Aubrey Bursch: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Aubrey Bursch.
Tara Claeys: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Todd Ormiston. Todd’s 32 year career in education includes teaching, dorm parenting and coaching, as well as work in admissions, financial aid and independent school marketing. He’s passionate about experiential learning, diversity and inclusion, and the power of community in shaping the lives of children. This combined with his love of the outdoors and belief in the essential benefits of outdoor education and recreation is why he was drawn to the approach and setting of North Country School in Lake Placid, New York. Welcome, Todd.
Todd Ormiston: Thanks, Tara and Aubrey. I’m really, really happy to be here and explore the ideas of experiential education and the power of the message of it.
Aubrey: We’re so excited you’re here, Todd. Thanks so much for coming. It was such a great honor to meet you at the National Small Schools Conference. We can’t wait to continue this discussion here. It’s going to be a great topic, but before we get started, can you tell us more about yourself?
Todd: Sure. Yeah, I found North Country School through a path of education where I was really focused on the idea of children being children, and appreciating the experience of growing up. So in my past experiences, I’ve been mostly focused on schools that dive deep into world class competitive snow sports, in the ski racing world, in the world of snow sports that feed the Olympics and national teams.
And so it was a really interesting change for me going from such an important and intense goal oriented experience for children and notably their families to a school that really focuses on process and is less focused on the outcomes and more about how we get to the outcomes. North Country School has been really a breath of fresh air for me in my career that we’re digging down a little bit deeper about, especially at this age group of the middle school years, character, education, and values development.
Tara: Oh, cool. Skiing. What an interesting background to come from, from competitive skiing. Thanks for sharing. We met you recently at the National Small Schools Conference and at that conference, you gave a really fascinating talk about “Communicating the effectiveness of experiential learning to traditional education loyalists.” That was the title of your talk. So many of our listeners work at progressive schools and others at more traditional schools. Can you tell us more about your talk and the way that you approach messaging around experiential learning?
Todd: Yeah, absolutely. I think that my background with sort of goal oriented competitive sports guided my marketing mindset in the past towards really focusing on the outcomes that children experienced and the goal orientation of measurable outcomes that are really clear to see. Whether it’s finishing in a competition or being accepted into a certain prestigious college or being nominated to the U.S. ski team, those are really clear outcomes that children and their families can form identifiable paths and relatable experiences for maybe the parents and their past experiences as children or competitive athletes.
Coming to North Country School, it really shifted the way that I looked at explaining who we are, what we do and why we do it. If you ever come here to North Country School, as you drive onto campus, you won’t see a turf lacrosse field. You’ll actually see a farm and a garden and horses grazing in the meadow. For our families who are coming from more traditional school backgrounds, whether it’s where their children are coming from or the school experience that they had, that’s less relatable because they don’t understand that some of the qualities and the values that that children can acquire don’t have to be done in a traditional school setting, where academic rigor is measured by the number of hours of homework each night.
And so that allowed me to take a step back and consider the value proposition of process oriented education rather than outcome orientation education. So that really redirected the way that we shared who we are and what we did to create a relatable story. I think that’s where we’re gonna head here is, where do we, how do we tell those stories? Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of education and the most memorable and repeatable often because sharing stories creates lessons learned. And that’s really how we’ve started to be more clearly articulate, not just who we are and what we do, but why, and what the value proposition is for children once they leave North Country School.
Aubrey: That’s fascinating. I think I was just presenting to a Montessori school recently, and we were talking about the difference, like, how do you market, right? When you’re going against the grain of traditional education or a traditional format, right? And it sounds like what you’re talking about, the storytelling and kind of helping people see the value in what you offer, it’s vital to your marketing efforts, both internally and externally. I’m curious, like, you mentioned measurable before and how, you know, a traditional environment might provide more measurable things. How do you kind of combat that when you’re looking at your more progressive education or a nontraditional education?
