Why a PR firm won’t solve your district’s enrollment crisis

What price would you put on your reputation?

At the Austin Independent School District in Texas, administrators recently committed $350,000 to a PR firm for marketing and advertising buys. Not unlike other public school districts across the country, Austin ISD is hemorrhaging students. As charter schools and other alternative forms of education draw frustrated families—and the state and federal dollars that follow them—away from the nation’s schools, administrators are hustling to ward off aggressive new suitors.

Austin has reportedly lost 3,000 students over three years. It’s hardly alone. Major public school districts from Los Angeles to Chicago to Baltimore have reported precipitous enrollment declines in recent months.

Better marketing is one way to stanch the bleeding. But it doesn’t address the deeper, more fundamental question: Why are so many families so stinking tired of America’s public schools?

Getting to the root
Academics is a chief concern. At a recent school board meeting, one Austin ISD community member questioned whether spending such a large chunk of the district’s communications budget on public relations (estimated 40 percent) was the best move, especially amid grumblings of slow-to-innovate classrooms and other shortcomings.

“You owe it to your constituents to look at the real reasons people are leaving and we have decreasing enrollment,” said Karen Evertson, as reported by a local watchdog group.

Those reasons might be rooted in academics. They might be rooted in something else—poor communication or transportation or customer service, for example. What’s important is that the school district actively engage with its community to identify and isolate the problem. How’s the old cliché go? “You can put lipstick on a pig…”

Bottom line: If your schools don’t offer products and services that parents and students value, no amount of marketing will reasonably hide that fact.

Learning to listen
So, how do you bring parents and other community members into that conversation? How do you effectively ensure that your schools meet and exceed families’ expectations—so that the thought of hightailing it for a charter or some other alternative never occurs?

Like Austin ISD, the Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana is serious about staying ahead of its competition. In addition to new marketing campaigns, administrators there recently doubled down on another strategic priority: community engagement.

Through a combination of community-based surveys and improved communication with parents and staff, administrators have placed a premium on listening and responding to community concerns.

An always-on link to the district office allows parents and others to contact school leaders with comments or concerns 24 hours a day. District officials use the information collected via those conversations to inform community surveys that target the most-pressing community concerns.

Administrators leverage the data and information collected through these and other efforts to develop a collaborative response, knowing (thanks to demonstrable data) that they have the confidence and the backing of parents and staff.

“Our district believes that one of our core goals has to be that we figure out ways to communicate with our parents and community members, because we value them,” FWCS Superintendent Dr. Wendy Robinson told eSchool News recently. “We have to start out with the basic belief that if you don’t value parents, students, and community members, they won’t stay with you.”

What have you done to create a culture of listening and community service in your district? Tell us in the comments.

Want to work with your community to identify and isolate the reasons for declining enrollment and other problems in your schools?  Check out Let’s Talk!

About the Author

Todd Kominiak
Todd is Managing Editor of TrustED. Email: tkominiak@k12insight.com.

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