• Published Online: August 21, 2012
    Published in Print: August 22, 2012, as As Competition Grows, Districts Make Pitches To Boost Enrollment

    Educators turn to billboards, direct mail, and retooled programs to attract students

    By Christina A. Samuels

    Public school enrollment in Grand Rapids, Mich., has dropped slowly during the past five years, from about 21,000 students to 18,500 today.

    Parents have left the west Michigan city for better jobs elsewhere, as have many throughout the state. Or, they've stayed in the area but departed the district for independently run charter schools or other enticing "schools of choice," which, in Michigan, are schools run by traditional school districts that are able to recruit students from a wide geographic area.

    In response, the school district and the city have teamed up for a campaign they call "We Are GR," intended to excite residents about the community and about the offerings of the regular public schools. The push, which involves billboards, direct mailings, ads on buses, neighborhood door-knocking campaigns, and Web videos, will culminate in a back-to-school event at the city's zoo this week.

    Focused Efforts

    John Helmholdt, the communications director for the district, likens it to a political campaign.

    "There's a reason during elections that you get inundated," he said. "You've got to beat a message into a voter's head seven times before it sinks in."

    Across the country, students returning to the classroom this fall, as well as their parents, are increasingly likely to have been the focus of intensive marketing campaigns like this one. Charter schools, voucher programs, private schools, and state laws that allow parents to enroll their students in schools outside their normal attendance boundaries have all had an impact on districts. And, as students leave a school system or a school, state money often goes with them.

    The enrollment drain has been particularly pronounced in urban districts, which have the highest concentration of charter options for students. According to the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the number of students enrolled in charter schools, which are publicly funded but largely independent institutions, rose from about 580,000 in 2001-02 to more than 2 million in 2011-12. That represents about4.2 percent of the public school population.

    The push to market traditional districts and regular schools "is stronger than it's been before," said Rich Bagin, the executive director of the National School Public Relations Association in Rockville, Md. "We have principals coming to us and saying we have a great school here, but everybody seems to be leaning towards what's new."

    In Grand Rapids, the district also plans to spend this school year figuring out what other changes it may need to make to hold on to its students, said Teresa Weatherall Neal, who was named the superintendent in January. While no plans have been made yet, she said some of the changes coming for 2013-14 will certainly involve closing some schools, some of which are operating at only 60 percent capacity, and bringing in new programs.

    "We really need to reinvent the school district in the next school year," Ms. Neal said.

    For other districts, promoting their offerings has been a long-running practice.

    Terry Locke, the spokesman for the 40,000-student Chandler Unified district in Arizona, said that 10 years ago, the district used movie theaters as a venue to run advertisements touting the benefits of the school system. Arizona is the "parent-choice capital of the country," Mr. Locke said, and Maricopa County, where Chandler is located, has 20 charter schools within its boundaries.

    The state had close to 135,000 students enrolled in 526 charter schools in the 2011-12 school year, according to the national charter school alliance.

    Reaping Results

    Currently, the district focuses on direct mailings, promotional efforts on public-television stations during children's shows, and social-media outlets. In all, it spends about $100,000 a year on advertising and marketing, he said.

    At the same time, Mr. Locke said, the district has tried to draw in parents with popular programs, such as "traditional academies" that focus on highly structured instruction; an accelerated program for middle school students based at a high school; a new academy for gifted students based at an elementary school; and a junior high school with a single-gender option for some classes.

    The marketing efforts appear to have had some impact: Last school year, the district had about 10,000 students who did not attend their neighborhood schools. Of those, about 4,000 students came from outside the district, Mr. Locke said.

    In Missouri, the St. Louis school system, which has been unaccredited by the state since 2007 and is located in a community with a shrinking population, devoted $1 million to marketing efforts in the 2011-12 school year, said Patrick Wallace, the spokesman for the district.

    Hammered by bad publicity and a party to a desegregation agreement that allows students to leave for surrounding jurisdictions, the district has seen its enrollment dwindle from about 45,000 five years ago to a projected 23,000 for 2012-13. The loss has meant a budget reduction of $50 million for the district, Mr. Wallace said.

    It will be hard to judge the effects of the St. Louis advertising this school year because of a confounding event: The state education department closed six charter schools that operated within the city, all for academic failure. At least a portion of the 3,300 students affected by the closings have enrolled in regular St. Louis schools, boosting enrollment and reversing years of decline for reasons unrelated to any district marketing effort, Mr. Wallace said.

    Preschool Hook

    St. Louis can point to one especially bright spot, however, in its promotional efforts: a concerted push by the school system to expand all-day-preschool seats in 2011-12. Sheryl Davenport, the executive director for early childhood and early-childhood special education in St. Louis, said the district had about 1,600 seats for 3- and 4-year-olds in late 2010, with about 800 more students on a waiting list for general preschool and 500 waiting for a spot in a magnet preschool program.

    The district pushed to add about 700 seats. The advertising around that effort lured parents who were looking for all-day, academic oriented preschool options for their children, including free transportation for 4-year-olds and free before-and-after care.

    "For a lot of our families, this was their first experience with St. Louis public schools," Ms. Davenport said. The district also tried to make the enrollment process efficient for parents, by signing up pupils at a central location and giving parents acceptance letters on the spot to take back to their neighborhood preschools.

    Ms. Davenport said that a survey of parents whose children would be enrolling in kindergarten this school year indicated that the vast majority of them planned to remain with St. Louis schools.

    While many districts position themselves in competition with other school options in their communities, Denver's marketing efforts include its charter school options. All those schools are advertised together in mailings to parents, said Marissa Ferrari, the director of marketing for the 81,000-student school system.

    In the last school year, Denver also introduced a streamlined enrollment system that allows parents to submit one form for the district's regular public schools, charter schools, and magnet offerings.

    "We view all of our schools as a portfolio of quality options, so we do think that it is our duty to promote them equitably," said Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, the district's chief of innovation and reform. Though state aid follows students if they choose to attend a charter school, the Denver district is measured on test scores of students no matter what type of school they attend, Ms. Whitehead-Bust said.