Todd: Sure. One of the challenges that we have, and I was just actually speaking with one of our teachers about this this morning, is that the perspective that many of our families come in is that it’s an “either or” proposition. Either you experience an hands-on progressive mindset education, or a traditional knowledge based education. And it really isn’t that. It’s that we utilize this approach to learn the hard skills to make sure that the children, you know, we’re in middle school, so we want to make sure that children are prepared to be fully integrated into their next school academically.
And we’re really focused on not what they learn, but how they’re learning it and then how they’re recognizing themselves as part of a community. And so the value proposition isn’t just one or the other. We’re certainly teaching them and they’re learning in the traditional disciplines, but our approach is a little more humanistic. How are we measuring those things? Well, the portrait of a graduate of North Country School is that they are well suited and ready for the next academic experience that they have. We’ve also learned that our students are more likely to dive in and find ways to be better connected to their community and find where they fit a little more actively: approach students more, approach their teachers more directly in terms of asking for support, and being more actively engaged in the classroom. Our students are active learners, and isn’t that the core of being an experiential learner, that you are part of your learning experience, not just on the receiving end.
Tara: Yeah, it’s something that we hear more and more about as, you know, as the gap has widened because of online learning and wanting a more personalized approach. And I think the background that you’re providing is really helpful to understanding what progressive schools can offer and the storytelling that you mentioned. I’m curious if you can share with us what are the ways that you found prospective families for your school who are looking for this type of experience and what are the most successful marketing strategies and tactics? Maybe including that storytelling, it sounds like it is effective for you, but can you share a little bit specifically about how you target your prospective families and what marketing is for you guys there?
Todd: Yeah, and I’ll start with a story of non-success. As we were coming into and out of the real focused lockdown on COVID, we began a very focused digital marketing campaign that included embedded ads throughout like minded websites, as well as Facebook advertising, and we built a microsite for a landing page. We let it go and then we spent an ample amount of money to make sure that it was going to be successful. That campaign from a metric standpoint was unbelievably successful. Our click through rate was phenomenal. Our time on site was phenomenal. Our multiple clicks through our site were phenomenal And our outcomes were miserable. We really only received a handful of credible inquiries through that very significant campaign.
So, we did all the right things and we didn’t have any of the right outcomes. Took a step back and realized that we really weren’t meeting our families where they were in the mindset of having a conversation about a junior boarding school. Though we were speaking to them in places where they were, we weren’t speaking to them in places where they were with the mindset of having a child go to a junior boarding school.
So we took a step back and recognized that providing context and meeting our people, quote-unquote our people, where they are was the most important approach. And so with that, we hired Elizabeth Davis, who was my co presenter at the small schools conference. We hired Elizabeth as our main PR Associate here, and we contracted her in to do approximately 20 hours of work a week. We really took the budget away from our digital marketing campaigns and put it into PR and earned media. We realized that because we are not a traditional learning environment, people might say we needed third party endorsement that what we were doing was important. It mattered and it was impactful. So we’re really focused on earned media and storytelling in the media using third party endorsement to tell the story for two reasons: one is we believe that what we’re doing in our approach to education is a positive way for children to learn and hopefully others may pick up on that and recognize the value of an experiential place based education; the other reason is, we’re meeting the people where they were and we were piquing their interest in a different way of learning. And we found that not only were we hearing back from like minded organizations that wanted to learn more about what we did so that it could prove, improve their experiences for their children and their faculty, but we were also starting to acknowledge that we were getting a lot more inquiries, a lot more interest in the school through her media.
Aubrey: PR Strategy than a digital marketing campaign for those schools out there who are unfamiliar with this kind of PR and getting in the media and everything like that. Can you explain a little bit more about that strategy?
Todd: Sure. So I’ll give an example of one of the news stories that we were featured in. It was a regional news station. They came to speak to us about, we have a sugar bush here and we boil our own sap to make maple syrup here on campus with the children. One of the aspects of making maple syrup is going out to collect the sap buckets. And so they came to do a story in the spring, a feel good story, about children working and learning and then seeing an outcome of their work. The really cool interview that took a turn that we didn’t see coming was a boy named Andrew.
