Cast A Wider Net

As the childcare and camp director of a private, independent (nonprofit) school in Wilmington, Del., I am always looking for ways to attract more families and better serve children. Five years ago—with these goals in mind—the school opened up before-school and after-school care programs to local public school students.

Why do this? While Wilmington Montessori had great programs, too few people knew it. Many people assume that a Montessori school is only for preschoolers, and don’t realize the school serves children through sixth grade. Most of the campus is not visible from the road, so people also didn’t know there are a beautiful building, several playgrounds, and nature trails through the woods. Like most independent schools in this post-recession economy, Wilmington was dealing with lower enrollment. The camp had always been open to everyone, but opening extended programs to students outside the school would be a source of revenue and a way to bring the school into the spotlight in a positive way.

Getting Started

Working with the head of transportation for the local district, I discovered there were actually four schools that would bus to Wilmington Montessori. The next essential connection was the district information officer. I requested an appointment to determine whether—and how— information could be distributed to families in targeted schools. I explained what the school was looking to do, and stressed I was there to craft a win-win partnership with the district. She told me that Delaware schools allow nonprofit organizations to distribute hard-copy materials to students. The materials must be vetted and approved by the information officer, packaged in sets of 25, and taken to each school office.

By this time, the administrators had also decided to offer full-day School’s Out care on days when the district schools were closed, even if the Montessori school was in regular session. Staff members are lucky enough to have classrooms dedicated to school-age care and recreation that are available year-round. Extended Day staff members are able to extend their hours to work with the public school children on those days.

I made up flyers with photos of children enjoying our beautiful campus—indoors and out—and information about rates and options. The flyers were sent home with 2,500 children (kindergarten through fifth grade), and a new world began to open up. In the first year—with only that flyer as promotion—we had 18 public school students in the daily after-school program. Last year there were 45, with another 30 who attend only on School’s Out days.

Creating A Broader Base

In the second year, the After-school Special Programs were open to outside students. These once-a-week courses are offered in a semester format that is independent of the regular after-school program. Examples are cartooning, tennis, young scientists, hip-hop dance, and LEGO Problem Solvers. Students would arrive on the bus for one of these special courses, even if they were not enrolled in our regular after-school program. We sent full listings home with about 1,500 students this time, and had 22 new registrants. This doesn’t sound like many, but widening the participant pool made it possible to offer more courses to our regular school families. 

When I expressed my surprise to a public school parent that we didn’t have more students enrolled in After-school Specials, she said I had not made it clear enough that the school was offering so many benefits: children could be transported by district bus, they would be welcomed and fed a snack, and after the course was over, they could relax with friends in the afterschool group, all at no additional charge. I revised the flyer, but there is only so much that parents are willing to read, so I went on a campaign to raise awareness. 

I visited schools and talked with the office staff—the real nexus of knowledge in any school—and obtained permission from principals to set up a display at school- and district-wide events. Depending on the time of year, I’d have materials available for Extended Day, After-school Specials, School’s Out, Summer Camp, or all of these. The message was that Wilmington Montessori was a place where kids would love to come, no matter the occasion. Whenever possible, I brought our spin-art machine and an assistant, so children could make pictures to take home in a frame. On the back of the frame were the school’s logo, the website address, and phone number. So at fitness fairs, back-to-school nights, community days, and parent nights, there was a table with flyers, registration forms, and plenty of photos of children building towers, doing science experiments, sailing boats in the stream, and picnicking under the pine trees. 

Timing Communication Properly

Warm and timely communication is essential. I encourage prospective parents to tour the school, even if they are sure they want to enroll. I engage them in conversation about their child’s interests and experiences, and try to understand the family’s needs. When a child arrives for the first time, the staff is made aware so the child is greeted by name and helped to make connections with other children. I send mass emails to parents only when there is important news that’s relevant to their child or when new program registrations open. I follow up with individual emails to parents after a child’s first day with us, making sure the child’s experience was good. If it wasn’t, I do something about it. If I’ve managed to take a good photo of the child happily engaged in activities that day, I email that to the parent.

It works. All of this outreach has significantly raised our profile in the larger community, significantly increased revenue in ways that don’t drain the pockets of our school families further, and even converted a few families to full school enrollment.

Additional Benefits

These benefits have also helped the school solve a problem I had not seen as related: attrition in summer camp. When children attend fun and enriching programs year-round, their parents are more inclined to commit to more weeks of camp.  A year is normally too long for younger children to remember that they loved a particular camp. Now they remember, want to see their friends and their favorite staff members, and desire to be part of whatever’s next. I put up camp photos in December, and children drag their parents by the hand to show them photos of themselves in the garden, at the pool, in the woods, or laughing with a friend. Posting photos on the website also helps families remember why it’s worth what they’re paying, and more. During spring break, we offer three half-day mini-camps with art and science themes, and these are very popular with children from public and other private schools. Many children who try one of these camps will then enroll in summer camp.

Was there resistance to this expansion among our private school families? Sometimes. In practice, there are few distinctions between the two sets of children; they blend very well, and the addition of new children allows our full-time students to practice grace, courtesy, and leadership. It is a lot of work—and paperwork—to keep track of an ever-changing group of children in a wide variety of programs. Still, if a year-round space and great staff teams are available, offering a variety of high-quality care and enrichment programs through the year will benefit camp enrollment as well as the bottom line.

Cass Winner is the Director of Extended Programs at Wilmington Montessori School in Wilmington, Del. Reach her at (302) 475-0555, or