Executive Summary

School superintendents across the state of Minnesota were surveyed to obtain their perspectives on enrollment practices and processes in their schools and districts. Understanding enrollment trends has increasingly become a highly strategic activity for school and district leaders due to the impacts of student mobility and attrition.

In Minnesota, an increase in K-12 public school enrollment of over 4% during the past 10 years has resulted in 865,000 students. Open enrollment has grown steadily since its inception in 1988, but especially so over the past decade. At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, according to statistics compiled by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), more than 83,000 students, 9% of the state’s students, were enrolled in districts outside their own – nearly doubling the number from 10 years earlier. About half of those students were in districts located in rural areas outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area. This indicates that many districts are likely having serious negative economic impacts from declining enrollment, while other districts are experiencing increasing state aid dollars. Adding to these impacts for public K-12 districts, 63,000 students attended physical charter schools and 7,500 students enrolled in virtual charter schools based on 2019-20 MDE data. For example, the states’ largest district, Anoka- Hennepin lost 11% of their students to charter schools or open enrollment.

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The results of this survey indicate that a fairly serious accessibility and equity problem may be inherent in the enrollment processes of schools in Minnesota. Of the respondents, 65% of the districts surveyed offered transfer options for students and 35% of those districts also had speciality program options for students. An important finding was that 55% of respondents indicated significant percentages of their families were uninformed or under informed about enrollment processes and requirements. Therefore, program knowledge and registration processes are not universally known amongst families. Efforts should be made to ensure all families are well informed about their in-district options in order to increase the likelihood that guardians can find a program to meet their child’s needs and remain in the district.

Of those schools and districts with transfer and program options, 73% are using a lottery to place students and only a single respondent indicated the use of a digital platform to ensure application of weighted priorities. Even still, only 20% use a technology platform to run their lotteries. This can lead to errors and introduce biases in placements. 47% of respondents indicated they relied on printed guides about programmatic offerings and enrollment procedures, which can lead to a lack of access for some families and greatly increased costs for districts. On a positive note, the results indicated that universal registration forms are widely used. Finally, the results highlighted that a significant percentage of schools and districts have enrollment processes that are negatively impacting the financial stability of these entities such as spending excess funds on extra staff, inordinate amounts of staff time spent on enrollment related tasks, document printing and storage costs, and finally limitations in effectively balancing enrollment numbers across schools due to a lack of real-time visibility.

Introduction

The process of student enrollment in today’s K-12 educational environment is more complex than ever before and has placed extant stresses on our schools and districts. The area of student enrollment in modern times goes well beyond simply registering or enrolling a student in school and now includes a number of important aspects such as marketing, outreach, recruitment, lotteries, special school choice, special programs, transfers, family involvement, and customer service. In many respects, today’s forward-looking district leaders manage student enrollment as a highly strategic endeavor that can impact nearly all domains of the educational system, including student achievement, student engagement, access, equity, financial stability and overall administrative efficiency. In this report we will review several of these domains, the impacts on schools, and how technology is helping school leaders advance age-old practices to improve resource allocation and include families in the student enrollment process from kindergarten to graduation.

Background

In the United States’ K-12 education system children have attended their neighborhood school through what has been referred to as a “residence-based school assignment system.” Within the last 30 years, however, often based on desires to change residential sorting by race and income, there has been a proliferation of school choice options which has dramatically changed the relationship between where a student lives and where they go to school. The link between where a child lived and where a child attended school has greatly loosened during this time as the number of public choice options (i.e., magnets), and particularly charter schools, have provided alternatives to attending one’s zoned school (Mickelson, Bottia, and Southworth 2008). Additionally, there are what are referred to as ‘‘soft’’ forms of school choice such as inter- and intradistrict transfer, ability-based (e.g., Gifted and Talented) and school voucher programs that have contributed to ramifying housing and educational markets (Brunner, Cho, and Reback 2012; Loeb, Valant, and Kasman 2011). A recent study by Snyder, de Brey, and Dillow (2019) found that nearly 30% of families now enroll their children in a school other than their assigned neighborhood school. Additionally, the percentage of students moving out of their neighborhood schools is much greater in urban areas (Grady and Bielick 2010).

