How to Improve Summer Student Retention | EP 221

Summer can certainly be a challenging time for a music school. At my music school, a lot of the kids that went away to sleepaway camp is a big part of the culture. During the summer months, I could see anywhere from a 40 to 50% decrease in enrollment. So I wanted to share with you some different strategies to consider that you can implement that can improve student retention.


Strategy #1: Hold Summer Camps

Summer camp is not only a great way to offset your summer drops, but it can also turn summer into your most profitable season. Summer camp’s a long game. You can’t run a summer camp for the first time, say this year, and make a judgment as to whether your market is interested in it. It might not have great results, but you have to establish within your community that you’ve got a summer camp and that it has a reputation. It might even take a few years.


The first year I ran a summer camp, I’ll never forget sitting in my office with a piece of paper while campers were rolling in, outlining how the camp should go. I just kind of literally figured it out on the fly.


What’s also great about summer camp is it cannot only help you get through those challenging summer months, but it can also help set the stage for your fall enrollment.


I found with campers that quite a few of them will transition into fall students, but summer camp will attract kids who live too far away to come during the school year.


Strategy #2: Discover The True Causes of Dropout

Another thing is looking at why summer drops are happening in the first place. Talking with a lot of parents, the most common thing that I hear from them is that they just want to take a break from the afterschool hustle of schlepping their kids around to different activities. And I get it.


If you’re a parent with young kids, or if you’re a parent who had young kids at one point, you know it’s nice to kind of just not have to worry about all that. Parents need a break too. All the schlepping around can be draining.


But if you can get the student emotionally engaged and committed to playing an instrument, the parents will make an exception and continue with private lessons into the summer.


Strategy #3: Gather The Data You Need

One thing I recommend doing now is surveying your current parents. It could be a simple email, maybe one or two questions, just saying something like, “Hey. We’re putting our plans together for the summer and just wanted to ask you a couple of questions.”


The questions can be as follows:


“How many weeks do you typically travel during the summer?”
“Which month or months do you typically travel?”


One might say, “Oh, well. Every August we go back to visit grandma in Florida. I thought I wouldn’t want to go to Florida in August. But, yeah. Every August we typically travel.”


Knowing people’s travel habits and how long they typically travel is helpful.


Another good question that I always ask is “Does your child go to sleepaway camp? And if so, for how long?”


It’s interesting to observe that only a small percentage of these kids attend sleepaway camps; however, most of them do go away for at least a week. So, why are they dropping out during the summer? If it’s merely to take a break, there’s hope for those people.


Strategy #4: Be Sure to Follow-Up With Emails

I’m curious to find out the reason, and I’m addressing it now because asking them currently doesn’t give the impression of collecting data for marketing purposes.


Although it feels like a survey, that’s exactly what it is. You can use the data they share for your marketing efforts.


Even if someone doesn’t fill out that survey, I’ll do a follow-up email with them saying, “Hey, sent you this last week. I was wondering if you could share this information with me.” If they still don’t answer, text them.


Strategy #5: Harness the Power of FOMO

You want to get this data, and you can use it for marketing purposes. Here’s how:


Imagine a scenario where a student drops out, and the parent withdraws their child from lessons for the summer. They claim they plan to return in the fall. However, this is often merely a cover, with no genuine intention of returning.


So when the parent says, “Yes, we’ll take a break during the summer,” it would be beneficial to ask, “Do you plan to return in the fall? And if so, would you like me to try to reserve your spot? While I can’t guarantee it, I’ll make every effort to hold it for you.”


You’re not committing to holding their spot indefinitely, but if they respond, “Actually, we might take a break in the fall too,” that provides valuable insight.


Strategy #6: Delve Deeper When Asking Questions

When someone mentions, “Yeah, we do plan on taking a break in the fall as well,” seize the opportunity to delve deeper by asking, “Can you share with me?”


You want to figure out why students are dropping out. Even if they express intent to complete the winter and spring seasons before dropping out, it’s very important to ask further.


You want to find out what about the lessons doesn’t their child enjoy. You can ask the parents. Or is there something you feel the teacher could do that would help make the lessons more enjoyable for the child?


Explore what aspects of the lessons their child doesn’t enjoy. Ask the parents if there are any adjustments the teacher could make to enhance the child’s experience.


Even if the parent struggles to articulate specific concerns or is uncertain (they just know their kid kind of fusses and whines every week), they will value your thoughtful questions. They’ll appreciate that you care so much.


Strategy #7: Present An Enticing Offer

For the people who do drop out, I like to make them feel the pain of having their kid at home for two or three weeks after school lets out.


I usually enter the second phase, typically in my schools in Missouri, where schools start letting out around the third week of May, sometimes the second week of May. I might wait until the second week of June, or wait three or four weeks, and then follow up and present them with an offer.


