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Five Ways to Double Enrollment for K-12 Summer College Programs

Tomorrow's Research

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"Spring is recruitment time for K-12 summer college programs all over the country. Whether you're running a NSF-funded STEM program for underrepresented high school students or a poetry workshop for young writers, the tips below will help you and program staff attract students for this summer, keep them through the year and have them return next year."


The posting below give some good advice on attracting K-12 students to summer college programs. It is by Heidi Holder, PhD, a lecturer at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, New York  and should be of immediate use by institutions in the Northern Hemisphere and of somewhat later use for our subscribers in the Southern Hemisphere.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Get Back to Work


Tomorrow's Research

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Five Ways to Double Enrollment for K-12 Summer College Programs

So you got the funding. Terrific. Now to find 30 middle school students who want to spend six weeks in the summer writing poetry on campus. No, you said in the proposal that you'd get 40 students. And that they'd be from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM with a B average in math. Doesn't matter how many students you said you'd get, what matters is that the funder--NSF, your city, Some Endowment for Something--loved your idea and now you need students to sign up. Not just sign up. Sign up. Stay all summer. Attend workshops throughout the year. Fill out surveys along the way. AND come back next year. It can be done. But it'll take planning and some getting off your campus. Here are 5 steps you can take to ensure you have your 30 or 40 or whatever number sounded nice and round in that meeting a year ago.

Start Early

This seems obvious, but not for the reasons you think. Most of the students who will enroll in your summer program and beyond are already 'involved students.' These students are likely involved in similar programs or they're on a sports team or an internship somewhere. You need to start program outreach before these students and their parents/guardians make summer plans. And you have 10-week window, March to May. You can go to mid-June, maybe, but that's pushing it.  These parents or guardians need to see your program as one of the many options they have for the summer. You stand a good chance because your program is associated with a college or university (the college/university needs a good reputation in the community for this to be valid). If they know about your program early enough, they're likely to commit.

Form a Relationship with a 'Live Wire' Teacher in Each School

Notice I didn't say form a relationship with a principal. A principal, though he/she may sign off on the partnership and give permission to recruit students, is super busy and doesn't have the time to help you recruit. A 'live wire' teacher isn't the English teacher who is interested in your writing program or the physics teacher who loves robotics. A 'live wire' teacher is a teacher with pull.  The Live Wire is probably running a program in the school and has a relationship with many involved students and their parents or guardians. The LW knows those students who are most likely to have sustained attendance in your program. The LW can tell students to register for your program and they will. Parents and guardians trust the LW and if the LW says your program is off the chain, they will believe it. The principal probably already told you who the LW is. A person who 'has a lot of students,' 'is always doing stuff with the kids,' 'knows all the parents.' That's who you need to help you recruit. If no one has mentioned the LW yet, ask around. Every school has one. Or two.

Talk to Parents and Guardians

Middle school and high school students cannot make commitments without their parents or guardians so don't get annoyed because you gave out 500 brochures to students and only 5 signed up. As I said in no.1, any student who enrolls in your program is an involved student. Involved students usually have involved parents and/or guardians, who plan all their activities.  To up your enrollment, you must speak directly to parents, guardians and other family members who make decisions. The great thing is that schools already have ways to talk to this group. All you need to do is to make your program part of the conversation between parents/guardians/family and the school. There are 3 main ways to do this:

Way 1: If there is an active PTA or another forum where parents/guardians gather, find out who sets up the meetings and get permission to make a presentation (a warm informational talk, not a PP with10 pages from the grant for them to read) about your program and all the wondrous ways students will benefit. If you have a nice time slot and can answer questions, do so. If you can only talk for a few minutes, stay till the end of the meeting and be available for questions. It will be a great show of trust if you spend time at their meeting. Look engaged and happy to be there. Don't sit looking at your watch with your face in a knot like you're among peasants. You're asking these people to choose your program over other programs. Bring many application forms and fliers or brochures. Better, if you can combine the info with the application (more on this in no.3).

Way 2: Schools send out snail mailings for various reasons. Ask if a mailing is going out to homes, and find out if you can add some info and an application for your program. No, they cannot give you the list to send it out yourself. Find out how many pieces you need to stuff the envelopes and when you need to have them delivered. If extra postage is an issue, offer to pay the difference or pay for the entire mailing if you can. If they need extra hands to stuff the envelopes, there are various groups on campus that do community service. Ask them to stuff the envelopes for you. They'll probably work for pizza. Three people can stuff 500 envelopes in less than an hour.

Some of this isn't as easy to do as I make it seem here. Schools, especially public schools, are bureaucracies, and something as seemingly simple as paying for a mailing or stuffing envelopes may require many permissions or even violate laws. Ask the staff who handle the mailing about the best ways to do things. They know all the processes and the loopholes and will help you out. For a mailing to succeed, you need to start early. Don't do it at the last minute.

