Last night I and our Head Boy, David Boroto, were interviewed by Jo-Ann Roberts on CBC Radio about our new admissions initiative, The Best School Year Ever. An alum of the school emailed me within seconds of the end of the interview: “Awesome”.
The aim of this initiative is to expand our boarding market. In the interview I made the point that although we have strong boarding enrolment (we have added thirty boarding beds in the past six years, have exceeded our boarding targets this year, and appear on target to do so again next year) in general in North America there is a marked decline in boarding enrolment, and SMUS does not want to be part of that decline. Evidence for the decline is clear: each year in North America we estimate about 6400 students apply to all the boarding schools in North America. If those students were divided equally among all the boarding schools, that would mean only 27 students per school. We enrol about one hundred new boarding students a year, so we aim to take more than our share, and we do: a recent bit of research conducted by Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) indicated that we enrol a much higher percentage of North American students than the vast majority of boarding schools. We also enrol a healthy number of international students, in keeping with our deliberate goal of cultivating a global perspective in our students and in our school. But we are still looking at a very small pool of North American students, for whom the competition is fierce.
If you took the top 10% of all students in North America (which might be a crude way to identify our potential market), we would have 3.5 million potential students between grades 8 and 12. Our question is: how do we interest the 3.5 million, who likely never think of applying to boarding school, to consider it? The answer is our contest, which offers a full boarding scholarship to the winning student. We don’t want these 3.5 million just to consider it, we want them to imagine it will be their Best School Year Ever.
I was asked “what sort of student are you hoping will apply and win?” My response was basically that we want a student who feels that a year at SMUS will give him or her the best school year ever, to be active, play sports, participate in the arts – music, drama, dance – perform some service for others, be part of a lively and fun community – and, oh yes, do some school work. We aren’t looking necessarily for the best “genius”, or the most gifted athlete, or the most excellent musician. Really what we want is a student who will look at the SMUS Vision and say, “Yes, I want to learn, to lead, to serve, to discover the promise in myself and the world”. We want someone who will look at our Mission and believe that yes, there is excellence in all of us, that we should seek it with both passion and compassion, be part of a vibrant community that values the pursuit of truth and goodness. We want someone to think about what the best school year ever might actually mean.
And did I mention FUN? And FRIENDSHIPS? David Boroto, the Grade 12 student who interviewed with me, a boarder from Saskatchewan, would say fun and friendships are the most important part of the experience.
Part of the judging process will be two interviews with members of our Alumni judging panel. The earliest spark of the positive energy this initiative generates occurred when every one of the panelists agreed to participate without hesitation. This list starts with Steve Nash, two-time MVP in the NBA, but also includes prize-winning authors (Kenneth Oppel and Alexandra Richie), the founder of Flickr (Stewart Butterfield), a crusader for rare diseases (Simon Ibell), the Prime Minister’s Senior Policy Adviser (Rachel Curran), a prominent financial advisor and hedge fund director (Ann Glazier-Rothwell), a successful rock musician (Bryce Soderberg of Lifehouse), and the former Director General of the US Foreign Service (Anthony Quainton). Add to that list our current student, Ann Makosinski, the winner of this year’s international Google Science Fair and one of Time Magazine’s Top Thirty under 30 most influential people in the world, and you have a pretty solid set of interviewers.
Jo-Ann Roberts, the CBC interviewer, also asked me the very pertinent question: What happens after this student has the best school year ever? What if they can’t afford to come back the next year? A great question, and we have a great answer: we have a robust financial aid program, offering more than $2 million per year of financial aid (over 20% of SMUS students attend on financial aid), and it will be a simple process for the student to apply for and receive the financial aid he or she is entitled to. We hope and believe that the winning student will stay and graduate from SMUS.
What is this project costing? My daughter-in-law who has a career in marketing in Toronto, asked me this question, and she couldn’t believe it when I said that actually it was costing no “extra” money and probably about a tenth of what she was anticipating: we are funding the entire project by re-allocating a small portion of our marketing budget. Apart from some postcards, a one-third page ad in the Toronto Globe and Mail, and consulting fees to the agencies we work with here in Victoria, there are few other costs – the project is being entirely driven by digital means: email, Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Google Ads, etc. My one thousand plus followers in Linked In; my fewer followers on Twitter, readers of my blog and my email contact list are all going to have a very thorough acquaintance with this initiative by the time it ends. I will promote it like crazy. I ask and invite anyone else in our community to do the same: somewhere there is a student who is a great fit for SMUS and who doesn’t know it. Our website provides tons of examples and factual information to explain why a student might indeed have the best school year ever, but your own personal reference makes a world of difference in cementing the credibility of the SMUS experience. Help us find a student who will have The Best School Year Ever.