In this interview, we sat down with Susan Wolfsen, the Director of Corte Madera Montessori, which is a preschool in the Bay Area. As a veteran of over 30 years in early childhood education, she shares helpful tips on planning strategically for enrollment each year as well as ways to support families online at this time.
As a school director, what approach are you taking to start the process of 2020 Fall enrollment at your school?
Well, actually, our process starts a year before in September. It’s a long process. We look to see what our enrollment would possibly be in the following fall. And then we start our tours in October. We give individual tours and accept applications. Then in January, we ask our returning families to get their contracts in, and then we know how many spaces we'll have available.
Come February, I start notifying the new families that we have space for them. We schedule classroom visits for the children to come in and meet the teachers. And the parents can see their child in our environment. And from there, we give out the contracts, they return them, and they're enrolled for the following fall.
But unfortunately, at this point, we started our visits in February and then had to close. We did the whole wait and see dance because we just didn't know what was going to happen. I decided to cancel all of our visits, obviously, and we're just giving out the contracts to the families that are still interested in enrolling for the fall.
We'll do a quick classroom visit before school starts for the 2020 school year. And actually, believe it or not, I'm looking ahead and planning my tours for the 2021 school year. And I'm thinking I might have to do Skype tours or do some type of YouTube video tour for new families for the next year.
What practical advice would you give to other school administrators as far as communication protocols?
So thankfully, we have email and text tools from Curacubby that we've been using off the bat from the weekend that we canceled. We notified all of our parents about what was going on, and we send a weekly email to them giving updates on what we're hearing and what we're planning. We take things week to week and keep parents up to date with our plans.
As you walk parents through the registration process, what are the stressful points that you might deal with for staff and parents?
It's very tricky. It's all about timing. Parents spend a lot of time looking for schools, touring schools, filling out applications, and then it's the waiting game. For new families, all schools have different deadlines for their applications and different deadlines for notification for enrollment.
I really wish there was a universal calendar for the enrollment period. It's a big puzzle.
It's especially stressful from January through about mid-March because that's when all the schools are starting to notify new parents for enrollment. And parents are contacting me on a weekly basis. Hey, do you know if you have space yet?
Now for continuing families, they don't have that issue. We automatically enroll them for the following year.
As a school director, what are some ways to get registration numbers up? What are you doing this year?
Well, we've been really lucky. We've continued our full enrollment for the past 10 years at least. And our advertising is more through our website and word of mouth.
This year, I am not sure. We came into February looking like we'll be full for the fall. But as you know, unfortunately, some families are losing their jobs or they might have to move. So I'm just waiting to see what happens. A lot of people move in the summer either away from this area or into this area, so I'm hopeful.
Obviously, with the challenges of COVID-19, there may be some parents who might not feel comfortable enrolling their children into a classroom for fall. What kind of feedback do you give parents with those types of concerns?
First of all, I want to validate their feelings. I mean, this is such a crazy time. We all are processing this differently. And we also have different challenges at home. Some of us might have family members who have underlying health conditions, or we might have our grandparents at home taking care of the children. So there are so many things to think about.
One thing that parents should remember is preschools are used to being around a lot of germs and viruses. Before this crisis, our teachers spent a lot of time cleaning, making sure that the children are healthy, and washing their hands. We all want a clean environment for everybody.
Protocols are going to change and become stricter, and we'll be up on those protocols, sharing those with our parents and letting them know what we're going to be doing. It might even be taking temperatures once or twice a day.
I really think that parents going into a new school should ask a lot of questions about the health protocols to make sure they feel comfortable going into the school year with their child. In the end, parents should listen to their gut; they know what's best for their family and for their children.
Do you have any advice for how parents and their children should be interacting more on the social and emotional aspects at home?
There's a lot of things, even just being at home with your children, being understanding, spending time cooking and cleaning with your children, and Skyping with grandparents and with their friends.
But have some fun too, play some music, have some dance parties, do a lot of singing, create some beats with pots and pans, and stay connected with your family. We really encourage that face-to-face connection as much as possible.
What's been your highlight going through what is clearly an incredibly stressful and emotional time?
There's been a few. Our families are very connected. And when teachers started emailing out ideas for families to do at home, to continue the Montessori environment in their home, I would receive photos of the children with their Montessori environment. The photos just warmed my heart; it brings tears to my eyes.
Also, I peeked in on a zoom meeting with one of our classrooms, and the teacher has to put them all on mute because they all want to talk at the same time. She was reading a story, and it was fun to see them all trying to communicate with their own personalities. We all know them so well now, and you can see their personalities coming through but you couldn't hear anything. So it was just was so heartwarming to see that. That was a lot of fun.
What kind of advice would you give to your peers right now dealing with this situation?
Well, right now the focus is on staying connected with your students as much as you can, being compassionate and understanding where everybody's coming from, and validating people's feelings. But it’s also important to start planning for when we open and how we are going to welcome our children back and prepare for the new Community Care Licensing protocols.
It's important that we all work together and come up with new ideas because it will look different in the fall. We all have ideas to share, and I think we should work together.