The greatest drivers upon how student enrollment is changing today are open enrollment, general school choice, and virtual school options that are increasingly available to families. In general, we can say that these drivers have changed the K-12 education landscape into a “marketplace” which has made student recruitment and retention more challenging. Some of the main impacts upon this marketplace as outlined by LeRoy (2020) include:

  • Demographic changes
    • Lowest birth rate in over 30 years
    • Families are having fewer children
    • Increased competition – charter school growth
    • Increase in voucher money
    • Population shifts away from urban and rural areas
  • Attitudinal changes
    • Millennial generation
    • Increased secularization and turning away from organized religion
  • Economic changes
    • The squeeze of the millennial generation with student loan debt, college costs, and retirement
  • Marketing changes
    • Traditional marketing sources producing less results
    • Rise of social media and the need to communicate across many different channels (i.e., mobile-optimized website, Twitter, Facebook) to reach, engage and satisfy student families
    • Word of mouth remains the biggest driver
    • Families require a high degree of personalization in outreach to result in enrollment

Given these factors, a paradigm shift is needed in education as it relates to the recruitment, enrollment, and retention of students. There is a prevailing sentiment among many educational leaders that students “belong” to their specific school or district. The fact is that families have a variety of choices today (e.g., neighboring districts, charter schools, private schools, homeschooling and virtual schools) and the notion that some entity is “stealing” students simply is not accurate; another entity is simply offering something that is more appealing to families than what is being offered in their neighborhood school or resident district.

The enrollment process is no longer considered a singular act but is a complex “family journey” with multiple data points being considered in the decision-making process. Nick LeRoy (2020) conceptualizes the enrollment journey that school leaders must address to include three broad domains of action and recommends the following:

  1. Educate – Control the narrative of your district or school by using your website to tell your story in such a way as to motivate further examination. This is a process of building “brand awareness” by sharing the highlights, accolades, and current events happening in your district or school. There are a variety of sources for school information (e.g., Niche, Great Schools) and the information available is often staid and inaccurate. Implementing a website dedicated to informing families of all of their options provides districts complete control of their narratives and a platform to attract family interest. This is really about implementing the basics of marketing and “wowing” families. The notion of marketing in education may be abhorrent to some, but it is undeniably important today.
  2. Engage – After families have been educated and choose to investigate your district or school, the most important thing is to establish a positive personal relationship and bond. Trust is the key and this can be established by a dynamic school tour that tells the story of an engaging day in the life of a student. Families want to be assured that their children will be safe, happy, and receive a quality education with individualized support.
  3. Enroll – The final step is getting families to finalize their decision to enroll in your district or school. Keep the lines of communication open and remind parents of the reasons why they initially liked your school. Have “family ambassadors” available that will contact the prospective family and share why they love your school. Don’t be shy, you are selling your district and school.

With the current competitive nature of student enrollment and retention, districts and schools need to make marketing an endeavor of senior leadership. Some educational entities even hire enrollment marketing professionals to lead districts or schools in aligning efforts to make sure everyone is focused on the target of stabilizing enrollment. This can include getting teachers, current parents, or even the students themselves involved. A marketing professional can lead a school-wide effort to mobilize every aspect of your community to ensure that you will be able to “find the next generation of students and families who will carry your school into the future” (LeRoy, 2020).

Positive Impacts of a Robust Student Enrollment System

Having a comprehensive student enrollment process coupled with a well-designed and efficient technology platform can have important positive impacts on four broad areas for your organization.

  1. Customer Service – As described earlier in this paper, customer service is now a critical element of high-quality districts and schools. The needed shift is from viewing families as a basic commodity to a valued customer that should receive special personal attention and be treated with care and respect. Of course, customer service is evident in our personal interactions with families, as noted earlier, but it also is an important aspect of how they interact with the district’s website and student enrollment processes and systems. Some items that deserve consideration to improve customer service include:

    • Centralize enrollment activities with consistent deadlines and timelines
    • Replace outdated and inefficient paper enrollment system for an improved family experience
    • Employ intuitive software

    1. for families to navigate your online enrollment and registration system

    2. for families to seamlessly move between activities such as submitting school applications, transfer requests and completing their students’ registration and yearly forms

    3. with auto populated data to reduce redundancy for families and minimize data errors

    • Communicate with families using automated emails and text messaging to support and inform at each step of the enrollment and registration process
    • Implement a SchoolFinder® for prospective families to explore online detailed information about your district, schools, program options so they can determine the best fit schools for their students

