobiles and other community opportunities for them to get involved. And we learned that many of the families just didn't know that this building over here down the street from them was a school until they drove to the campus and realize how conveniently located it was. So it's really taught us that we need to demonstrate how much the school can be more than just a school and can really bring people together no matter who it is, and always be open to everyone. And when we invited all of our feeder elementary schools to come to these events, then we're branching out further into the community to people who we didn't know yet. I think that some of the initiatives that occurred virtually during the pandemic will stick around in the future, just because of how convenient some of these opportunities have been for families to connect with the zoom with zoom meetings or Facebook lives and meet the school leaders and the school staff with regards to the engagement of newly accepted students. Um, each family was notified in the days leading up to spring break of their round one school choice results directly from the district school choice office. And then we immediately sent out a mailer with a welcome letter from the principal, a certificate of congratulations, school magnets, um, and just made it feel very official. And then the week after spring break, welcome calls were made to all families by the school staff, because that's who they want to hear from their future teachers, their future principals to just express the excitement of their acceptance. And, uh, right now outdoor and drive through welcome events are in the works to continue to engage with families at least once a month until the first day of school we also ordered, uh, and distributed welcome backpacks filled with strive, prep, branded toys, and little giveaways for kids that were delivered to their current school. So it was both a great way to connect with those feeder schools, office managers, and bring them a really nice surprise for their current students, as well as the way for those future strive prep students to tell their friends how cool their new school is.
And I think that's what we've realized. We really had to think outside of the box and not be tied to anything that we were doing, just because they were the way things were always done, because we realized we needed to be different and really stand out in order to make a difference and be able to maintain and, or exceed our goals from year over.
Year. And here you are 15 years in and the brand and reputation that you've developed in the Denver area is, is of excellence. And so you're, you're, you're not resting on your laurels. You're just continuing, uh, to, to set yourself apart and be creative things like doing digital ads and Facebook I'm, I'm, I'm sure not many schools across the country are doing that. So it's fantastic. So, um, in preparation for this, you shared with me some, a couple of things, and I'd love you to tell the audience about it. Tell us about the parent experience journey map and the red carpet customer service, um, that I find really, really intriguing.
Sure. Um, yeah, in the fall of 2019, we dedicated some of our student recruitment budget specifically to bringing in an enrollment consultant and having a secret shopper experience completed. So this is where somebody comes in and pretends to be an interested parent, but really is taking notes the whole time about their experience. And then they give us a very detailed report about what they noticed, what they saw and some recommendations on how we can improve in the future. And this person was Nick Leroy, the chief enrollment officer now at SchoolMint. And Nick helped us identify some of the components of our process from the perspective parents point of view, that we just had a complete blind spot to wow, for example, we weren't even collecting names and contact information for the families that express interest in our schools. And so these were people who took the time to come in in person or call us, and then we had no way to follow up with them. So it was a really big missed opportunity. And we never would have realized that until much later on, if it weren't for Nick to just name that for us and say, Hey, there was no rating on the follow up portion of the secret shopper experience, because nobody asked me for my name and contact information, big wake up call for us. So, um, that made a really big difference. And we've continued to work with Nick with, um, regular consulting phone calls, um, on a bi-weekly basis. So we've been meeting throughout, um, this entire time ever since secret shopper, just to connect with him and have someone from an outsider's point of view, be able to help give us advice on what we're doing and what we might be able to tweak or change and do better and really help push us. We don't have a subject matter expert. I feel like I've been learning a lot of this as we go and through the great resources that are out there from the conferences that we've attended and from other ideas that we've seen, but having someone who's well versed in it and being able to coach us on a regular basis has been a real difference maker.
Yeah, I think so. And, uh, interrupt you here. Sorry. Um, you know, I've talked to a lot of superintendents of large districts and others across the country and, and they understand all these concepts about the strategies involved in, in attracting and retaining students, but they, they don't have all the expertise in all these different areas. And so I think having as you articulated so well, an outside view and someone with content expertise to support their efforts is huge.
And Nick brings both the corporate mindset from his previous pharmaceutical marketing work and the school-based mindset. And he's worked with all of these different types of schools from private to Catholic, to charter, to traditional public schools. And so, um, he gave us a lot of different ideas on ways that we could adapt what we were doing to make improvements. And we made a lot of 1% changes and increases in different areas. And those add up very quickly. And we definitely noticed it.
