Matthew Burgy, Director of Admission at St. Mark’s Episcopal School in Houston, Texas, is a “newbie” admission director with a deep set of knowledge and skills acquired in a variety of work experiences and educational settings, including home construction, teacher, coach, and school administrator. To learn more about the challenges and opportunities new admission directors face, The Yield sat down with Matt to hear his perspectives on the job and on the special role that mentoring played in his transition.
Tell us about your background and career path.
I started my career in home construction and always found myself drawn to the “people” side of the business. As a homebuilder, I loved the opportunity to get to know a wide variety of people and help them achieve their life goals. In time, I became the COO of a mid-size construction company, routinely putting in 80-hour work weeks, and finding very little personal satisfaction in return. One night, recognizing my growing frustration, my wife, Moira, asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. (I originally had gone to college to teach math and coach.) Moira, also a teacher, let her head of school know that I was interested in going into education. The next day, the math teacher resigned, and I interviewed for the job. A week later, I was student teaching at the school. Eventually I became a lead teacher, a football and basketball coach, then an athletic director, then an upper school head, the an assistant head, and eventually, the head of school. I then sought a different position in a more mature school, so I could continue my growth as a school administrator. Seeing the opportunity to grow and learn under a fantastic leadership team, I interviewed at St. Mark’s and now serve as the director of admission.
As a new admission director, how did your previous experiences prepare you (or not) for the work of leading an independent school admission office?
Since I previously served as head at a smaller school, I was intimately involved in the operation of the admission office. I interviewed each family and learned the personal approach necessary to building a strong community through the admission process. My sales experience in the corporate world helped me realize the nuances of the personal relationship-building necessary to creating a successful admission experience for prospective families.
What is most challenging and what is most rewarding about the work of independent school admission in the Houston market?
The Houston market is incredibly competitive, with a bounty of potential applicants. As the nation’s fourth largest city, and the fastest growing of the major metropolitan areas, we are seeing a massive increase in independent school interest. Separating ourselves from the plethora of independent school choices, with new competition popping up almost daily, is a substantial challenge.
However, Houston is also a market with a great deal of collaboration and cooperation. I know that I can pick up the phone and speak with my “competitor” and seek information and knowledge, knowing that there is no hostility between the schools. It’s very refreshing to be in a market that wants to see the entire independent school world succeed.
Hands down, the most rewarding part of my job is walking in each and every day to see that a child has grown in some small way. I still keep in touch with many students, who have grown up and moved on to become successful adults. It’s an awe-inspiring experience to know that I had a part in that.
As a one-person shop, how do you organize, staff, and operationalize the work?
I work on an incredible senior leadership team that supported me well through a year of transition and learning. In particular, the advancement team—Lou Ellen Stansell, Director of Development, and Jean Marie Howard, Communication and Marketing Coordinator—were instrumental in providing me key support. We are very excited that our advancement team will add an advancement associate, who will directly support my office and the development office. It has been a challenge to keep the day-to-day operations of the office going without full-time support, while also trying to move the office forward toward more data-driven decisions.
Coming into your position with fresh eyes, what really worked about your process this year? What strategies/practices would you like to tweak or change?
I had the great fortune of entering an office that was well organized and was effective. The process that was in place was successful and supported a strong yield. After a year of observing and reflecting, I now have the opportunity to strategically shape and define goals. In all, the office has traditionally been very admission centered. My challenge will be making it a strategic enrollment management-centered office.
Do you believe your office has the tools to succeed? What equipment, systems, and/or software changes would you like to make moving forward?
Fortunately, I work for a school that is very forward thinking. Technology integration is always at the forefront of many of our discussions. We use SchoolAdmin for our enrollment platform, and it is a great tool for our size of school. The challenge is integrating that information into our current Student Information System (SIS). Moving forward, we are discussing ways to further integrate the two systems. Ultimately, my goal is to make our admission process completely paperless. The next step is getting our teacher recommendation forms to move from being paper-based to an online platform.
You participated as a mentee in a pilot mentorship program delivered by The Enrollment Management Association’s Admission Leadership Council. Can you tell us about your experience?
The experience was invaluable. I was paired with Eric Barber, who is now the director of enrollment management at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in California. Eric has immense experience in the areas where I was lacking. We had monthly phone calls and connected via email often. I felt as if I always had an ear to bend when I needed some guidance. The match could not have been more perfect in my mind, as I found a colleague, as well as someone I consider a friend.
The Enrollment Management Association has advocated extensively for admission’s seat at the school leadership table.What steps have you taken to partner with your head of school and business office?
What sold me on the opportunity at St. Mark’s was the collaboration that exists among the senior administrative team. The energy and excitement here is palpable. It’s a team that is not only highly collaborative, but also highly experienced and focused on professional growth. Four of our senior leadership team members have been heads of school. While that much ego in a room can sometimes overwhelm the conversation, our team has a great respect for one another and a harmony due to that respect. As such, I share a great relationship with both my head of school and our director of finance. Formally, I meet with each weekly, but have almost daily interaction with both. I know I can go into either office any time I need to, and have a transparent and direct conversation.
Do you report to the board of trustees? What enrollment data do you believe trustees need to drive the school’s vision and mission and forward?
I don’t directly report to the board, but I sit on the advancement committee, where I report on current enrollment and funnel trends. As the source of the majority of the school’s revenue, I believe the data that I provide to my head is imperative to driving the school’s vision. Outside of the funnel data that I present, we look at a myriad of both qualitative and quantitative data sets. On the quantitative side, I look at local market demographics such as income levels, household size, diversity, economic trending, home values, and competitor net tuition revenue. I also review internal data such as the correlation between entrance exam scoring and ultimate student success, to evaluate the efficacy of our educational program. Qualitatively, I look for the anecdotal evidence that helps our school develop its brand promise. In addition, I examine data points within our family and student surveys to see trends in the current school climate.
In thinking about a formal training program for new admission directors, what are the key areas of knowledge and skills that a program of this nature would critically need to address and why?
Initially, the introduction into “a day in the life of an admission director” is critical. I participated in the Admission Training Institute (ATI) at the 2014 The Enrollment Management Association Annual Meeting, and the most beneficial aspect was the exercise on “cultivating your school’s story” and understanding that it is changing at an exponential rate. A new admission director faces many challenges from the moment he/she steps in the door; probably the most common is increasing enrollment with “mission appropriate” students. How do you find the time to increase enrollment immediately, while at the same time planning for the future of the school? How do you manage the admission funnel? How do you assess the mission-appropriateness of your applicant pool? What does your admission process look like? What role does the admission director play in your organizational structure? What data are needed to make effective decisions? These are the key questions on which a new ad- mission director needs immediate guidance.