HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Four Steps to Building an Army of Student Advocates

by Jim Blankstein Issue: The Whole Student

A school has no more effective advocate than a thoughtful, well spoken, passionate student. Blankstein encourages schools to plan ways to reap the benefits of student advocacy.

I recently attended an event for major donors of a large Jewish day school in the Boston area. I know the school and many people there quite well, but what transpired made a big impression on me. A donor of significant means stood up and said that he and his wife had looked into parochial schools for their child. During their search, they decided to include a Jewish day school as well.

The first two schools they visited had excellent reputations for the quality of their academics and each was situated on a beautiful campus. Each one offered an informative tour led by a senior administrator. It was all very impressive, and the donor said they would have been happy to have their child attend either school.

Then they visited the Jewish day school. It, too, was an excellent school with a carefully manicured campus. But at the JDS, they weren’t subjected to an administrator’s spiel; instead, they had the opportunity to speak with a current student. At the end of that conversation, their decision was clear. They knew that they wanted their child to attend the Jewish day school.

What made the parents respond this way? What was it that sold them not just on the school but also, very likely, on future support? I’d suggest it was the power and credibility of the student’s testimony. Student advocates are a superb resource for Jewish day schools seeking to ensure their long-term sustainability by boosting recruitment and creating relationships with donors.

What Are Student Advocates and Why Are They so Credible?

I define an “advocate” as someone who is passionate about a brand, product, or service and is willing and eager to share his or her passion with others in a heartfelt way. An administrator or admissions officer can serve as an advocate, but such professionals are typically paid to perform that function, which can undermine their credibility. Student advocates, alternatively, are more credible because they have a very different function: to be the best students possible. They are about learning and growing, not selling or persuading.

Over the last several years, PEJE has conducted a parents’ survey in conjunction with Measuring Success, gathering data from more than 22,000 respondents. The group comprised Jewish day school parents as well as families considering a Jewish day school. Across the board, the leading factor that parents said influenced their decision to look at day schools was a referral from a current student,  friend or family member who has a child attending a Jewish day school. As the donor I referenced at the start of this article demonstrates, the influence of a personal network can be transferred to a more general setting—one key is the student.

This shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, one reason why so many people still prefer shopping in stores to shopping online is because they want the opportunity to hold and inspect the product. A fresh-baked pie in a bakery display case sells itself better than the person behind the counter ever could. You know your friend’s gardener is good by looking at his azalea bushes. It all comes down to a simple premise: in the world of Jewish day schools, the proof of the pedagogical pudding is the students themselves.

This is good news for schools, once they recognize they have, on campus, credible, living examples of their educational effectiveness. Transforming students into advocates for your day school can be a critical recruitment strategy. Who better to talk about your school than a mature, well spoken, well rounded student with a strong Jewish identity and an engaging spirit? A parent can look at such a student and say, “I want my kid to be like that.”

An Advocate Army of One’s Own

The idea of student advocates might concern some school administrators. They might ask if it is appropriate or ethical to employ students in such an activity. Would they be able to convey the key selling points of the school? Would it be easy to recruit students to serve as ambassadors?

The answer to all these questions is, Yes! To the first question, I’d respond that day schools have a responsibility to do everything in their power to both survive and thrive in an uncertain economic landscape; this includes promoting their product, assuming they are confident they have truly impressive students. To the second question, I would say that surely top-notch students can learn anything they are taught. And to the third question, I would say that, with the proper positioning and incentives, schools should have no trouble recruiting students who are passionate about their school to become active advocates.

How, then, does a school implement a student advocacy program? Here is a four-step plan, and while it is not difficult or costly to implement, it does require commitment and cooperation from the school leadership, who must be willing to dedicate the resources, time and human capital to make it happen. Involving the admissions office, the faculty, guidance counselors, and coaches is critical to the process.

Step One: Choose Them

Create a set of criteria for selecting students. Those with strong academic records are ideal, of course, but they needn’t represent the very top performers. Aside from kids with stellar academic qualifications, you want students who are engaging, are outgoing, have good presentation skills, and are comfortable speaking one on one with adults. Students involved in extracurricular activities are strong candidates because they experience different facets of the school’s overall program.