Exactly. And everything that we do, every event that we go to or expo that we attend, it's always worth it. If we just have one good conversation out of that entire event. And oftentimes we get more and it's just a huge opportunity for us. So we're really embodying the mindset across the entire network of every single call counts. Every single person matters. Every single interaction could potentially be a student who's with us from K through 12, which is incredible.
Exactly. And I talk about lifetime student value. So you think about per pupil funding for, uh, for one year, but if you have that student for, for 13 years, that's actually in the average per pupil funding, $168,000 for one student.
And it makes such a big difference for that child and their family too. We think about the opportunities that they have at strive prep and how we just want to let them know what is out there and what they could possibly do with a strive prep education. And that's why when we have some of the larger scale events like our senior signing day event, we have broadcasted that now because it's been virtual. Um, this will be the second virtual senior signing day. And we want our parents of these five-year-olds coming to kindergarten to see the joy and the celebration of their culmination of their entire K through 12 education. And what they're announcing out to the world that they're going to be doing this fall. So really excited.
Yeah. This is something that, um, was adapted from an already existing red carpet service at one of our schools that included just, uh, expectations on how to answer phones, how they should be communicating on the school's walkie talkies when to contact the principal. Um, and we adjusted that and made it enrollment focused to the point where our expectation has been, we're going to return any missed calls that didn't leave us a voicemail, just to make sure it wasn't somebody who the call cut off or just maybe felt shy when they heard our recording. And didn't leave a message. We want to make every effort to get in touch with that family. We track every communication with really detailed notes to make sure that any follow-ups that need to be made are made and that any commitments to those followups are adhered to within the timeframe that we're telling that family. So being really diligent about follow-ups and holding through it has never been the expectation that the person answering the phone would have all the answers to everything that a family might ask. But it's critical for that person to take detailed notes, be able to find out the answer or find the right person who could help that family and then make sure that they follow up. And we've just centered all of this around this customer first. And in this case, parents first mindset with that power of the word of mouth, because we know that families talk. We know that they talk to other people about our schools and about positive and negative experiences that they have with customer service in general. And we want to make sure that any interaction they have with any strive prep staff member is always positive and always leaves them wanting to talk to others about strive prep. And then we also worked with Nick to establish this parent experience journey map in this parent's first centered mindset, where our map that we made with him goes from October to October. So in preparation for round one, starting the first October and what the parent would start to see, for example, advertisements, mailings, they would start to hear information from the school. And later on that parent's emotional experience with the joy of their child, seeing the celebratory communications, the joy of them receiving this backpack unexpectedly at their current school. In this process, we also realized we had a big gap in June and July, and never realized that until putting it together month by month, June and July is also when a lot of the attrition occurs and we lose people moving or other districts, or they, you know, get, uh, into another school. They were on a wait list for, so as a result, we're now doubling down on our June and July work to ensure that the engagement continues between the time of acceptance through and past the first day of school into the fall. When we have our official October count of the number of students enrolled. And then by then, we're going to repeat the parent experience journey map for starting another year of it, and just start, um, bringing in some more advertisements. And we're also realizing that we need to do more, to start engaging them years in advance. So for our middle schools, that means starting to talk to them in third and fourth grade, inviting them to soccer games, to science fairs, to theater performances in our high schools, starting to talk to sixth and seventh graders. And for our elementary school meeting daycares, when they're two and a half, three years old to talk to them about elementary school choices. So, um, this has really made us think about everything more holistically, and then also recognize that what we were doing in a more seasonal feel needs to be expanded and needs to be thought of as a year round effort and work flow throughout the entire year to be successful.
Sure. Wow, fantastic. Jean, um, you have shared such great information and I know that our school and district leaders across the country, you're going to learn so much from you and the team at strive prep. Um, and I have learned a lot as well. It it's just so impressive. So, um, we've come to the end of our time. And so before I let you go, you have to participate in our game, this or that, right? Tell me which one you prefer.
Oh, that's a good one. I am an extrovert who prefers small gatherings just because I get to know people better. I don't mind a big party, but I, if given the choice, I would pick the smaller gathering.
The book is always better than any adaptation of a book. Um, I actually get through a lot of audio books just because, um, with my role, I'm often driving to different parts of the city and will enjoy my audio books in between my school visits.
Thank you for listening to the ChangeAgents in K-12 podcast brought to you by SchoolMint. Find us on all major podcast platforms and make sure to subscribe, so you never miss a show. Remember our brightest years are still ahead. See you next time.