  2. Accessibility and Equity – Many higher-risk and under informed families today lack the time, resources, and know-how to gather and assimilate all of the needed information about the educational opportunities and options for their children. Therefore, it is incumbent upon districts and schools to provide easily accessible, and in one’s native language, all school and program information in a timely manner. Equity for families in the enrollment process is threatened when they are unable to access the needed information and increases the likelihood of missed deadlines for applications. Additionally, districts and schools that run lotteries for limited-access schools or programs must ensure that these lotteries are run in a fair manner without bias and favoritism. Some methods to improve accessibility and equity include:

    • Utilize a variety of outreach methods for engaging with families: digital, personal outreach, partnering with community agencies or groups, door to door, advertising
    • Publish dates and timelines for applications, registrations and lotteries aligned across all schools to avoid confusion
    • Provide families with detailed information about your district and schools so they can choose the best option for their children
    • Consolidate detailed, consistent school information into one central online location that’s easily accessed
    • Have a unified and published set of protocols for enrollment, transfers, and withdrawals across all schools
    • Ensure that lotteries and timelines are adequately publicized
    • Ensure that lottery logics and protocols are fair and transparent
  3. Administration Efficiency – School districts and schools are always looking for ways to enhance their processes, improve accuracy, save time, and be more effective in decision-making. Enrollment processes in many districts are handled with paper and intensive hands-on labor from staff, which leads to inefficiencies and high propensity for inaccuracies. There are a number of ways in which schools can help reduce these inefficiencies:
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    • Implement an online application and enrollment software system to gain critical visibility into enrollment data and better manage the process from end to end:
    —–• Monitor in real-time the entire process of application, placement, registration and transfers
    • Access effective data reporting and analysis tools for all aspects of enrollment planning and decision making
    • Deliver effective and fair enrollment lotteries
    • Maintain waitlists easily
    • Guide families through the enrollment application process with a web friendly mobile experience and reduce the number of support calls to office staff
    • Keep families informed throughout the process with automated communications
    • Streamline enrollment verification with applicable document uploads
  4. Financial Stability – As noted earlier, open enrollment and other changes in the education marketplace has significantly impacted revenue for many districts and schools, making it very important for school districts to approach enrollment from a financial stability standpoint. Additionally, a large percentage of school districts and schools across the country have faced cuts to budgets and personnel. In fact, 29 states provided less overall state funding per student in recent years. In 19 states, local government funding per student fell, adding to the damage from state funding cuts. In states where local funding rose, those increases usually did not make up for cuts in state support. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost half of the nation’s 13,000 school districts may be forced to make the deepest cuts to education spending in a generation— slashing programs and laying off hundreds of thousands of administrators, teachers and other staff—to fend off financial collapse brought on by the coronavirus. There are ways that school districts can achieve greater efficiencies in their enrollment practices and processes to help offset lost revenue due to lower student enrollment and budget cuts, while concurrently providing better service to families by employing an end-to-end enrollment system and addressing student retention with an intent to keep students engaged from kindergarten through graduation.

Key Takeaways

  • Support your marketing efforts to attract new students, and the associated funding, by helping schools “tell their story” to prospective families

  • Support your marketing efforts to retain existing students by informing families of special program options and invest/develop programs that keep students engaged and motivated to stay

  • Employ technology to efficiently balance student placements across schools to maximize district or school resources

  • Reduce or eliminate the need for extra staff costs to manage enrollment paperwork such as receiving, data entry, data verification and validation, and preparing and shipping placement and year-round form packets

  • Reduce or eliminate the costs associated with printing school information flyers and enrollment packets

  • Improve your models for predicting general school enrollment and/or specific program enrollment demands so you can make cost effective decisions and investments

Survey Results

School superintendents from Minnesota school districts were surveyed in September and October of 2020 to gather their perspectives around student enrollment practices and procedures in their schools and districts. The survey categorized districts based on whether they allowed intra- or inter-district transfers (i.e., open enrollment, school to school) and whether they offered any special program options for students (i.e., magnet, dual language). The rationale is that district enrollment processes will be quite different based on these two major variables and the questions germane to each type of district. This resulted in four different types of schools or districts:

  1. Transfers = Yes | Program Options = Yes (30%)
  2. Transfers = Yes | Program Options = No (35%)
  3. Transfers = No | Program Options = Yes (14%)
  4. Transfers = No | Program Options = No (19%)

Many of the survey questions are common to all four types of districts/schools and these common results are summarized around the four main enrollment system impact areas for schools and districts:

  1. Customer Service
  2. Accessibility and Equity
  3. Administrative Efficiency
  4. Financial Stability

Customer Service

Question 1:
How much time and effort (i.e., forms, driving to location, waiting) does it take for families to initially enroll into your school or district?

