During Visit Our Schools Month, the district will open its elementary school doors to families, neighbors and community members for guided tours between Oct. 15 and Nov. 7. Courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools.

During Visit Our Schools Month, the district will open its elementary school doors to families, neighbors and community members for guided tours between Oct. 15 and Nov. 7. Courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools.

Opening the doors to better enrollment

Updated: September 30, 2016 - 3:40 pm

Minneapolis Public Schools is trying a new strategy to boost enrollment, opening up the elementary schools to prospective parents and community members.

Visit Our Schools Month, beginning Oct. 15, will replace the School Fair Showcase, a costly and largely inaccessible event that has failed to return on the investment.

“Families are choosing schools other than ours,” said Bryan Fleming, director of enrollment management with the district’s Student Placement Services and New Families Center. “We believe that if we can recapture those families and get them to our schools with a meaningful experience, then we can increase enrollment, and have a much better chance of retaining those students and families.”

Superintendent Ed Graff brought the idea from his previous district in Alaska, which he said faced similar enrollment issues.

“We didn’t get the same return we were looking for, so we’re trying this approach,” Graff said. “It’s more than just prospective parents, it’s community members touring our schools and learning about what the school has to offer the community, our students.”

In terms of budgeting, the transition makes sense. The School Fair Showcase, held at the Minneapolis Convention Center downtown, was expensive, and many families couldn’t make it for reasons like transportation, parking and scheduling.

“It was accessible to some families, but it wasn’t accessible to all families, all the families we wanted to touch,” Fleming said. “It was only one opportunity.”

With the Visit Our Schools initiative, families will have several chances to tour schools in their community, which Fleming said he predicts will be more convenient and more compelling. With more than 40 elementary schools to consider, this also gives families the time to take several tours.

School board members and enrollment experts said they agree that inviting prospective parents and community members into the schools will be much more rewarding for families and reinforce the district’s message that strong schools support strong communities.

“The reality is, there’s a lot of families whose kids could be attending Minneapolis Public Schools, but aren’t,” Fleming said. “We want all of our schools to be accessible, we want all of our schools to be seen by the general public as places where good things are happening.”

It’s important for the district to convince prospective parents early in the school selection process that public school is the best choice. In order to compete with private schools, MPS will launch its student placement portal several months early (Nov. 15) and has bumped up the deadline for selecting a school (Feb. 4).

The earlier deadline also allows the district’s Human Resources department more time to hire and train staff. The School Board’s Finance Committee members said they expect this will improve staff recruitment and retention efforts.

“I think it’s a great thing. It’s been a long term goal to hire earlier in the year,” said School Board Member Carla Bates. “My only concern is disrupting the academic day. I think I’m probably just freaking out because we’ve been doing [the School Fair Showcase] for like 20 years, and this is so different.”

This is a sudden shift, and despite some apprehension, most of the feedback the Student Placement Services and New Families Center has received is positive, Fleming said.

“I think the earlier deadline is going to be difficult for families,” said Minneapolis School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon. “But I think people coming into the schools is always a win.”

Graff said he is willing to try other ways to connect with prospective parents if the Visit Our Schools strategy is a flop, but thinks the new way will communicate information about the schools better than the district has been able to before.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase the schools, give the schools a voice, give the kids a voice,” Graff said. “A lot is said about a school’s climate in the building that you don’t necessarily get in a general information packet.”

Fleming said he thinks the new recruitment model will be successful, too.

“I think choosing a school is the biggest decision that a family can make regarding the academic, social and emotional trajectory of their child,” he said. “My hope is that parents will visit and come away with a really clear sense of how their child would fit in a certain school. We want them to have a good sense of that, we want that to be a positive imprint.”