At the same time, you should explain to students how the program is important to the school’s future, and stress that it is an honor to be selected to serve as an advocate. Tell them that this is an opportunity for them to speak about their passion for the school. One student advocate I spoke with said, “Because I love my school so much, it is easy for me to talk about it with passion and excitement. I want to share my experience with new families because I want to help my school grow.”

Step Two: Train Them

Consistency in messaging is essential to building and effectively promoting a brand. Students may think they have the “inside story” on their JDS, but that’s not necessarily the information you want a prospective family to know. Your ambassadors must have a strong understanding of your school’s mission statement, core strengths and values. You can’t just show them a brochure; you must actively train them.

I suggest convening small groups of three or four students with an administrator to practice dialogue, ask questions, and role-play. Make sure students understand the criteria the admissions office uses to identify prospective students who could be successful at the school. The more they internalize the qualities the school is looking for, the better they will be able to effectively advocate for the school.

Students also should be given a range of icebreakers to help them begin conversations, such as, “Is this your first time visiting this school?” or “Where do you live? How did you like the schools there?”

Step Three: Deploy Them

Student advocates can be deployed during school day visits and shadowing days (days where prospective students “shadow” a current student for a day), as well as at open houses and recruitment events. It can be helpful to make them identification badges so visitors can identify them by name and their class year.

I know of two schools, the Rashi School in Dedham, Massachusetts, and the Hillel School in Detroit, Michigan, that have assigned advocates in each classroom. When a visitor arrives, the advocate gets up, greets the visitor, and provides a summary of what is being taught in the class. They always finish their dialog with, “Do you have any questions?”

For more general events, it can be helpful to match a student advocate with a prospective student who has similar interests and background. Student advocates should be able to give informative tours following a prescribed route through the school. They should be comfortable and proactive in introducing visitors to people they meet along the way, such as head teachers, coaches, and, of course, the admissions director.
When student advocates are required to be present at afterschool and evening events, there should be an understanding that they may require more flexible deadlines for homework assignments. In this way, teachers can support the school’s student advocate program and help fill seats for the next academic year.

Step Four: Reward Them

Being a student advocate isn’t always easy or comfortable. Therefore, it’s critical to recognize and reward advocates for their efforts. A “reward” does not need to be a material or financial gift; it just needs to express appreciation from the school leadership.

School logo merchandise is an easy material reward. You also can ask parents who may be in a position to offer summer internships or jobs at their companies or organizations with which they are affiliated. Such opportunities will enhance a student advocate’s secondary school or college application and resume.

Student advocates also can be recognized in the school newspaper, on a school’s social media channels, or at an assembly or open house. Administrators could even reserve prime-location lockers for student advocates. Consideration should be given to ensure rewards are age-appropriate and do not create schisms among the student body between those who are chosen and those who are not.

A Most Potent Weapon

If yours is a strong, high-performing school, it will be apparent in the quality of your students. A student advocate program can provide an enriching experience to deserving kids, one that might turn out to be the most potent weapon in your school’s marketing arsenal.

If you’re not leveraging students to aid in your recruitment efforts, launching a full-fledged program may seem like a giant step. If it feels unrealistic to implement such a program all at once, at least attempt a trial with a couple of students at a specific event. Once you score your first success, you then can expand the program to fit your needs.

If your school currently runs a student advocate program, or if you have alternative strategies that work or additional ideas, please view this article online and post any comments you have. The more good ideas we can generate and test, the better. You also can view the sidebar for ways to enlist student advocates on a smaller scale.♦

Jim Blankstein is the senior marketing strategist at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) and a seasoned multi-channel marketing professional with a passion for building relationships between brands and consumers. He can be reached at jim@peje.org.

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The Whole Student

One way that day schools stand out is the attention they can provide to each and every student, as expressed in the classic line from Proverbs, “Educate the youth according to his or her path.” Authors here offer numerous ways for schools to address the multi-faceted student to ensure that s/he is nurtured academically, spiritually, creatively and socially. 

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