2% of families were reported to have to spend a moderate amount of time and effort in the enrollment process in districts and schools across Minnesota. It is unacceptable that in this modern era, with easy and efficient digital tools widely available, that 4 out of 10 families would be burdened in completing these tasks. Although we did not break down the data by rural, suburban or urban, it can be assumed that families in rural areas would spend the greatest amount of time given some of the very large geographical distances involved.

Generally speaking the families that can least afford the time involved in enrollment processes will be typically underserved families, therefore resulting in disproportionate impacts. No principals reported that families would spend an “extensive” amount of time in these processes which is a very positive finding.

Question 2:
Can families initially enroll all of their students using an online form that consolidates the information making it simple and efficient for families to complete the process?

The survey results indicate that 39% of schools in Minnesota do not have the capabilities to allow families to enroll all of their children using online forms that consolidate information across children. In this situation, a large number of families are being asked to enter the same information multiple times; which is inefficient and fraught with the potential for errors in data collection.

Question 3:
Does your school rely primarily on printed guides about enrollment information and processes?

The survey results indicate that only 28% of schools are completely digital with enrollment and registration information, while nearly 70% of schools utilize both digital and printed resources. A very positive fact is that only 5% of schools have only printed information available for families to support enrollment. Given the fact that essentially all families have a smartphone these days, the use of digital resources are much easier to access and utilize efficiently as opposed to printed information.

Accessibility and Equity

Question 1:
What percentage of your families lack the time, knowledge, or resources to access information about school choices and program options in your school?

On average 11% of Minnesota schools have identified that over half of parents lack the time, knowledge, and resources to access the needed enrollment and program information for their schools. While 6% of Minnesota schools have between a quarter and one-half of their parents lacking the time, knowledge, and resources to access the needed enrollment and program information for their schools. 54% of schools in this sample had a rather small percentage of less than 5% of their families lacking the time, knowledge, and resources to access the needed enrollment and program information for their schools. Taken together, these data indicate there is a moderate number of families in Minnesota in need of greater support in enrolling their students and having all the knowledge necessary to ensure their students are placed in the best school environment or program to meet their individual needs.

Question 2:
Do all of the schools in your district have the same registration and enrollment forms and processes?

A very positive finding to support accessibility is that 98% of school leaders reported that they have the same registration and enrollment forms in all of the schools in their district. Only a small fraction of families will face the task of working with different enrollment forms and processes for their children which can also impact equity for immigrant families with language differences.

Question 3:
How effective and efficient is your overall enrollment process with 1 being not effective or efficient and 5 being highly effective and efficient?

22% of school leaders report that their enrollment process is quite effective and efficient and a total of 88% feel that their enrollment process is adequate or better. Only 12% of school leaders reported clear issues with the efficacy of their enrollment process which is a moderate concern. There are roughly 865,000 students in the state of Minnesota so that could translate into over 100,000 students being involved in difficult enrollment processes.

Administrative Efficiency

Question 1:
Does your staff spend significant time answering phone calls and emails from families around enrollment questions?

The survey results indicated that 50% of school personnel spend a moderate amount of time answering phone calls and emails from families about enrollment questions and another 3% spending an extensive amount of time. These results indicate a significant concern when over 50% of districts report a moderate amount of time being spent working through questions that could be answered through an automated process with the adoption of technology. In this scenario, staff are spending less time working on other high impact activities and focused on fielding and answering questions likely repetitive in nature.

Question 2:
Does your staff consistently achieve at least a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative student interactions?

It is an interesting result that only 28% of districts in Minnesota have access to and utilize a full suite of dynamic data reports related to understanding and predicting enrollment. Conversely, nearly 40% of districts do not leverage the power of enrollment data monitoring and reporting in their work (including budgeting and forecasting), while 35% of districts have at least some level of reporting and analysis capabilities. As noted earlier, it is always best when enrollment is viewed by leadership as a highly strategic activity with real-time data available to inform critical decisions such as teacher staffing, transportation, program capacity, and infrastructure. When managed manually, it is not only time consuming but fraught with the potential for error or unavailable data.

Question 3:
Do school administrators need to take time away from their buildings to engage in enrollment meetings?

