After school programs play an important role in students’ lives and within the community as a whole. They provide a safe space for students to learn, explore and have fun once the school day ends. But despite their benefits, recruiting students for programs can be challenging.

After school programs play an important role in students’ lives and within the community as a whole. They provide a safe space for students to learn, explore and have fun once the school day ends. But despite their benefits, recruiting students for programs can be challenging.

If your program is experiencing low participation, don’t fret! There are a number of ways to attract students and increase participation. Consider using one or more of the following recruitment strategies to improve enrollment in your after school program:

1. Align your program with student needs.

One way to boost program participation is by offering services and activities that meet an actual need in the community. To make an informed decision, conduct a needs assessment to determine the gap between the need for a service and what’s currently available.

It also helps to understand what students and families are looking for in an after school program. Partner with local schools to survey students to gauge their interests and parents to understand what experiences they would like their child to have after school.  Focusing on students’ needs and interests can guarantee a high demand for your program.

2. Share your story.

Empathy is a powerful emotion that draws people in. And you can tap into this emotion by sharing your program’s mission and purpose. Ask yourself: Why did I get started? What’s the story behind my mission? How has my program transformed a child’s life?

Hone in on your story and share it in a way that will resonate with others. Done right, powerful storytelling can attract more than program participants. It can also engage community partners, donors and sponsors for your program. Win-win.

3. Encourage word-of-mouth recruiting.

Tap into this tried-and-true method for boosting your program participation: word-of-mouth. One surefire way to boost program participation is to encourage existing students and their families to tell their friends about your program. Plus, research shows that recommendations from friends is the most credible form of advertising.

To be effective, provide an incentive for your “program ambassadors.” Some will brag about your program based on how plain awesome it is. For others, you can create a referral program that offers a discount or reward to those who refer families to your program. Either way, word-of-mouth is a free yet trusted strategy for enrolling more students.

4. Use digital marketing tools to promote your program.

It may be difficult to spread the word about your program through word-of-mouth alone. Fortunately, there are a number of free and low-cost digital tools available to market your program, including social media, video, email and search-engine optimization.

These tools can be used to share your program’s story, registration information, important news and updates and pictures of students (with parents’ permission). With the right strategies in place, you have the potential to reach even more families in your community.

5. Demonstrate the importance of program participation to students and their families.

High-quality programs do more than keep students busy and entertained after school. Great after school programs:

  • Extend school-day learning with enriching activities.
  • Support social-emotional development.
  • Provide homework support.
  • Improve school attendance, behavior and academic performance.

Share the positive impact your program has on participating students. Tell their stories or, if available, provide facts and figures to demonstrate effectiveness. Alternatively, use resources from the After School Alliance - like America After 3PM - to advocate for the benefits of program participation.

6. Get involved in the community.

People love to work with organizations they know and trust, and the same is true for after school programs. Be present in your community in order to build awareness for your program.

Go where the students are: school, places of worship and community centers. Offer your knowledge and expertise to community organizations. Be a vendor or sponsor for relevant community events. Organize your own events to connect families to your program.

There’s no right way to get involved, but building trust and fostering relationships in your local community can positively impact your program.

7. Build connections with school teachers.

A recent article by The School Superintendents Association recommends partnering with school administrators to get buy-in from and relationships with school-day teachers. And the first step to building these connections is establishing a presence in the school.

The article outlines four additional strategies for fostering these school-after school relationships:

  • Employing a few school-day teachers in your program.
  • Attending school-wide meetings to share information about your offerings and activities.
  • Participating in other school-wide teams and committees.
  • Asking students to demonstrate skills learned in the program during school performances, exhibitions or other outlets.

As a result, teachers and staff members can advocate for you and encourage students and their parents to participate in your program. For tips on partnering with school administrators, check out 6 Tips For Effective Collaboration Between Program Directors And School Principals and Dr. Paul Young’s Principal Matters.

8. Appeal to students first.

This strategy, which advertisers have used for years, allows students to advocate for your program on your behalf. One way to do this effectively and appropriately is to partner with local schools to showcase your program to students.

The key is to provide a live demonstration of one of the fun, engaging themes or activities that you provide in your program. You can:

  • Conduct a magical science experiment with a shocking twist.
  • Lead an invigorating fitness routine to get students up and moving.
  • Concoct refreshing smoothies made with fruit picked from your program’s garden.

Whatever activity you choose, the goal is to deliver an unforgettable experience that students will go home and rave about. If you use this strategy, don’t forget to create a flyer or handout that includes your program overview, phone number, email address, website URL and registration information. Teachers can send these home with students and parents can easily contact you if they’re interested in registering their child.

9. Provide enrichment activities that combine learning with fun.

One of the main selling points for after school programs is the opportunity to try new activities. Deliver on this promise by providing a diverse set of enrichment activities that help students learn in fun, unconventional ways.

For example, a single program may include an engineering club, Spanish language learning, art activities and a dance club. The ultimate goal is to provide a range of activities that every student can enjoy.

10. Be flexible.

Each family has its own unique schedule and needs. And a one-size-fits-all structure doesn’t always work for everyone. Fortunately, you have the opportunity to attract more program participants by being more flexible.

Assess your students’ needs and tailor your program to accommodate them. Do they need a flexible schedule? Implement a rolling admission (with no fixed start or end date). Do students need a safe space outside of program hours? Open your doors to these students, which can serve as a natural bridge into your after school program. The key is to think outside the box to draw more students into your program.

Recruiting students for your after school program may be challenging. But with the right strategies in place, you can attract more students and boost participation with ease. What strategies or tools do you use to recruit students in your program?