Way 3: Some schools are savvy enough to send out regular emails to homes. Like Way 2, find out who is in charge of this and talk and negotiate directly with that person about the group you want to target and the text and images in the email. The less text the better to get people's attention and be sure to attach your application form. Or, better yet put a link in the email that will take users directly to the form. If you can swing it, let them fill out the form online and email it to you. You can also include a link to a Google form that people can fill out online and submit. That way, the data is entered for you and you can download everything to an Excel spreadsheet and see the analytics for applicants at a glance.

Get Application Forms

I mean paper forms in addition to the PDF and the Google forms you included in your email blast. You need a piece of paper that can be taken to homes and put under a fridge magnet for further discussion. An attractive (read designed) application form with the school's logo makes your program look legit. A single sheet that combines both the application and information about the program works best because one piece of paper is easier to keep track of than two or three. Put a flier or brochure on one side with the application on the other. Legal size paper will give you more room to collect the data we talk about below.  Application forms are tricky beasts and there is a lot to consider to make them work for your program. Here's a few things to think about:

Have an application period: This also signals that your program is legit. Make sure to close applications about 4 to 6 weeks before the beginning of your program so that you can plan for the number of students. You will get most of your applications in the last two weeks of the application period. Note that the deadline is a soft deadline, because folks will bring applications in a day or two after the deadline. Also since you've allowed folks to mail them in, a few will trickle in past the close date.

Language: Find out the languages spoken in the homes of your target group. If it's a public school, this stuff might be available in the school's online profile. But it's better to ask the principal or any of the people mentioned above (LW, PTA Coordinator etc.) who interact with homes. Take their lead on what language or languages to use on the form. Your campus likely has a language program with students who might be willing to translate forms if you need it. Just don't use Google for this.

Data Collection: The application form is your first chance to collect data to help you write that report at the end of the grant period. Craft this document carefully with the program evaluator, based on program objectives, to ensure that you include all the needed variables. For example, you can collect demographic information (race, ethnicity, household income) and pre-intervention variables like grades in certain subjects before the program, if you're interested in making a case that your program improves performance.

Personal Data: Be sure to collect contact information for students, parents and guardians. This is the start of your own database for program recruitment. Yes, these students might age out of your program in a year or 2, but (rubbing hands together) they have younger siblings, who may attend the same school or another school where a parent or guardian might have a connection.  In addition, you should collect info about dietary restrictions (kosher, halal, vegetarian) and food allergies. Because you are going to feed them right? And it takes some planning to get a kosher meal delivered at noon, from Monday to Thursday, for six weeks.

Contact Information: Include contact information for program staff in case there is an emergency and parents or guardians need to contact their child. You'll be in the theatre or over at the canal collecting water samples, but someone needs to know how to get in touch with every student enrolled in your program for the duration of the program. It may take a sequence of calls, but it must be possible within a few minutes.

Multiple Ways to Submit Forms: There should be more than one way to submit the application. Fax, email, snail mail. And, in person. I can't tell you how many times I've managed an education program and found that parents and guardians wanted to physically hand in the application. They're not just handing in a form, they're checking you out. Not like that. More like: Hmmmm, so you're the person I'll be leaving my precious child with for six weeks. They want to see you and shake your hand, to connect the form to a person again, because they may not lay eyes on you again till the closing event of the Summer Program. You did include a closing event in the proposal right?

They'll probably be handing these forms in after work, so someone has to be available after hours to collect the forms and meet with families. Be sure to specify the location in the application form. You don't need to do this every day, just for a day or two during the last two weeks of the application period when most of the applications will come in. And you can make special arrangements, on an as needed basis, for people who can't make the dates and times you set aside.

Confirm that you Received the Application: If you collected emails, you can send out an email confirming that the application was received. In this email you can include the program's contact information, reiterate the start and end dates and the times. If emails bounce back, mail the confirmation. A mailing allows you to do some house-keeping if folks forgot to sign their forms, had a bad email or didn't complete some sections. You need complete forms for complete data.

Get Great Program Staff

This is the lynchpin of the recruitment process. People don't sign up for programs, they sign up for people. The person who is doing the outreach, let's call him the Outreach Director, in schools has to be personable, warm, and get the idea. It's nice if the OD knows how schools work. But they can just read this blog. The OD should be involved from the first or second meeting about the proposal, long before the grant or funding request is written.

Notice, the OD is a director and not a coordinator. The director title usually gets taken more seriously by the school staff. The OD can be a coordinator on the books with an institutional title of director. This helps in the beginning when you're getting schools to support the proposal and will be dealing with the principal, the superintendent and other higher ups. It also helps with the funding proposal to show that you have a 'senior administrator' involved in the project.

The whole point about recruitment and outreach is that teachers, students, parents, guardians and family members need to have many interactions with you and your program before it mentally registers that there is this program offered by such and such and I need to sign up my son or daughter. Marketing tells us that the average person has to see information about 6 times before they take note of it. I'm sure it's about 8 or 10 times in these information saturated times.

So, good luck with your program this summer. If you like this post, visit the redloh education Blog for free content about teaching, learning and program management, from Pre-K to college.