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Stemming the Tide: Utilizing Marketing to Support Public School Advocacy

Like it or not, school choice is changing the game for public education.

More private and charter alternatives, combined with local, state, and federal initiatives aimed at encouraging choice, means that families have more options. Because funding follows the child, in many cases, it means that schools that lose students also stand to lose resources.

In the face of newfound competition, public school leaders are looking for ways to keep families from considering the jump to alternative providers. A new emphasis on customer service has taken root. So has another timeless business concept, updated for schools: marketing.

What follows are three stories of prominent school districts that have either considered or already taken a proactive approach to keeping students or winning them back through marketing and other traditionally business-minded concepts.

In St. Paul, wooing parents off the fence

Just this week, the Saint Paul Public Schools Board of Education entertained a strategic recommendation from parent and business consultant Katie Sterns, as reported by MPR News. Sterns recommended that the district implement a marketing campaign to target skeptical families.

The strategy proposal calls for the installation of a new marketing and communications director for the district who would then develop specific marketing plans for each of the district’s schools.

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But Sterns’ recommendation does more than propose hiring a marketing leader for the district. As she told the school board during her presentation, to succeed, it needs to be part of a larger philosophy, embraced by the entire community.

“This is an issue for everyone, this isn’t just about the schools or the district. The community can step up, teachers are part of this, families and parents can be part of this as well. We all benefit from and want to see the school district succeed.”

Austin goes big…and it pays off

While St. Paul is still considering the merits of a new marketing approach, school board and district leaders at Austin ISD in Texas say a recent marketing campaign there is already producing results.

At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Austin schools reportedly poured $850,000 into a marketing campaign aimed at attracting erstwhile families back to the district. The heavy price tag was expectedly controversial.

See how other schools are using marketing to stay competitive. Read Marketing battle: Schools pull out stops to win students

But, as Austin ISD school board secretary Julie Cowan wrote in a recent op-ed, the gamble is paying off.  “During the 2016-17 school year, enrollment was projected to be 82,690,” she writes. “At the end of the first six weeks, we had 83,238 students—or 548 students above the projection.”

With an average tax payment of $7,500 per student, the 548 new—or recovered—student enrollees translates to a $4 million boost in revenue for the district. That’s a good margin by any business standard.

Door-to-door “sales” in Baltimore

In Baltimore, every student that “chooses out” costs the Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) nearly $11,000.

In the midst of a massive budget shortfall, the Baltimore Teachers Union partnered with local businesses and nonprofits to stem the tide.

Together, program leaders developed the Baltimore Schools for Baltimore Students, or B3, program. Around 40 teachers and other district staff were trained to canvass local neighborhoods, knock on doors, and talk to families about their school choice decisions.

And, as Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, the effort is working:

“They knocked on more than 36,000 doors and held more than 6,200 conversations for a contact rate of 17 percent—higher rates than that of many political campaigns. Their results were nothing short of amazing, with 329 new students enrolled in pre-K and 17 former drop-outs now re-enrolled.”

Whether through large-scale media advertising or grassroots, political-style campaigns, these prominent school districts are showing that a shift in mindset can help stem the tide of declining enrollments.

Is your district facing declining enrollment due to school choice or competition this year? If so, have you considered the value of marketing or branding to either keep or attract students and families? Tell us in the comments.