Enrollment & Financial Aid |
Interview by Cecily Garber
From the November/December 2021 Net Assets magazine
Jenna Rogers King is the associate head of school for admission and enrollment at Riverdale Country School, a preschool-grade 12 day school with 1,200 students, where she has worked since September 2004. Prior to Riverdale, she worked as a teacher, coach and dorm parent at Suffield Academy in Connecticut. Rogers King serves on the Enrollment Management Association’s board of trustees. She also serves on the board of the Character Collaborative.
Net Assets: Like many in the field, your career in enrollment began elsewhere in an independent school; you taught and coached and served as a director of community service. How did those early experiences of being involved in many aspects of a school community impact your work as an enrollment leader today?
Jenna Rogers King: I think it’s really important that people in offices that aren’t academic, like enrollment and advancement, are involved with the students in some way. I’ve always asked the people on my team to connect with the kids in the program. Many are advisors, for example, and some coach. I co-run the advisor program for our upper school, and it's been a great way to stay in touch with the faculty.
Admissions and enrollment teams run best when they're not seen as a separate arm of the school, rather when they are truly integrated into the student experience. My team will come back from advisor meetings with stories to share, which feeds directly into the role of the admissions person, which is to tell and share stories.
Net Assets: And you also have strong relationships with operational leaders, like the business officer. What strengthens that particular partnership?
Rogers King: A few things. First, our administrative team is large. We both sit on it and report to the head of school. We have team meetings where we report out, and it helps when everybody feels like they know what other team members are doing. And we both have the opportunity to sit in on board meetings. That helps because the CFO explains the challenges and successes of his office, and I do the same. And we both sit on the financial aid committee. And we work together on enrollment and reenrollment processes. We do administrative retreats every year, where we participate in shared visioning and strategy work, and last year we had weekly operational meetings due to COVID.
So we are involved in a lot of joint meetings. There’s always an agenda but anyone can add to the agenda, and it’s not top down. I can weigh in when I need to. For example, our long-standing bus company shifted plans due to the pandemic, and the business office was thinking about one solution, but I knew the issue needed further consideration because transportation is actually an enrollment issue. If the right options aren’t in place, families are less likely to send their kids to the school or to feel good about the school. So we did a parent survey and were able to use the data and work together to come to a joint decision.
Net Assets: You serve on the board of the Enrollment Management Association, and a hotly debated issue these days is admissions testing. What is your perspective broadly speaking?
Rogers King: To be honest, my school has decided to keep testing for now, which is not necessarily the dominant direction. We decided to continue with it because we feel like it's one common element among applications. I understand all the points about unfair advantages in terms of kids having access to test prep and being able to sit for testing. And I certainly don't want to put anyone at a disadvantage in our process. I fully recognize and appreciate the diversity, equity and inclusion issues here.
At the same time, what is happening in the absence of testing is much more complicated. And it seems that other pieces of the application favor the same groups that benefit from standardized testing. Take teacher recommendations. Kids coming from an independent school where teachers have a reduced teaching load have time to write these extensive narrative reports. A kid coming from a disadvantaged school may not have the teacher who has the time to write a glowing teacher recommendation or even understand the importance of it.
Then when you are looking at grades, how do you know which school does grade inflation and which one doesn't? And with COVID, we had fewer grades coming in. We know less about these students because they weren't in school due to COVID. So I do like having testing as something that everybody can have as part of their application.
I think an experienced admissions team can bring context to understanding the testing. At Riverdale, we like having a writing sample, which is done in a proctored setting. And again, I know there were some access issues last year, with kids having trouble getting online. But I still felt it was valuable to have another data point in the application.
I’ll put it this way. We don't use the testing ever to throw out an application. We don't use it as a sorting tool, but it is one common element. I think if you're not hanging your hat just on test scores for admissions, it can be useful. We have to think about how we understand kids’ fit for the school, so if your school decides against testing, you need the right pieces in your admissions process to choose kids that are mission appropriate.
Net Assets: How might the debate about admissions testing impact the business office?