Many school principals have lamented being pulled from their buildings for various meetings at district offices. Principals have a tremendous amount of stress related to available time to attend to their myriad responsibilities. When school administrators have to leave their buildings to work through enrollment and placement meetings, it takes valuable time away from being an instructional leader in the building. Minnesota superintendents reported that 43% of the districts have school leaders in this situation where they must leave the building to work on administrative enrollment tasks that could be completed digitally and remotely with the right technology solution in place. This represents another opportunity for reclaimed time for principals, resulting in more time spent in the capacity for which they were hired —to lead.

Financial Stability

Question 1:
Does your district or school spend a significant amount of money on printed enrollment information, documents and physical storage?

In an era where digital content is ubiquitous, this survey found that 8% of schools and districts are still gathering paper documents and storing enrollment information and forms in physical storage, such as filing cabinets, consuming extensive resources. 39% of school districts report spending moderate resources on printing and storing documents related to enrollment. The accumulated costs related to staff time spent managing a paper laden process and the physical space needed can be significant. In larger districts the document storage costs are staggering.

Question 2:
Does your district or school need to provide additional time and/or full-time employees (FTE) ’s to manage manual enrollment processes and associated paperwork?

Associated with the preceding question, we found 31% of school leaders need to hire additional staff to manage the documents and paperwork associated with enrollment. Even if a school does not need to hire additional FTEs to manage these tasks, existing staff will spend a significant amount of time working on tasks associated with enrollment. The extra financial burden of managing this amount of paperwork causes unnecessary pressure on already stretched budgets and takes resources away from other critical needs.

Question 3:
Does your district have an efficient system for balancing enrollment across schools in your district?

Balancing enrollment across district schools can be a difficult, yet critical, task in districts. Unbalanced enrollments can lead to disproportional student-teacher ratios and greatly impact educational outcomes. The survey indicated that 72% of superintendents reported having an efficient system for balancing enrollments and 16% reported having a somewhat efficient process. Finally, 12% reported not having an efficient method for balancing enrollments. Digital technologies offer the ability to track enrollment in real time so specific adjustments can be made efficiently to achieve enrollment balance across a district.

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Special Situations

Transfers and Lotteries

For districts that allow intra- and/or inter-district transfers, 73% of school leaders reported utilizing lotteries but less than 20% of these districts reported using a technology platform to efficiently run these lotteries. This suggests that the lotteries being run in these districts have the potential for errors, particularly if the lottery has complex, multi-level logic to determine acceptance and placement into programs and/or schools. Additionally, the introduction of potential bias regarding decisions for individuals or groups cannot be overlooked. Greater administrative oversight and efficiencies could also be achieved by having a technology platform run these lottery scenarios automatically, thereby ensuring their validity and transparency and preserving staff time.

54% of district leaders reported that they have an effective and efficient transfer request process and 46% reported that their process is somewhat effective. Clearly, a rather large percentage of schools and districts will spend an inordinate amount of time working through transfer requests, particularly if they are working with a strictly paper process. Additionally, only 50% of schools and districts reported having an efficient process for intra-district movement of students before and during the school year, once again placing additional time burdens on school leaders and administrative staff and potentially leading to unbalanced enrollments.

Superintendents reported that about two-thirds of families will have general ease in applying for programmatic offerings in their districts where special programs are offered and about one-third will have a sufficiently positive experience.

Marketing Efforts

As noted in the introduction to this report, it is essential for many schools and districts to implement a welldesigned marketing program to support attracting new students and eliminating attrition of existing students to other educational options. The financial implications of enrollment attrition are not insignificant, so schools must “tell their story” to current and prospective families. Of the schools and districts that are involved in students moving to other educational options, only 9% reported having a well-designed marketing program and roughly 73% reported having a somewhat or partially effective marketing program. 18% of schools in the category reported not having any marketing program to attract and retain students. Given the open enrollment impacts on school enrollment around the state of Minnesota it would be incumbent upon district leaders to begin to devise a marketing plan to grow interest and to keep students (and their siblings) enrolling in their schools year after year.

SchoolMint, Inc. is relied on by over 16,000 schools for attracting students, engaging families, and enrolling and keeping students in school from kindergarten to graduation. Our innovative solutions enable school and district leaders an easy way to brand and market schools, simplify an equitable application, lottery and placement process, and implement successful positive behavior programs. Improved resource allocation, administrative efficiency, and teacher, student and parent satisfaction are just a few reasons why SchoolMint is the leading provider of strategic enrollment management and data insights.

Dr. Christopher Balow from SchoolMint will provide your school a free 1-hour video conference to help you get started.

Contact Dr. Balow at: chris.balow@schoolmint.com or 651-210-5732