Andrew was asked about the experience of syruping and Andrew told the story to explain to the reporter infinite detail about how he and two other students created a system, a team where each of them had an identified role and responsibility. They created job titles for each other. One was the century, and the century would go out to each of the sap buckets at different trees and, and see if there was enough sap in the bucket for the bucket to come back. Then there was another boy who was logistics on the sap collection area, and then Andrew was sort of coordinating it. So these three boys on their own did so many cool things in terms of collaboration and goal setting and logistics and communication and the value of hard work in the end. And then maybe the most important aspect of experiential education, they were able to reflect on this experience and then look backwards and say, wasn’t that cool that we did this and this and not just be task oriented?
So it was a holistic approach to what seems like sort of a rudimentary experience. All of a sudden, Andrew was telling this story to this news reporter. It was just compelling because in 30 years or so, when Andrew is in the workforce, he’s going to take that experience and apply it to how he works and collaborates with his co-workers or his family or his community. Some of the most amazing things come directly from the children and their experiences and why it’s personally impactful to them.
Tara: I love that story, and I also love that you make syrup. That’s really neat. What a unique thing for your school to offer, and what a great story to be able to share. And the PR work that you do sounds like it’s really making an impact, and I think that’s something that a lot of schools probably don’t pay a lot of attention to or rely on because digital marketing is kind of easier in a lot of ways, right? So I want to ask you about challenges. So, what are your biggest challenges to marketing?
Todd: I think there are a couple of things. First of all, because we are very process oriented as an organization and our mindset is thoughtfully putting our children at the center of the circle, sometimes we have a hard time picking our heads up and acknowledging what we’re doing and why it matters in the big picture. That’s a role that I take on to make sure that I’m the biggest cheerleader of all of the unbelievably cool things that are happening in our classrooms. Our teachers are incredibly talented and motivated and bright and very focused on the children, and they’re often not picking their own heads up to say, “Hey, Todd. We’re working in the Teaching and Learning Kitchen today to learn about preserving kohlrabi. We’re working with the kids on each of the steps and not just how to put, you know, vinegar, garlic and kohlrabi in a can, but to understand what the vinegar does to preserve the vegetables? Why is the garlic important to the preservation of it? What are the outcomes and what are the different temperatures that you have to get the vinegar to?” All of these steps in the process, they take it for granted sometimes. So I think most schools will realize the magic that occurs inside of classrooms is sometimes only seen by those inside the classroom. So one of our challenges is really picking our heads up, being bold and proud of the impactful experiences that not only our children are having. But boy it takes an enormous out of energy and talent to be constantly on as a teacher. And so that’s probably one of our biggest challenges is really opening up the classroom doors so that we can tell these stories.
Tara: Yeah. Keeping that top of mind is hard.
Aubrey: Absolutely. When I think about retention, when we talk about retention, we talk about showcasing to both external and internal, the value that’s happening within a school, and it’s so often the magic that’s happening in the classroom, as you mentioned. So I know that a lot of other schools face that challenge as well. I would love to ask, because I know I can almost hear the schools in my head talking and asking this question is, you know, given there’s external marketing and there’s internal marketing to your own families for retention, right? Because you have to share those stories with them. How do you, what have you found to be some really effective strategies around internal marketing to showcase to your current parents, you know, here’s what we’re doing. Here’s your child’s experience and really showcasing what you do so well there?
Todd: Yeah, there are two things that come to mind very quickly. It’s weekly communication with our parents.
We have Friday feedback, that our teachers are sharing every Friday with our families of how the week went, and each of those they’re very time intensive activity exercise for our teachers and we intentionally do our best, and teachers are busy, but we do our best to intentionally allow them to set time aside to thoughtfully write these notes on Friday feedback.
