Become the worst kept secret.
That's the goal for Watkinson School, as stated by the Advancement Committee of Watkinson's Board of Trustees (for which I am the staff liaison).
With a 40-acre campus that is literally and figuratively in the shadow of its neighbor, the University of Hartford, the school has suffered for decades from being unknown, or even worse, wrongly known. The Advancement Committee knew addressing the school's public perception in the community was critical to the school's long-term success.
Founded in 1881, Watkinson's history has three distinct eras. First, it was a farm school for wayward boys (yes, that was the actual tagline). Later, it became an episcopal school for boys. Now it is a co-ed independent day school.
In the school's early years as an independent school, students with diagnosed learning differences came to Watkinson in droves because of the school's industry-leading Learning Skills Program. While providing a much needed service to families, this led to the school being known as "a broken wing" school, or a school just for learning disabled kids.
The reality is that Watkinson believes the best way to teach kids with learning challenges is the best way to teach ALL kids. So much so, that the school doesn't separate its students by ability level, but rather has heterogeneous classes where the academic program is placed squarely in the hands of an exceptional faculty (no Common Core, no standardized tests). And just as our student body is comprised of a wide array of learners, so too is our college list...including schools from Yale and Harvard, to Clark, Elon, and Lynn Universities, and more state schools than we can count.
We had years of data proving that once people visit Watkinson's campus, they "get" us. Suddenly our complex history and progressive teaching style is put into the context of a caring community that develops students to have the power to shape their lives and the world around them (the school's mission statement). The Advancement Committee decided our strategy should be built around drawing our target market to campus. But how? Why would they come?
The Cherry On Top
And just to sweeten the equation a bit more, in our second season we added a pre-forum community dinner to each event. This allowed all those people who had so much in common ideologically, to gather for conversation and connect in Watkinson's dining room. Now, five seasons in, people love the dinners as much as the forums.
In the last five years, Freshly Squeezed has included forums on the purpose of education, ethical consumerism, musical activism, comedy in Connecticut and more. Watkinson is now known as the school that hosts meaningful dialogue...this forum quite literally put us on the map of the greater Hartford area. When I make chit chat with my doctor, dry cleaner, grocer, etc., and I tell them I work at Watkinson, the response has gone from "Oh, where is that?" to "Oh, that's the school that does that 'Freshly Squeezed', right?" Hundreds of like minded people — or, said another way, people directly in Watkinson's target market — have visited Watkinson, gotten a first-hand impression of the school, and gone home to tell their friends and neighbors about it. And in the process, more than $20,000 of revenue has been donated to the education programs of Hartford Stage, Billings Forge and the Mark Twain House.
(Insert mic drop here.)