Cape Cod's Schools Should Learn from the Hospitality Industry
America’s favorite tourist destination could teach our schools a few things
Cape Cod’s school districts must look to the local hospitality industry for examples of how to reinvent themselves in this “brave new world” of school competition.
The Cape is one of America’s favorite destinations. One of the reasons that vacationers come back year after year is that the Cape’s hospitality industry most “gets it” when it comes to customer service. With over 4,000 Cape children – almost 14% of the local school population - attending a school other than their local one, at least part of this migration is because the schools don’t understand customer service.
Basic Customer Service
Many parents who use school choice or “charter choice” move their kids because they believe the destination school provided communication and supported parental involvement better than their local school. They believed (right or wrong) that their “new” school would provide better learning opportunities than the local school system.
Some “choice migrants” say that they felt their child’s education was marginalized by changes in the local school’s curriculum, such as when advanced classes were dropped or because they felt their child’s classes were “disrupted” by special education students. Others resented the local school spending too much money on “disadvantaged” kids and not enough on gifted/talented programs. Most that we spoke with felt their concerns were brushed off by local administrators.
Our first observation here is that it is a disgrace to the local school when a child leaves under school choice. These should be the easiest students to retain but it requires some administrators with thick skins and the ability to make quick decisions to stem these losses. Quite simply, when the school learns that a child will be leaving under school choice they should reach out to that family – and we mean by telephone or, better still, by visiting their home to find out what can be done to retain that child.
One cannot help oneself until one admits there is a problem. If their “customers” are leaving, a school has a serious problem. Anyone in the hospitality industry will tell you that when a regular customer threatens to pull their business – or when they leave without telling you – it’s time to face the problem head-on. You go to the customer and find out what you can do to win back their business.
Unfortunately, the districts that are bleeding out to school choice have missed the boat on customer retention skills. Most of our senior educators on the Cape were formed during the 1970’s and 1980’s when public school was a “take it or leave it” proposition. It’s time for these old-school educators to learn excellent customer service skills or get out of the way.
Are Amenities a Factor?
Amenities” are a factor in any hospitality setting. Remember in the 1970’s when Cape motels and restaurants started to install air conditioning? It seemed like every successful business on Route 28 had a polar bear sign offering hospitality in “air-conditioned comfort.” In the 1980’s it was HBO and indoor pools. Today’s it’s free Internet and movies.
This fall two new schools opened in air conditioned comfort. Sturgis Charter Public School and Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School have always been air conditioned. Think about how humid it was on Friday and how comfortable the kids at Sturgis and CCLCS were, sitting in their cool, dry classrooms. Monomoy High School will open with a ventilation/dehumidification system that offers some of the benefits of air conditioning without the high operational cost.
If anyone remembers sitting in a hot, third-floor classroom with teachers using long poles to pull down upper windows, this kind of amenity is quite appealing. Today’s kids value their physical comfort so amenities like air conditioning are a factor in school choice decisions.
Chatham High School, then Harwich High School and soon Monomoy High School provide Windows-based notebook computers to all students. Bourne Middle School is providing a Google Nexus 7 tablet to all fifth graders this year. Over in Sandwich, Superintendent Canfield is being crucified for spending upwards of $300,000 on iPads for students.
Chatham was first with the laptop distribution and shows why that district was always a prime school choice destination. Putting aside the “cool factor” of iPads – and stacking them next to Dr Canfield’s dripping head – these kind of amenities matter to kids and parents today. Even if the kids are watching YouTube on their iPad’s, parents perceive this kind of 1/1 technology effort as a positive customer service practice.
Hiding Their Light
Many educators are not entirely comfortable promoting their schools’ advantages. Today this “selling” is absolutely mandatory, not only to make the school look inviting to in-bound choice students but to retain existing students.
Over the past year we have met several district administrators across the Cape. We were impressed by what many of them had to say but freely accuse them of “hiding their light”.
Did you know that several Cape school districts are looking at 1/1 technology plans? Or that at least three are considering some form of the International Baccalaureate program? Has anyone talked about “differentiated instruction” and how is provides instructional alternatives for kids working at all levels of proficiency? Have you heard an administrator from a school with low MCAS score talking passionately about what they’re doing to bring their students’ scores up?
Marketing - that’s the final piece in the public-education-as-hospitality puzzle. If a school district with “challenges” does not articulate their solutions and long term plans to their “customers”, who can blame the parents from sending their kids to another district? If a school fails to promote their planned opportunities for advanced students, who would be surprised when they “bug out” to find opportunities elsewhere?
With a 4,000 strong group of Cape students leaving their home districts for greener pastures, “customer service” in our local school districts has never been more important. The Cape’s renowned hospitality industry is an excellent model for the kind of customer service skills our teachers and administrators must develop to keep students – and money – in their home districts.
Last winter we watched one school district “discuss to death” how to promote their schools – at the very moment when parents were making school choice decisions. By the time the educators emerged from their high-level meetings, the chickens had already flown the coop.
Time is running out for many of the region’s school districts. “Next year” is too late for Cape Cod’s school executives to learn hospitality-style customer service and promotional skills.