If You Build It, Will They Come?

Remember the good old days when you could pass out a few flyers, hit some church festivals, and open your school with full classrooms and a healthy waiting list?  Those days are long-gone in most cities with a robust charter school sector.  In the age of school choice, school leaders have to work a lot harder to attract students.  We also have to get a lot smarter about where we open new schools.  Unless, of course, you have a friendly ghost whispering in your ear.

The intersection of need and demand is the sweet spot for a new school.  To find it, look at target areas in your city based on how far 80% of your prospective families are likely to travel for school.  If you have transportation, this area is probably a lot larger than if you don’t.  A two-mile radius is a good start, but draw on your own experience or that of other schools in the area. 

Once you have your target areas, these four metrics will help you choose the best location for your new school:

1.     School Quality

Every state has a ton of metrics for assessing quality, but you know schools, so pick the ones you think matter the most.  In general, three to five years of achievement and student growth data will show pretty clearly if area schools are getting better or worse.

2.     Enrollment Trends

Most state departments of education publish annual enrollment data for each school, too.  Looking at five years of enrollment data for area schools will show whether your target area is over-saturated or under-served. 

3.     Market Share

The current enrollment at area schools -- especially average grade-level size -- will show you what percentage of the market you will need to make your model work. Student directory data from public records requests give you an even better idea of what percentage of local students you will need.  A lot depends on the city, but 20% market share is a good benchmark.     

4.     Population Trends

The U.S. Census Bureau is fantastic resource.  Their 2015 American Community Survey data can give you an excellent understanding of whether an area has been gaining or losing population since the 2010 Census (especially 0 to 4-year old’s, 5 to 9-year old’s, etc.).  You can also find some pretty detailed demographic data on target areas.

Of course, a good building may be the only data point that really matters.  But looking at your city through these four lenses will help give you a good understanding of where the need is, where the demand is, and how difficult marketing your new school will be. 

These guidelines shouldn’t be an excuse not to open a new school, especially if the need is great.  They’re meant to help you choose the best option for that labor of love.  Either way, opening a new school is hard.  But just because something’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.  In fact, anything worth doing usually is.