As this year’s new kids on the block, the Clarity Team eagerly set up our booth in the sponsors’ hall, arranged the swag, and parsed out the lead sheets. Coming from over a decade in admissions, it felt a whole lot like a massive school fair. The energy was palpable and at least for me as a first time vendor, I found it easier to zoom out and take everything in. In fact, that’s just what we did as a team and after taking some time to reflect, I’d like to share with you Clarity’s top five takeaways from EMA AC22.
The EMA conference this year returned to a level not seen since 2019 and it sparked so much joy, you would be forgiven for thinking Marie Kondo had a hand in planning the event. The palpable energy was a profound reminder of the importance of personal connection in the independent school world. Looking around the JW Marriott, the joy of connection was evident in every hallway, presentation room, table, and arguably most of all – the hotel bar. I will freely admit that I tend to be a bit of a night owl at conferences, but this time around I was surprised to see so many people continuing to network and build new connections long after the 2am last call. Equally valuable as the presentation sessions themselves, the bridges we build with one another connect us, sustain us, and serve as the wellspring of all the joy we experienced at EMA this year.
Innovation could not have been better encapsulated than by EMA Executive Director Heather Hoerle’s word cloud with the two words that stood out amongst the rest: Confidence and Opportunity. The pandemic forced independent schools to reimagine how they deliver their product and it was inspiring to witness so much of that innovation being carried forward into post-pandemic strategy. As a team, we saw a particularly large number of sessions covering Net Tuition Revenue, the business side of financial aid, flexible tuition models and new approaches to enrollment management, even down to rebranding the entire financial aid process. So much has been lost over the past two years, but gaining the confidence to innovate allows schools to seize new opportunities and try different approaches to solve ever-evolving challenges.
Perspective surfaced for the Clarity team as a common thread throughout a number of sessions as yet another lesson the pandemic has taught us – how we see our schools and how parents see us are constantly in flux. As Heather Hoerle aptly pointed out, “parents got really good at online shopping during the pandemic” and that includes shopping for schools. Taking a step back to recognize that parents’ perspective of our schools may or may not match our own perspectives gives us the perfect opportunity to define and redefine who we are in a new, post-pandemic landscape. We felt that keynote speaker Fawn Weaver said it best when she shared, “it’s never about the barrier…it’s always about the opportunity or the sliver of hope that we should be going for.”
Data-oriented sessions were plentiful this year at EMA, and for good reason. Data has been a primary focus in our industry for a number of years, but this EMA conference took data analytics to a new level of complexity. There were sessions that covered not just what data to track or how to track it, but what to actually do with the data that gets collected. This year’s conference elevated the charge for how schools should use data – to put the information into actionable use from telling stories to supporting institutional change. To paraphrase session speakers Eric Heilman and Wellesly Wilson, “Ask the right questions using data you are already collecting to answer a concrete question…You can’t just look at a student who you admitted and who did well and seek to use that as a model, it’s not good enough.”
We CAN have nice things!
This is the lynchpin for all the other takeaways. We are no longer going to settle for “good enough” or “we’ve always done it this way” as acceptable paths forward when it comes to how we operate our schools. To quote Heather Hoerle one final time, “Common and easy online tools are needed in a post-pandemic age.” The willingness to innovate, to shift perspective, clearly define the mission, to seek challenges confidently, and to find the joy in our connections are what will carry independent schools successfully into the future. It’s time to elevate our level of sophistication in how data and process can help our schools thrive and it’s time to re-evaluate the solutions and tools we use to achieve our goals. The pace of change is only going to continue accelerating, and for schools to model the lifelong learning they wish to see in their students, it is essential to find new ways to meet families where they are so that they can be welcomed into this vibrant community of independent schools.
- CLIC Readers are a sign you’ve either “made it” or have been around EMA for a very long time… (if you don’t know what CLIC Readers are, you’re safe).
- People know who Clarity’s founder Brennan is, but they get his name wrong constantly. We’ve seen Brendan, Brandon, Brendon, Brandan, Brenna, Bruno (we don’t talk about Bruno).