By Cheryl Schenk Miller, Director of Enrollment Management
The stage lights beamed down on us as I looked out at the students and parents. Nearly every seat in the house was filled; the mixture of excitement, nervousness, and eagerness was palpable. I could hardly believe I was seeing nearly 500 prospective family visitors at our first Open House of the year, and the first-ever Open House in our new theatre. That moment in October 2018 felt so big: the opening of TALI with its spacious, versatile theatre, our record application numbers, and a growing school community.
Little did we know what big things 2020 would have in store for us! As we entered the month of March, we realized quickly that our accepted students’ families would be making their enrollment decisions without a return trip to campus. Navigating through the quick pivots needed for that Middle School decision week, we then commenced our annual project: reflecting on the season behind us while looking toward the season ahead. But this year, the admissions season needed to be written on a relatively blank slate. “We met for a team brainstorming session nearly every day throughout the spring and summer to generate ideas and deconstruct what we’d been doing, making sure that it would have a specific purpose—seeking an opportunity to revitalize it,” Kristina Dammrose, Enrollment Management Coordinator, shared. We could not rely upon our previous slate of in-person events with significant person-to-person contact, including Open Houses with hundreds of attendees, multi-student visit days, and face-to-face parent/guardian interviews. Rather than planning for in-person events that would need to potentially be canceled or have their size reduced, we decided in April that our admissions season for 2021-2022 would be fully remote, ensuring that each activity could occur safely, and that our many new plans could be carried out.
But how would we infuse the experiences and feelings of Open House, student visit days, and interviews around the table into these virtual settings? In collaboration with our colleagues from across the school community, Eastside Prep’s admissions professionals undertook the goal of solving that problem. Reflecting on what families need in the admissions process to gain knowledge, feel connected, and make an informed school choice, we centered on four key elements necessary for a comprehensive admissions journey. Our rubric for success: to craft an admissions season with experiences that would be intentional, collaborative, equitable, and transparent. In the fine EPS tradition of acronyms, we were excited to make “ICE-T.”
We did not want to simply bring Open House visit days online. We already knew that students and families were growing fatigued with consecutive hours of screen time. Setting a maximum event duration of ninety minutes, we also committed to offering as much content as possible asynchronously so that if an event did not fit with an individual or family schedule, it could be accessed at a later date. We also wanted to ensure that any live event would be adding value for families rather than simply connecting them with information that could be found online.
For example, while families could stream our thirteen-minute campus tour video independently at any time, during our EPS virtual tour session, we paired this content with family introductions to help foster connections, along with an hour of candid responses, student ambassador stories, and bad (dad?) jokes in the tour session’s imbedded Q&A. Additionally, we distilled a seven-question interview into three key items in our parent/guardian interviews, and borrowed from the best practices for remote learning shared by the EPS Student Support team through presenting our questions in both a visual and spoken format. Finally, our Community Panel events were intended to bring the experience of candor, connection, and question-answering previously contained in our Open Houses in thematically-based evening programs. You can view all of this season’s events at www.eastsideprep.org/admissions/community-panels.
Essential to our EPS community is a collaborative approach to problem solving, and our admissions season redesign has been no exception. We connected with Middle School faculty to plan our experiences for applicants to fifth through eighth grades. From these conversations, we focused on efforts to scaffold our youngest applicants to become comfortable connecting with us over Microsoft Teams. Thus was born the Middle School Small Group meeting! In these forty-five-minute sessions, we engaged students’ ability to think on their feet, be imaginative, and collaborate in storytelling without introducing the academic content that would follow later in the season through the mock class. Our Upper School mock class underwent a collaborative revision with colleagues as well. Matt Delaney (Director of Academic Design and Integration), Jonathan Briggs (Director of Strategy, Technology and Innovation), and Paul Hagen (Director of Student Well-Being) co-hosted each session, providing students an opportunity to learn about some bigger themes in a large group, then put those ideas into context through their own lived experiences in a facilitated small group discussion.
We also invited students to play games with EPS student ambassadors during hour-long sessions featuring word and picture games as well as the chance to ask questions. We were surprised to find that prospective students were more interested in asking questions than playing the games! In the end, we realized how willing students were to participate, as well as how eager they were to make connections. “It surprised me how students have consistently had their microphones and cameras on. We were concerned we would be talking into the void. We’ve been impressed with their desire to even be in these sessions, including the events that weren’t required,” noted Katie Nikkel, Admissions Experience Coordinator.
A key focus throughout our entire process was enhancing the equitable nature of admissions activities broadly. Informing and energizing these efforts was professional development around bias awareness, skills from which were implemented from interview design to Admissions Committee training. Furthermore, shifting our approach to offering information and events was among our top priorities even before we needed to pivot to virtual events, but the remote format made it even more possible. While Dammrose had previously hosted evening interviews with our applicants and families living internationally, Jennifer Chi, Admissions Communications Coordinator, expanded our offering of evening and weekend parent/guardian interview times. While previously working full days from campus bound by the school schedule, our team had not previously considered flexing the interview time frame. But with flexible days working remotely, we were better able to meet families’ scheduling needs. “Families often told us how much they appreciated our after-hours events and interviews. While they might have been able to make a daytime appointment work, they enjoyed themselves more because they weren’t in a time crunch,” said Chi. Additionally, we offered financial aid information through the Teams Live event format so that families could anonymously view the session and ask questions, helping to ensure our need-blind practices of keeping admissions and financial aid evaluation separate. The content of this session has been available asynchronously along with all of our EPS Community Panels (link on page 19).
Without the ability to pop onto campus for events or to pick up an information packet, we knew that accessing information via the Eastside Prep website would be more important than ever. We looked at the website through the lens of prospective families, asking ourselves what members of this audience would need for the site to work for them. Through the efforts of Technology Manager Derek Clarke, Director of Institutional Advancement Vickie Baldwin, and Jennifer Chi, several revisions to the site were made, including new video and image content, along with more robust arts and athletics information. “One thing that’s been really positive for families is the ability to get the information they need in places other than just the parent interview or other events. They could get access to nearly everything online content-wise instead of just having their learning condensed into an Open House,” said Nikkel.
Our team has experienced many pleasant surprises and moments of learning along the way. For example, we held virtual interviews in the past only for families based internationally, or when calling or Skyping with a parent on a last-minute business trip. Yet with the virtual interviews, Chi noted that nearly all parents and guardians “seemed a little bit more comfortable. Perhaps just being in their own environment, they were more at ease.” We also reduced the ecological footprint of multiple parents convening on campus for a thirty-minute interview, often traveling thirty minutes or more by car each way. The international reach has grown as well by bringing our student mock classes and small group experiences online. Nikkel remarked that “one of the really cool things is that we have been able to engage with students we would not have seen in the group setting before. In a recent small group experience, we had students from Singapore, Germany, Ohio, and Washington—and they all got a better chance to know who we are than if they had solely done an individual interview online.”
While we didn’t ask for the conditions that led to our completely virtual admissions season, our gratitude for the learning that has resulted from our redesigned experiences is real, and the lessons of 2020-2021 will inform our practices for years to come.