With a record number of studetns completing applications to Eastside Prep for the 2022-2023 school year, it’s hard to imagine a time when every applicant and their materials could be tracked on a single table mapped out on a piece of looseleaf paper. Yet those were the humble beginnings of admitting students to EPS. Over the past twenty years, the process of recruiting, informing, admitting, and onboarding students and their families to the EPS community has progressed rapidly. Yet from the earliest days of Admissions at Eastside Prep to the present, trust and communication have remained paramount to families’ connections with the school.
While many EPS families now know her from their experiences in the Middle School, Karen Mills started her time at Eastside Prep as our first administrative assistant and librarian. Fresh out of school with her Master’s in Library and Information Science and ready for a new adventure, Mills managed application paperwork and scheduled the appointments for family interviews and information sessions, among other administrative tasks. Opportunities for growth were abundant in those early days, so with an increased need for event coordination and application management, Mills quickly became Eastside Prep’s first director of admissions. “I helped create all of the forms that we used for the first application,” shares Mills, adding that “one person could easily collate and review everything with only about thirty applications!” The head of school, board of trustees, and faculty members were directly engaged with families in the admissions process in those early years, interviewing each EPS family who applied. Moving into teaching and leading in many other realms at EPS, Mills happily passed the baton to new admissions team collaborators as both the enrollment and admissions processes’ complexity grew.
Growth of interest in EPS was slow at the start, but progressed in a linear fashion after the school found its footing. During our most recent in-person Open Houses in the fall of 2019, EPS welcomed over 1,000 visitors to campus for conversations, tours, and mini-classes hosted across four different buildings. Prospective families met members of our school community and experienced video presentations and question-and-answer sessions in the spacious TALI Theatre. The options for venues for the Eastside Prep informational meetings were decidedly more limited: “The first floor of the Middle School building, before any renovations had happened, was the only space where we could hold a lot of people,” remarks Mills about Eastside Prep’s first ‘large’ group admissions events. A now-fabled set of brown folding chairs, along with a strategically arranged collection of books from the courses being taught, set the stage for a collaborative conversation hosted by the head of school.
The austere surroundings at those meetings, however, ran counter to the progressive educational approach being promoted. The guiding theme of these admissions discussions was ‘A New School of Thought’ and the nascent board told prospective families, “Hey, we think here. We’ve named our classes literary thinking and scientific thinking because we’re not just teaching content, we’re actually encouraging students to think like people in those disciplines,” shares Mills. Eastside Prep’s then small-but-mighty group of faculty communicated directly with families, according to Mills, “This is what we do in the sciences, this is what we do for math—these are our different approaches—it’s different here.”
In addition to those meetings in the Middle School, gaining exposure through local journalism and media ad placements was also part of the strategy. “Though enrollment is small—only 15 students—Eastside Prep’s head of school says the program, which emphasizes individual attention and thinking skills, is succeeding beyond expectations.” (King County Journal, December 28, 2003). “Starting a School 101” was an article featuring the creation stories of both EPS and Seattle Girls’ School. The profile contained quotes from Terry Macaluso, early board member Ellen Cressey, and parent Julie Rushton, who offered, “You need considerable pioneer spirit—and a vision that encompasses something different for your child, that makes it worth giving up the sense of security that comes with a tried and tested school…it’s a leap of faith” (ParentMap, Volume 2, Number 11, November 2004).
What messages resonated with those first enrolled families during the earliest years of EPS, seizing on that ‘pioneer spirit’ to encourage ‘a leap of faith’? As Mills notes, there were “a lot of unknowns” for families committing to be part of this ‘new school of thought.’ Many families were attracted to being part of a small school environment: “It was a nice, safe, controlled area for their pre-teens,” says Mills, adding that parents connected with “the philosophy of the school: that all learners have capacity, you just need to find the way that works for them.” The true signal that families value the education offered by a school is to re-enroll their children. “We got all the kids back, and added more kids,” shares Mills about the second school year at EPS: “That to me was really telling, just in the trust that they had in the school. They had a good enough experience in that first year to say, ‘we’re gonna come back, and we’re gonna try this again’.” According to the EPS Annual Report for 2006-2007, “In September 2006 106 students were enrolled, an increase of over 30% from the previous year!” and also “When the re-enrollment deadline passed, our retention rate (for 06-07 students returning for the 07-08 academic year) was 89%–an improvement of over 25% from the previous year!”
In addition to re-enrollment, annual giving by parents, employees, and the board signaled the potential of a thriving school from the beginning. Mills remarks that from the first years of EPS, there has been “trust in the teachers, trust in the school, trust in the board and their direction and funding.” The founding board of trustees, well, “they’re just believers,” marvels Mills. “They’ve always had this internal belief, and they instilled this belief of ‘okay, you want to do it? Let’s make it happen!’ and we all believed it. Terry has that internal belief too; there was never any doubt. So from the top down, there was this leadership and trust.”
We continue to celebrate low attrition and high levels of family satisfaction and belief in EPS, particularly through the COVID-19 pandemic. With current retention rates above 95% for the past three years, EPS families have signaled their trust in the school—both program and people—and the 2022-2023 enrollment of 530 students realizes the goal of two sections of fifth grade, three sections in sixth through eighth grades, and five sections in ninth through twelfth grades.
KEEPING WHAT BELONGS, INNOVATING WISELY
Eastside Prep was among the very first schools worldwide to begin using a common online application platform, Ravenna Solutions. Nearly all member schools in the Puget Sound Independent Schools (PSIS) consortium utilize Ravenna so that families have fewer systems to navigate and fewer unique forms to complete as they apply to area independent schools.
While our application process developed complexity beyond Karen’s original forms, “I think you’ve kept the good things” says Mills, including the mini-classes that started very early on to get applicant students involved in experiencing EPS education through ‘doing.’ Additionally, even as the applicant pool has grown, we have remained committed to interviews with all parents and guardians of every applicant. All of these practices have helped us to engage students and families whom Mills describes as “quirky, super unique, and fun.” Pivoting to online events and meetings during remote school, we hosted our first virtual tours in the spring of 2020 and created self-guided external tour of campus featuring images, videos, and fun facts. EPS has been embracing change from its inception, and in the 2022-2023 admissions season, we will begin utilizing a new student interview platform through which applicants will record video responses, giving those quirky, unique student voices a direct, prominent role in our application review.
A consistent piece of feedback received by the Admissions Team is appreciation for our communications with families, whether in the Ravenna application platform, over email or phone, or during events. We strive to keep families informed and the process accessible, even as our applications have continued to grow. This legacy has continued from the first days of admissions. Mills completed her Professional Development Project (PDP), a highly collaborative, intensely self-reflective year-long faculty portfolio review process, in 2020. A key takeaway from her PDP was the connection from those first days as the admissions director all the way to becoming a faculty mentor: “I feel like all of the roles that I’ve had here have been centered around or focused on welcoming people into the school. I want people to belong, and to know that ‘you’ve got a place here, I’m gonna help you figure it out’.” Through their very first experiences in the admissions process at EPS, curious and kind students and families understand that “anybody can learn, anybody can be a part of a team, you just have to give them the space and the guidance to do it.”