The other thing that we do is we have set quite a bit of time aside and resources towards our NCS This Week blog and it can be found in northcountryschool.org, and it’s under our news and notes section. Our weekly blog also comes out on Friday and we have a dedicated house parent and teacher who has a significant amount of their time dedicated to building the blog. The blog focuses on five aspects of our school per week: the academic experience, the community experience, and then a really strong focus on our three signature programs: our farm food and garden programs, our visual and performing arts, and then our outdoor program. That blog is branded, it’s thematic. The language that we use is very intentional. It tells a story about what happened that week here at North Country School.
And the other cool thing is that we make sure that every one of our students is in one of the pictures in the photo gallery that comes out every Friday as well, because we want to make sure that our parents are seeing, you know, we’re boarding school and about two thirds of our students are from away. We want to make sure that every single parent sees their children actively engaged in learning here in North Country School every single week.
Tara: I love that. And I encourage our listeners to check out your website with your blog. I know you, and I talked about your website and I took a look at it and I was like, “Wow, you don’t need me.” Your website looks great, and the blog is fantastic. It’s a big effort to do that, but I’m sure it pays off in many ways. Also with SEO too, for your website to be coming up in searches with all the fresh content that you have. So big shout out to you and those who participate in that process because it’s really magnificent. So I want to give you a shout out for that.
I’m going to move on to a question that we ask our guests about mindfulness because we do, Aubrey and I, pay a lot of attention to that. Some of the things that you’ve talked about really progressive education often does include a mindfulness component to it. So we talk about mindfulness as it applies to marketing, it applies to people who do marketing for independent schools and for leaders of independent schools. So, can you share with us how you would define mindfulness and how you apply it to your life and work?
Todd: Well, I can start personally. I like to be outside a lot and I do quite a bit of hiking. We’re here in the heart of the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, so it’s right out our back door. I know all of us who work in schools, we’re working through micro crises. Often, I don’t want to say it’s every single day, but it seems like a micro crisis happens often and if i’m practicing it, if i’m sharing that approach, it is important for our children. I certainly have to personally practice it. So for me, my regenerative place is to be outside and some of my best ideas come on a hike or sitting at the top of a hill and looking out, and I often do that alone or with my dog Bucky. And so it’s really important to have that personal check in. We also have some pretty intentional check-ins with each other. I have my people that are there checking in on me often, and I want to make sure that I’m doing that for them as well, because the really the heartbeat of who we do what we do is my colleagues.
In terms of mindfulness with our children, we made a strategic hiring decision this year to add a second mental health counselor, Abby Swint is a new mental health counselor at North Country School this year. She comes from a wilderness therapy background. We’re not a therapeutic school, but the qualities of a wilderness therapy experience are wholly applicable, especially in this age category.
We’re thoughtful about who we are and where we are in the world. I mentioned earlier that we have three signature programs: the arts, the farm food and garden, and the outdoors. All three of them provide space for, not only mindfulness, but thoughtful empathy and giving to others. We have a barn chores program, children are doing barn chores every day on our farm. One of the intentional aspects of barn chores is that they do it before breakfast and they do it before dinner. The reason is that we have this mindset that we take care of the animals and feed the animals before we feed ourselves. These animals on our farm provide everything, from horseback riding to the food that we eat. The circle of life that we take great thought in and acknowledge includes not only our animals, but our vegetables that we cultivate. The seasons that we live through here, we certainly live through a pretty dark and chilly winter here in the Adirondacks, but life cycles are really important to us.
If you look at the idea and the mindset of, remember when you were 12, you were looking for probably something that made sense in the world because it’s a really challenging time of your life. For us to be able to provide some sentiment of cycles and normality of life and then also be able to attach it to your own growth, we think it’s really important and we take time to acknowledge that. There’s a wonderful blog post from last spring of our children reading to the sheep. We had lambing happen in February and in March, and our children were reading to the ewes and the lambs. Certainly, you know, how much more place based does that get? Because they’re reading aloud to sheep and lambs. It’s amazing.
