Interview with Peter Wickman, Director of Admissions & Financial Aid at Grand River Academy

Why did you think an approach towards management was the right thing to do at Grand River Academy? 

Grand River Academy is an old school in rural Ohio. We’re celebrating our 185th year this year. Being a school of this age and location means that many of our unique elements are steeped in tradition. The Head of School before Tim Viands was appointed, had been in his position for over 25 years. 
However, while we’re located in a rural area, our students come from 20 states and 13 countries around the world. We’re not just pulling from Ohio. We need to be receptive to the needs of our families and push the envelope on what it means to be innovative. Bringing in new leadership allowed us to question why we had certain practices and whether they were still relevant today.
Luckily being a small school with a forward-thinking Head, it’s been relatively easy to make small, impactful changes. After speaking with friends and colleagues from other schools, we noticed that there were a few things that we weren’t doing. 

How do you make these big managerial changes?

We ’re doing our best to identify and address what improvements we can make with basic business strategies. We’ve found that the best way to start is with brainstorming sessions, constant communication, and evaluation. Are we delivering the kind of programming that we say we are? Is it effective? Are we adjusting ourselves to meet the needs of this generation of students and families?
When making changes to our enrollment management practices, we asked:

  • How will we find new students to attend Grand River Academy?
  • How will we drive student engagement and retention?

In doing this exercise, we realized that we weren’t considering or calculating our ROI. Once we identified the consistent and reliable channels through which our families were finding GRA, we started to allocate more resources to them to increase our yield. We also realized that the retention side of the equation was overlooked. Previously, retention was handled by the student activities office, and admissions didn't have a handle on its management until re-enrollment contracts were sent out. That was a big problem.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced trying to make these changes?

Being a small school helps a lot. I’ve worked at larger schools before, where additional variables made it more difficult to make changes. It takes longer to get buy-in from faculty and staff at a bigger school. We’ve been able to make dynamic changes at Grand River because of our size. Additionally, midwesterners are super welcoming people, often open to trying new things. Grand River is not as resistant to change as some school cultures are, so I have been supported in most of the initiatives I want to try.
I also use data to support any changes I want to make. I would never just say, "I think our retention needs to be fixed. Let's do it like this." First, I'll start with a faculty survey to identify something like how well our teachers know our students and if there is anyone being left out. Then, if the survey says that Johnny, Steve, and Pablo don't have any close connections with teachers, I know they are the ones we need to focus on.

What results have you seen from running this program?

My office is external, but in order to do well externally our internal systems need to be running smoothly. In my first two weeks, I organized an admissions retreat with a few administrators and teachers. We walked around campus and identified the best areas and aspects about campus, as well as those we felt we could improve on. Then when we had the students back on campus, we started identifying how we can incorporate student and teacher opinions in our administrative decisions. We have renovated spaces on campus, restructured our academic calendar and programming, and redistributed responsibilities to faculty members that expressed interest in taking on new and old programs.

What steps should a school take towards making these changes?

If you have significant areas of improvement in enrollment management, financial management, facilities, program and marketing management, then that needs to be your school’s catalyst. The first step is going to be identifying your area of biggest need. Then ask yourself: Why is this important? Figure out what precisely you need to be successful. Is it more students, happier students, more AP classes, or more revenue? From there you chip away at the details. Having a solid plan will make it easier to get buy-in from other administrators.
I have a sticky note on my desk that reads ‘3 weeks - 3 months’ to remind me that’s how I need to think. What am I doing now that will have an effect on my school in the next 3 weeks, and how will those changes affect the outcomes 3 months from now. Even though we’re dynamic we can only change a few programs a year. We have to be patient about seeing results. 
And continuous assessment is the only way to figure out how effective your work is. If I’m going to increase my travel budget, what do I anticipate yielding from those trips and how will I monitor my progress? Did I meet my inquiry or interview goal? Can I accurately predict how many applicants I will yield from my travel? We realized through this kind of assessment last year that we get a number of students from educational consultants. It's imperative that we stay on the top their minds using  everything from postcards and emails, and visits and personal phone calls. First you must start with a purpose. From there, develop a plan, get buy-in, and monitor your progress. Setting goals for ourselves and following through on them is an important part of the process.

What’s the biggest thing you want people to take away from the presentation?

Especially for boarding schools, there absolutely is a need to think more managerially. There are a handful of schools that receive enough applications that the admissions director can act like a gatekeeper, but that is a small minority of the number of boarding schools in the country. As administrators, we need to be thinking 3 weeks, 3 months, and 3 years ahead so our schools can continue to thrive. We have to be strategic with how we modify our schools to make sure they can recruit and retain great, new students.