Each year between November and March, my blood pressure rises, my time sleeping falls, and my anxiety peaks.
This time of the year is the most important time of the year for our program because it is the timeframe for returning students to declare their intentions for returning the following school year and for potential new students to decide if we are where they want to place their future. The pinnacle of the recruiting season for us is freshman open house., where we engage in hand to hand combat to win the hearts of current 8th and 9th grade students and their parents.
I work in a pretty unique environment. The Rockdale Career Academy (RCA) is a part of the Rockdale County School System and located about 30 miles outside of Atlanta. We are a “program” of the Three traditional high schools in the county. Students get bused to us throughout the day to take One of over Twenty-five career pathways. Making our situation more interesting is that Two of the traditional high schools have video programs as well. As you can imagine, standing out in the crowd is tough especially with our program entering its 12th year and one of the other school’s programs entering its second semester (think NEW SHINY toys vs equipment that has been used for a while). With those things in mind, our recruiting efforts are second to none simply because it has to be.
Our recruiting never stops. I have students filming throughout the county almost every day. Either filming sports events or working on their current project, I have students in the community throughout the year. This helps a ton when it comes to the official recruitment window. It also helps that I, too, am out there with them a good bit - especially at sporting events. I invest in business cards each year that have the traditional content (name, number, etc) on one side and a marketing message for our program on the other. I go through about a thousand cards a year.
During the recruiting window, things change. The students come to us. The last several years, we have bussed every 9th grade student possible from their “home” high school to the career academy for a tour of the building. Tour makes it seem like a nice leisurely walk through the programs where they can ask questions and get a good understanding about the pathways. It is more of a sprint with each program showing off and telling about the program in around a minute (I made sure to get my entire 75 seconds in!) I am not at all bashing the tour process but it is not the “disney experience” for the students. It is the best option of all that were attempted over the years but it leaves a lot to be desired. That said, it has worked well for us.
Our approach to the tours has been simply - SHOW OFF. Don’t lie. Don’t exaggerate. Simply show the students what we have and what can be done in our program. Obviously we only show the best of the best in terms of video work. We break out the cameras that only the top tier students use. This year, we set up a jib with a camera with a wireless set up and sent the signal to a TV across the room. We also wowed the students with a Mavic Pro - we don’t use it in the program but James Dinsmoor has one that HE (not the students) uses occasionally. We basically put on a show for 60 or so seconds and get the students fired up.
On the way out the door and onto the next 60 second career expose, we give the interested students a trifold flyer that gives more details about the program. This sounds simple but we take a lot of pride in the trifold. We don’t print it in black and white then run a couple hundred copies off the in the teacher workroom then fold them. We used to…. But we decided that the best way to get the best looking product in the hands of the students and parents was to go the best way possible and have them printed by a professional. We take a couple hundred dollars and have a thousand flyers produced. We use them throughout the recruiting process as well as throughout the year at community and school events. It seems simple but it makes a huge impact with the students and parents that the pictures (of students working) are decent sized, updated, and in full color. Here’s the secret to making a better impression with less work. For the most part the content stays the same but we update the photographs each year. This is important for many reasons - not the least of which is to show the recruits the faces of our current students because they see them in their home school.
Now to the biggest night of our year - Open House. This Three hour extravaganza is our biggest chance to close the deal with the students and their parents. This is where I use my experience from radio the most. The first step is to make sure people actually see things. Again, it sounds simple; of course they are going to see things. I make sure things are in their face, can’t be overlooked, and impossible to resist or ask questions about. This starts before the studios and labs. Our equipment lines the hall outside of the rooms. Tables are covered - it is amazing how often this is overlooked - and there are things for people to see and touch. We show off awards. We lure people in and try to keep them as long as possible. I want people to not be able to walk by without asking a question. I want them intrigued by what we do and how they can be a part of it. The picture above is our set up prior to people arriving. It was strategic that we have things on both sides of the hall. It is easy for people to turn their head and walk away but this way, if they do turn their head, they see more stuff! What you don’t see are the Two 8-foot bulletin boards on the left with details and pictures about our program.
During open house, we welcome everyone to walk through our labs and studios. This gives them an opportunity to see more things and oddly enough the biggest thing that surprises people is that we “painted our wall green instead of using a cloth.” We hear that dozens of times each open house. This is just an example of how easy people are to impress.
We also talk with the potential students and their parents about what to expect. We don’t lie and tell them they are going to be the next Spielberg or Tarantino or that we go on hundreds of field trips. We are honest with them. “You will read. You will write. You will think like you have never thought before.” We try to impress on the students that this field is not simply pointing a camera or sitting in an edit bay but instead it is a field that requires a lot of work and a ton of thinking.
We also field a ton of questions. This year the most common question was “my child wants to be a youtuber - will this help?” My answer is always the same: “This class will help them have the hammer and nails they need but won’t give them the drive, dedication, or passion needed. They have to provide those.”
The open house process for us comes to a close as students determine their chosen pathway and we sign to note that we have talked with the students and parents about the expectations of the pathway. Each year, I am afraid to ask what our numbers were because we have to hit a number in order to be a viable pathway in terms of money. Some years are good - some are a struggle. Only time will tell if we did a good enough job.
Tom White is a video production teacher at the Rockdale Career Academy in Conyers. GA. Tom is also the director of the Sports Broadcast Institute, which is One of Five Georgia Governor’s Innovation in Education award winning programs and the NFHS Network Best Overall Program. The Sports Broadcast Institute works to produce live broadcasts, newscasts, sports documentaries and more for the Three schools, Rockdale Co, Salem, and Heritage High schools, that the career academy serves. Prior to teaching, Tom was a marketing, promotions, and online content director for a major radio corporation in Atlanta. Tom studied exercise science at High Point University prior to his radio career. Despite his winding career path, his mother still thinks he is special.