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This is a guest blog post by Deborah Frockt, Director of Advancement at Seattle Jewish Community School (SJCS), in Seattle, WA. The school is the winner of a PEJE Challenge Award for its innovative approach to expanding its pool of prospective families. The school looked at the needs of young Jewish families in its area and found ways to meet local needs while giving prospective families a chance to see the school well before the point where they were deciding where to send their children to kindergarten.

Seattle Jewish Community School has always had an extraordinarily high percentage of “true believers” in our parent body, but it’s been tough for us to convert exceptional parent satisfaction to greater enrollment. We gauge satisfaction from internal and national surveys and from parent stories like this one:  

How’d we get here? We live in a place where our kids were exposed to more lutefisk than gefilte fish. Honestly, SJCS was barely on our radar. After all, we weren’t particularly looking for a Jewish day school.  So, what was it that had me coming back for a second visit—and a third—dragging my skeptical husband along for the ride? Was it the amazing teachers and engaged students? The beautiful artwork everywhere? The sweet sound of children’s voices in song? Perhaps it was the smell of freshly baked hamantaschen wafting out of the kitchen? Sometimes I’m just amazed that we found this community. We didn’t believe there were teachers who would “get” our kids, encourage them to do and be their best, and love them almost as much as we do. We didn’t know we parents would make friends and would learn so much here. —Laurie P., Parent (Classes of ’10 and ’15)

We are always delighted to get this kind of feedback from our parents, but there is something we hear consistently from Laurie and other parents. Before they came to SJCS, they didn’t see Jewish day school as an option for their families. Full stop. So we asked ourselves what we could do to bridge the gap between high parent satisfaction and the fact that most in our community aren’t even considering a Jewish day school education for their children.

We started by asking our community the following question: “What do local young families need at this moment—and how can we connect those needs to getting SJCS on their radar screens?” We discovered that families had no Jewish community options in our area outside of synagogues. The closest JCC is 16 miles away. We thought about how SJCS might fill these gaps in programming, and eventually decided to reposition our day school as the core program—but not the only program—on a campus that would become a multi-use gateway for young Jewish families. By responding to the existing needs of our potential customers, we would raise awareness about our product and immediately increase our pool of prospects for the day school.

We partnered with organizations that were already interacting with our target population and focused on seeding programs with demonstrated demand. Our current allies include the Stroum Jewish Community Center for summer camp, family events, and parent education; the Seattle Jewish Cooperative Playschool for a  grass roots preschool program; and PJ Library for monthly community-wide story  times.

Our key demographic is families with children from birth to age 11. The “community brand” programs we cultivate are Jewishly inclusive: no labels, no memberships, and no long-term contracts required. The contract-free element is critical to many families in Seattle, a highly unaffiliated Jewish community.

Real data on how many of these families will apply to our day school is still to come, since many of their children won’t reach kindergarten age for several years. However, we’re measuring the impact the Gateway has had so far. For instance: 

  • We’ve very significantly increased our pool of prospective families.
  • Camp is expanding and the co-op playschool is at capacity.
  • Story times average around 20 people—a third are current SJCS families, a third are new families visiting for the first time, and a third are returning non-SJCS families.
  • The program portfolio is growing and focused on our key demographic.

In short, our campus is vibrating, stakeholders are excited, and new people are dropping in and hanging out.

Surveys (including the PEJE/Measuring Success Parent Surveys) told us that 53% of SJCS families, much like Laurie’s, never considered a Jewish day school before their first child was born. And no one can choose a day school if they aren’t first considering it! So our Gateway is creating a giant pool of “Jewish” for families to splash around in before they consider plunging into the deep end.

These programs are transforming the enrollment conversation into something so much more than “school choice.” Now, “relationship” is replacing “recruitment” and “transaction” is becoming “interaction.” We consider relationships in terms of years and not months. And, the number of days per year a non-SJCS family might come to our school skyrockets from zero to no-limit. Gateway means that SJCS will make a greater and more sustained investment in families, and we believe that investment will reap rewards for them, for us, and for the community as a whole.