Rogers King: The business office should be thinking about who the admissions team is bringing into the school. The school will need to know if those students are succeeding, and if they aren’t, additional resources may be needed to support them. The business office may be interested in post enrollment assessment tools that assess the efficacy of our admissions processes, which are useful especially when we shift those processes.
Also, some schools are now using different tools in admissions that have associated costs. At the early childhood level you might have evaluators or psychologists, for example. As a school shifts their processes, the business officer should pay attention to the cost per child enrolled.
Net Assets: We hear about the Mastery Transcript being used by some independent schools to showcase their students to college admissions in more expansive ways. Could something similar be used for admission into independent schools?
Rogers King: That’s interesting. This summer I was working on updating our teacher recommendation forms and reconsidering what we’re asking teachers to fill out. There’s a lot there, but you could easily walk away not feeling like you have a full sense of the prospective student. That’s just one piece of the process that could be reconsidered.
And on the other end of the student experience, I think many of us in schools are trying to do a better job of assessing students’ progress over time as they engage with our institution. We have narrative reports, but I think in general we could do a better job of telling the story of progress through our schools. It could help not only students but also the school’s ability to communicate the return on investment to families, be it in development or admissions.
Many of us are college prep schools and it’s important to get kids into college, but I’d also like to be able to share how a student has grown and changed during their time at the school and the impact our institution has had on a child.
Net Assets: What of the virtual admissions process last year do you plan on keeping this year and why?
Rogers King: There were great advantages in being forced to rethink this process. For one, I think we will do fewer large in-person events and focus more on the one-on-one interactions we're having with families.
We used to have huge open houses, which were restricted by parking limitations. When we’re online, we can do one event and have a lot more people attend, and involve more of the community. For example, I could get more student and faculty panelists. Or we can do a whole event on financial aid, which might not be worth it in-person, but when we offer it online, people can watch it at their convenience and in the comfort of their homes.
Last year, we decided that we would rather focus our time and funding on getting to know families better, rather than on wowing them with fancy events. We plan to stick with this emphasis this year even though we could offer more in-person activities.
And I think there was an advantage to meeting families on Zoom. I think a lot of families feel a bit daunted when they come into an admissions office, as they are clearly not the one in control. I think families felt more at ease — they didn't have to worry about allowing for traffic, for instance. I also think it was more equitable and more easily accessible for families. Parents didn’t have to take a day off; they could log in from their job for 15 minutes and do the parent interview. So as important as it is to get families on campus and have them interacting with your school, I'm not sure that the Zoom interview is going to be just a COVID thing. We're planning in-person tours, but probably remote interviews this year.
I think we need to be flexible and meet families where they are and try to make this process not about having families jump through so many hoops, but about having them do what works for them.
Net Assets: Will Riverdale leverage online learning in a new way, following the pivots of 2020?
Rogers King: We are thinking about online learning primarily in two ways — we have actually been thinking about it for a while, well before COVID.
First, we think a lot about our position of privilege being a successful independent school in the Bronx, which is one of the poorest school districts in the country. We think about how we can help kids in our immediate local community. In the past few years, we piloted a program for lower school kids from the Bronx who worked with our teachers for a few weeks during the summer. Perhaps we could expand our online program to broaden access to our offerings.
And now that we know our teachers have a facility with the online platform, perhaps we could extend that kind of offering to different kinds of students who are not attending a brick-and-mortar school nine to three. Some of our kids are in intense programs like conservatory- or sports-training, and coming to school every day from 8 to 3 doesn't fit neatly into their schedule. We have a dancer, for example, who is leaving Riverdale to dance and do an online academic program for next year, and then she plans to come back for her senior year. How can we create different options for kids who are like that? These are things that independent schools have to be thinking about and anticipating, not fearing.
Projections: The Essential Business of Admissions (Nov/Dec 2021)
Advancing the Bottom Line: Integrating Enrollment and Advancement (Nov/Dec 2021)
Mission & Motivation: Finding Fit (Mar/Apr 2020)
Digitally Communicating Your School’s Value (Apr 2020)
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