Aubrey: Wow. I mean, that’s amazing. By the way, can I come visit your school? I’m just absolutely during lambing season two. I’d be happy to read.
Todd: I’ll just put a plug in. If you can’t be here during lambing season, we have lamb cam, which is a live feed into where the lambs are born. Our ninth grade biology class is learning again, all about the circles of life and they learn all about lambing. Each of the ninth graders in a group spend nights sleeping in the barn because the ewes don’t have their lambs only during the day. We had 3 students that had that special experience this spring at two o’clock in the morning being part of the landing process, and there were a lot of other ninth graders that were really upset that they weren’t there for that at two o’clock in the morning. It was pretty special.
Tara: That is special. That’s not typically what ninth graders are doing at two.
Aubrey: I love that. That’s so amazing. What an amazing program. And I love how you wove in mindfulness and kind of that mental health component, which is so important for your faculty and staff, as well as for your students. So thank you so much for sharing all that. That was really amazing. And I definitely, if I’m not on the land cam, I want to book a visit to come see your campus. So we’re going to transition because we have some questions that we ask all our guests. So I’m going to kick us off. Are you ready for our Rapid fire questions?
Todd: Absolutely. Let’s go.
Aubrey: Oh, good. Okay. So this is the first one’s a really fun one. So if you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be?
Todd: Oh boy, rapid fire. I just had my faculty opening a school meeting and I talked a lot about the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. I love the book because it’s translatable to everyday life, but also organizations. So “Good to Great” would probably be it, partly because it’s top of mind right now and partly because I think it delivers a lot of messages that a lot of us could benefit from in all walks of our lives.
Tara: Excellent. Yeah, that’s a good one. What is one app you could not live without?
Todd: I’d say the weather app. I’m a weather geek and it not only affects what I do and when I do it, but maybe my mood and what I look forward to. I’m also a huge full moon person. Today, August 31st, is the second full moon of August. So it’s a blue moon. And, you’ll see me outside hiking tonight because I love, I love hiking at night.
Aubrey: I was wondering, I see, I should have consulted you or my weather app. I was walking early this morning and it was dark and I’m like, “Wow, that moon is really cool.” So now I know why it was starting to look cool. That’s so fun. Now, what book are you reading right now?
Todd: I’m actually, I’m not reading a book at the moment, and if we, if we want to be full disclosure on mindfulness and restoration, I’m a huge fantasy football geek and the football season is about to start and we just finished some drafts. So I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts listening to fantasy football, and that’s my, that’s my guilty pleasure and escape from the work that I’m doing here.
Tara: That’s great. I love it. I love it. You’ve got a good mixture of things going on, Todd. Our last question is what is one great piece of advice that you’d like to leave with us?
Todd: You don’t have to be everything to everyone and whether personally or organizationally. And be honest with yourself or your organization of what you are, and just as importantly, what you’re not. And make sure that your blind spots and your shadows are known to you personally and organizationally.
Aubrey: That was a great piece of advice, Todd. This has been amazing. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation so much that I really just want to come visit your school and learn more about what you do. But where can people find you? Where can they find your school and yourself?
Todd: Yeah. So first of all, I will say that we really enjoy showing off here and sharing who we are and what we do. So to any of the listeners, there is a warm welcome to come visit us on campus and, you could check out the barn,, but also check out all the amazing things that we do in our classrooms. We’re in Lake Placid, New York, which is the Olympic Village. They hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. And it’s also the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. And so it’s a mountainous region. We’re about two hours south of Montreal, five hours north of New York City. You can find us on our website northcountryschool.org.
Tara: Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us. I hope that you have a great school year ahead. Awesome.
Todd: Thanks. Thanks for allowing me to share. I appreciate it.
© 2023 Mindful School Marketing. All Rights Reserved.