Guest Post: Making the Most of Your Summer Fun(ds)— Effectively Recruiting Students

February 27, 2024

This is a guest post from AASA 2023-24 president, Gladys Cruz.

By now, your summer program is likely starting to take shape. You may have begun planning lessons, engaging partners, and recruiting teachers. In the midst of the to-dos, it’s important to pause and remember: even the highest quality, most exciting summer learning program won’t make a difference if students don’t attend. A thoughtful and well-executed plan for recruiting students is therefore essential. And while enrolling students in the program is an important milestone, your recruitment process is only truly successful when students arrive at the program on the first day and attend regularly throughout the program.

Fortunately, The Summer Learning Recruitment Guide by Crosby Marketing is full of tips and examples about how to do this well! The recommendations are based on learning from parent focus groups and data from districts in the National Summer Learning Project. The guide includes a wealth of resources and evidence-based language to use in marketing your summer program effectively, including a sample recruitment timeline with milestones. It is a best practice to launch program recruitment somewhere between the start of the second semester and Spring Break. 

Keys to success include: 

Create engaging messaging that appeals to students and families

With the exception of summer programs for credit recovery, most summer learning programs are voluntary. That means families and students have to want to attend, and they may compare your program with a variety of other camps in the area as families plan their students’ summer. So, how do you set your program apart? 

This is where your program’s name, theme, unique offerings, and credentials should shine. Instead of “summer school,” consider a name that embraces the overall theme and culture of the program. Have fun creating colorful and enticing program marketing materials, but don’t forget to cover the basics. Families cited transportation, hours of operation, cost, location, proximity to home, and the perceived safety of the site as important to their decision to enroll. Researchers found that families liked a mix of academics, enrichment, and field trips and responded positively to the idea of preparing their child for success in the next school year. Check out sample program fliers from Texas districts and charters participating in the ADSY PEP learning community for inspiration. Learn how to create engaging messaging in the Recruitment Guide. 

Equip trusted messengers for personalized outreach 

Researchers found that teachers, principals, and guidance counselors with established relationships with students and caregivers were trusted messengers for families and therefore excellent summer learning program recruiters. Afterschool staff and parent liaisons may also have strong existing relationships and regular contact with families that can help during recruitment. Equip these messengers with lists of priority students, key information about the program, and program materials like fliers and enrollment forms to aid in their recruitment. 

Use a variety of methods to reach families, such as mailers, phone calls, handwritten notes, confirmation letters and postcards, the school/district website, email blasts, fliers, program shirts and posters, and social media. Check out more ideas here. Consider a phased process that gives first priority to students who can benefit the most from the program. 

But your recruitment work doesn’t end with a list of enrolled students—don’t forget to encourage them to attend! Researchers found that districts with the highest attendance rates made personal connections with families in their program reminders.

Make registration easy

A cumbersome or confusing registration process may discourage some families. Plan strategically to ensure a smooth registration process for families, and make sure to include straightforward information about registration on marketing materials. Consider using a QR code for registration for parents to easily scan during school drop-off or pick-up and complete enrollment on their phones. Also offer hard copy forms at the front desk, and be sure to translate enrollment materials into the languages most commonly spoken at home in your district. 

Set a firm enrollment deadline

It may be tempting to keep enrollment open until the last possible minute, but setting a firm enrollment deadline (ideally in May) gives you time to plan a quality program and sends a message to families that attendance matters. With enrollment data in hand, you can do the important work of assigning students to classrooms, assigning teachers to students, and planning bus routes. 

Communicate attendance expectations

One risk of a no-cost, voluntary program is that families may not prioritize regular attendance, which of course reduces the program’s impact on students. It’s important to set an expectation of strong attendance during enrollment. RAND found that students who attended at least 20 days in the summer, with 90 minutes each of math and reading each day, experienced benefits that lasted into the next school year. Districts should establish an attendance expectation in the program registration and orientation materials. Consider requiring a family contract and advertising incentives for strong attendance, like raffles and gift cards. 

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Remember, launch student recruitment by Spring Break and use the next few months to build excitement and anticipation for students, teachers, and families!

This blog is part of a Summer Program Planning series that draws from evidence-based practices culled from RAND research commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. Each suggestion is accompanied by concrete resources from the online Summer Learning Toolkit to provide just-in-time support throughout the school year for your district’s summer learning team. (Check out the May, June, July, August, October, November, December, and January blog posts for more summer advice.)

For more, share Eight Key Summer Learning Practices for Elementary School Districts with your summer leadership team.