In working with coaches who have succeeded in establishing schools, we often hear that one of the turning points for them was realizing how important it is to carefully select the families they bring on board, especially the first set of families.

Your first class will set the tone and educational culture for other students who come into the school later. With a small class size, each student can have a significant impact on everyone else in the school’s ecosystem. Of course, the culture of the school has to be carefully cultivated by you and your staff as well, but starting with families whose idea of education closely matches yours can eliminate a lot of bumps from your first year.

Criteria for Families

The hardest part about starting a school is getting the first few families to commit to it. It can be tempting to take someone, anyone you can find just to fill your roster. Experience tells us, though, that it’s wiser to exercise some discernment when it comes to accepting families.

Before you start talking to families, jot down a list of criteria. Start with the obvious. Do they have a student of the right age for your school? What is the student’s reading level, and how will you assess it? A student’s reading level affects how self-directed they can be. Then get into some of the more difficult questions. If your school’s mission addresses a particular interest or ability, has the student expressed that interest? Does the student have special needs, or does the family have any unusual circumstances? If your school is designed for special needs, great! Either way, it’s a good idea to make this decision before you start talking to families and students, because changing the scope of your school can affect the types of resources you’ll need to provide.

One of the most important questions you’ll want to (gently) discuss with these families is why they’re interested in your school. What type of educational model have they tried before? Have they been homeschooled? Montessori? In public or private school? What’s prompting them to change things up? The answers to these questions will give you insight into their philosophy of education, and it might also give you a glimpse of the unique challenges facing the student.

Give the student agency, starting now

In a microschool in which the parents are quite involved in a student’s education, it’s important to talk to the whole family. But don’t forget about the actual student! In a system based on each young person taking control of their education, learning at their own pace, and using self-directed methods like Socratic dialogue and project-based learning, the student himself becomes a huge factor in his educational success. So interview the student!

Depending on the age of the student, the interview could take a lot of different forms, and it might even include some observation. However you choose to get to know the student, do it with the goal of understanding how well they work independently and in groups, what their capabilities are, and what they think of learning or school in general. Their attitude can have a huge effect on not only their success, but the attitudes of others in the school.

Of course, there are no perfect people, and you won’t find a perfect family, either. It is worth going into the process with eyes wide open and realistic expectations about what might happen down the road.

Put it in writing!

Once you’ve found a family that matches your school and sold them on the idea of your school, put it in writing! Have all the paperwork ready for them to sign. This is also an appropriate time to ask them for a deposit and registration fee to hold their child’s spot in your school. Even a small deposit is a commitment that they’re not likely to go back on, and it has the added benefit of giving you some money to help with start-up expenses.

It’s much harder to get the first families to commit because they don’t have the benefit of seeing the school in action. It’s also riskier to be a founding family than it is to jump on board in the second or third year. One incentive you might consider offering to your founding families is a locked-in tuition discount. For as long as the students are in the school, the founding families pay a lower tuition rate than families who join after the first year. Of course, don’t forget to reflect that financial choice in your business plan.

The process of onboarding and interviewing families will continue throughout the next few months and possibly throughout the school year, if you so choose. As with any part of this process, you’ll refine it as you learn lessons from your successes and from your struggles.