Most of the time, owning your own studio is a pretty rewarding profession. You didn’t go into it expecting money, fame or great hours. You do it for your love of dance and the satisfaction of passing on your art to younger generations. Except then there are those needling day-to-day issues that can really get you down.
Dance Teacher talked to three studio owners about a few chronically annoying problems that seem to pop up for almost everyone: meddlesome parents, poor attendance and late payments. Read on for three easy-to-implement solutions to each issue, and get ready to bid these problems good-bye forever.
It’s my money; therefore, I’m in charge
Phyllis A. Balagna has noticed a change in each new crop of parents over the 25 years she’s spent as studio owner of Steppin’ Out—The Studio in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. “Parents want to be part of the process so much more these days,” she says. “I find that they’re a much more engaged bunch.”
More engaged can also mean more demanding. Here’s how Balagna keeps her considerable parent population (she has approximately 450 students) in check.
- Be up front about your policies. At the beginning of each year, Balagna has a meeting with her competition students and their parents—often the bulk of the problem—and goes through her studio handbook, word for word. At the end of the meeting, both students and parents have to sign a contract stating that they agree to adhere to all policies and procedures (regarding tuition payments, late fees, dress code, absences and the studio’s mandatory rule that all parents and students support other students). “It’s saved me a couple of times, having that on file,” says Balagna. “When parents tell me, ‘I didn’t know this,’ I can remind them that they were at the meeting and signed the paper.”
- Channel parents’ energies into useful activities. “I want them to have a little ownership,” Balagna says. “When they feel they’re connected in some tiny way, they’re much more supportive.” Balagna has a booster club, made up mostly of competition parents, but also some recreational parents, who work with her on fundraising and studio events. She has a travel committee (in charge of arranging out-of-town accommodations), a public relations committee, a special-events committee—it’s all about giving her parents a purpose.
- Be communicative. “I send out a weekly update every Monday to keep my parents in the know,” says Balagna. “I find the more they know, the better they’ll behave.” If a student has a breakthrough in class or in a private lesson, she’ll shoot the parents an e-mail to tell them about it. She also has her front-desk staff monitor any signs of parental discord or unhappiness: “They’ll tell me, ‘You should talk to so-and-so—she seemed upset.’”
Jane has cheerleading. And piano lessons. And a birthday party.
When Rebecca Reese decided to open her own studio in Altoona, Pennsylvania, she knew she would need an attendance policy. The studio where she’d taught before didn’t have one in place, and she found that frustrating. “I knew I didn’t want to penalize kids for not coming, but I wanted to reward the kids who made the effort to come all the time and made up any class time they missed,” she says.
For a teacher, it’s difficult to choreograph a piece on invisible dancers. And a student who consistently skips class is missing out on valuable technique lessons, which will put her in danger of falling behind her peers. Reese takes a three-pronged approach at Blair Dance Academy to maintain good attendance studio-wide.
- Institute a rewards program. Reese and her instructors select a student of the month—for which the first requirement is perfect or near-perfect attendance. Those selected receive a trophy, a balloon bouquet and a T-shirt. They also have a photo of themselves shared on the studio’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. At the end of the year, all nine students of the month are recognized at the recital, and one is chosen to receive a $500 scholarship toward the following year’s tuition. Additionally, every student with perfect attendance gets a medal and his or her name in the recital program.
- Have a flexible makeup policy in place. Reese allows students to make up a missed class in a similar or lower class-level up to three weeks following the absence. Or, if the student knows in advance that she will miss class, she can attend a makeup class up to two weeks before.
- Consider establishing different policies for different programs. Reese’s competition kids follow a different set of attendance rules: They must maintain a 75 percent attendance rate in all of their classes, or they are put on probation and not allowed to participate in the performance company.
Tuition payment? What tuition payment?
Eight years ago, Johnna DeGrasse got tired of the hassle of collecting cash and check tuition payments at her Virginia-based DeGrasse Dance Studio and decided something needed to change. “People would be late with their payments, or they’d write the check for the wrong amount,” she says. “Some people would only be a day late, so we’d wonder, ‘Do we really charge them a late fee?’ We get so attached to our families.”
Since switching over to automatic billing, DeGrasse says tuition-collecting is “so much easier.” And her delinquency rate has plummeted. (Many studio software packages—like Jackrabbit Dance, MINDBODY and ClassJuggler Dance—include automatic billing.) She offers parents two different ways to pay, as well as incentives.
- Set up automatic credit card payments. At the beginning of the year, parents fill out a form authorizing DeGrasse to charge monthly tuition payments directly to their Visa, MasterCard or Discover credit card accounts. “The credit card processing fees are an expense, but in the long term, it’s definitely been beneficial,” she says.
- Set up automatic withdrawal from checking accounts. The other option is for parents to provide DeGrasse with a voided check, so that she can access their bank routing numbers and deduct tuition fees directly from their checking accounts each month. “It’s a convenience for them, too, because people do simply forget to pay,” she says. “Even with e-mail—not everyone reads their e-mail.”
- Offer incentives—and be clear about penalties. For families who decide to pay the entire year’s fees up front and in full, DeGrasse offers a 3 percent discount. Each studio year begins with her giving parents a payment schedule for the entire year, with every expense and its accompanying due date clearly delineated. “It’s important to let people know ahead of time what their charges are,” she says. For one thing, it allows families to budget ahead. And “even if they don’t read it, if they complain, you can pull it out and say: ‘Here’s your payment schedule; here’s what you signed.’” DT