The offer could be something as simple as a one-off lesson.


You could say, “Hey, we have some openings this week. You know, I’d hate for Billy’s musical skills to get too rusty. I knew you guys were taking off the summer, and I’d hate for him to lose all the progress he’s made playing an instrument, just like building muscles. If you stop working out after a few weeks or a few months, you lose a lot of what you gained. And we certainly don’t want Billy to experience that.”


Strategy #8: Stay Flexible with Parents’ Plans

You can offer them a promotion, and I’d be happy to come up with one. It’s hard to say if that alone will be enticing enough, but staying in touch with those parents is key. Their summer plans with their child may evolve significantly three or four weeks into the break.


The lack of structure during the summer can become a concern for parents.


Strategy #9: Weave Your Message Well

I could see a great message being something like, “Looking to add a little structure into your child’s day during the summer months or searching for an activity that will motivate your child to put the phone down?”


Addressing concerns that parents often have regarding phone and social media usage and screen time can always be a powerful message.


Strategy #10: Keep Checking In

Don’t give up on those people who drop out during the summer. Stay in touch with them. Maybe not too much, but a check-in in mid-June and then again in July will do.


What I like to do in July is say, “Look, would you like me to put a hold on your child’s lesson time? We’re six weeks away from when we start. I can put a hold on it and give you the first right of refusal. If somebody else wants it, I’ll do everything I can.”


Steering them away from that time, you’re sort of getting them to make a soft commitment to returning in the fall.


So that can be helpful. Those are some different things you can consider during the summer months.


Strategy #11: Make Summer More Fun and Social

I always add additional perks. I would have social nights, like meet-ups. Actually, I never did this one, but I like this idea of inviting all current active students to meet up at everyone’s favorite ice cream shop, a place people love to visit in the summer. Summer is a great time to focus on building culture.


We used to have a barbecue every summer, but it was only available to the kids who were enrolled. So thinking about that can really be great. Adding some additional programming and options in the summer can be helpful.


You want to ensure that any additional programming is genuinely attractive.


One year, I said, “Hey, during the summer months, your child can come here anytime they want to practice or hang out.” You just need to send an email at least 24 hours in advance. However, that wasn’t very attractive to parents.


Strategy #12: Assess Teacher Retention Rates

Another important thing to consider year-round is assessing the individual student retention rates of each teacher.


For instance, there’s a teacher at my school named Adam who has been teaching for over 10, 12, maybe 15 years now. During the summer, his students rarely drop out, with maybe only a 5% decrease, compared to my other teachers who experience more significant drops.


I was like, what’s the deal with this guy? How was he able to keep these students engaged so much longer than my other staff?


I began to wonder what made him so effective in retaining students. While I’ve always been satisfied with my teachers’ teaching styles (and those who didn’t meet my standards didn’t last long), Adam’s success seems to stem from the strong relationships he builds with his students.


Adam positions himself as more than just a music teacher; he becomes a mentor to his students. He demonstrates an awareness of their lives outside of music, asking about their extracurricular activities and school experiences.


This strategy involves dedicating a few minutes at the beginning of each lesson to chat and ask questions like:


“How did things go last week?”
“Any exciting events coming up at school this week?”
“Hey, how’s school going this year?”
“Are there any classes that are particularly challenging?”


In a way, Adam becomes a confidant to his students, and they value the relationship they have with him. They seek his approval and guidance, which serves as a powerful motivator for practice.


When students respect and admire their teacher, they are more inclined to practice diligently to earn praise and recognition. This strong bond not only boosts student morale but also enhances retention rates.


“I want to practice because I want my instructor to be proud of me.”
“I want my instructor to praise me. I don’t want to let them down.”


Adam’s secret sauce lies in his ability to forge meaningful connections, not only with the students but also with their parents. By maintaining open communication with both students and parents, Adam ensures that everyone is engaged and committed to the learning process.


Strategy #13: Center Your School Policies Around Students

Now, I had a policy in my school where all teachers were required to invite parents in during the remaining five minutes of the lesson.


They would provide a quick 30-second summary of what they worked on during the lesson, followed by devoting the remaining time to playing for the parents.


Each lesson included a performance component, and I encouraged my staff to prompt parents to take a quick video of their child playing. This video could serve as a reference point during the week for review.


Also, I would remind parents, “Hey, feel free to post this on social media so your friends and family can see what a great job Sally’s doing.”


These are just a few strategies aimed at enhancing individual teacher retention, particularly during the summer months.


Throughout the year, I would focus on creating a sense of emotional connection to the school through culture and community. I also strived to make lessons enjoyable and progressive for the students.


The more they love their music lessons, the less likely we are to see a significant drop in enrollment.

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