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School choice is here to stay typography
Marketing schools in a competitive environment
By: Kimberly Sellery
Late in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, a building moratorium was implemented in Natomas, a suburb of Sacramento that sits on a floodplain. Prior to the economic downturn and moratorium, the Natomas Unified School District had been building new schools to keep up with the influx of families moving in.
At the same time, several independent charter schools were establishing themselves in the district boundaries. By the time the building moratorium was lifted in 2015, the district had lost about 10 percent of its students due to the housing crash and the growth of charters, said Natomas USD trustee Lisa Kaplan.
The loss of students to area charter schools did not go unnoticed by the board of trustees. “We saw the charters were growing and they were actually doing a really good job of promoting their programs,” said Kaplan. “We thought, ‘why aren’t we marketing what our district does great?’ In this age, parents are going to Google things, and if we want to compete with the charter schools, we need to put out good information.”

The experience in Natomas USD reflects that of many districts around California — and what the pandemic may be accelerating as families become comfortable with distance learning or try to find alternative in-person instruction options. In the last decade, local educational agencies in 30 of 58 California counties lost enrollment (a total of 230,000 students), with 11 counties losing 10 percent or more of their student base, according to a study released in February 2020 by the Public Policy Institute of California. Over the next decade, 31 counties are projected to see enrollment declines, for a total of 478,000 students. While some factors — such as families moving due to rising cost of living in many areas — are out of an LEA’s control, districts and county offices of education can make strides in retaining current students and attracting new families through marketing efforts.

Declining enrollment is not just an issue in California. The past 20 years have seen sluggish growth for traditional public schools across the United States. A September 2019 U.S. Department of Education report, “School Choice in the United States: 2019,” found that from 2000 to 2016, enrollment in traditional public schools grew by just 1 percent; in that same time frame, charter enrollment increased by more than five times. In California, about 10 percent of students attend a charter school. The report found that 41 percent of parents surveyed in a national sample say that school choice was available to them.

Pleasant Valley School District Board President Rebecca Cramer has studied how parents make these choices about schools. “We need to understand that our neighborhood public schools face this competitive environment,” Cramer said. “It’s not something that we’ve prepared administrators or teachers or principals to do. It’s not a typical part of education. You don’t get training in being a marketing expert or how to sell your school — and that’s how I got involved in researching this topic academically. School choice is growing and COVID has accelerated this trend nationwide.”

“The reality is that 90 percent of the districts in California rely on enrollment for funding. If we’re not marketing, then we risk not having the resources that we need to serve our students.”
— Naomi Hunter, public relations professional and former communications officer for Redwood City SD
Retaining existing students and attracting new families means more funding to support those students, as California’s funding is based on per-pupil attendance. Districts face competition from charter schools (both in-person and virtual), homeschool networks and private schools. Back in Natomas, 30 percent of the district’s potential students attend charter schools. “We realized we needed to tell our story — why should people come to Natomas USD schools?” Kaplan said.
Where to begin?
When people hear the word “marketing,” slick tv and print ad campaigns may come to mind, but marketing simply means creating awareness of what your district offers among your families and community. For some districts, the first hurdle to investing in marketing their district is a matter of resources and where money is invested, said Naomi Hunter, a public relations professional specializing in schools and former communications officer for the Redwood City School District. “It’s very hard for school board members to sometimes invest money in staff positions and in producing marketing materials, because they get criticized from the public about that,” Hunter said. “But the reality is that 90 percent of the districts in California rely on enrollment for funding. If we’re not marketing, then we risk not having the resources that we need to serve our students. So, to me, marketing is essential to keep the level of services high.”
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Do basic aid districts need to market?
The local property taxes of most school districts are not sufficient to fund the state “revenue limit” and so the state provides the balance or the revenue limit amount. Approximately 80 of the 1,000 school districts in the state, however, have local property tax revenues that, given their enrollment levels, result in dollars per average daily attendance that exceed the revenue limit. These districts under current state law are allowed to keep all of their property tax revenue and they do not receive ADA funds. Since these districts are not reliant upon enrollment for funding, do they need to market themselves?

Santa Clara USD Director of Communications Jennifer Dericco said there are many reasons to market a basic aid district such as Santa Clara. “Even though we aren’t reliant on the revenue from enrollment, we market because we want our parents to see our schools as schools of choice,” she said. “We want them to feel confident that we will make good on our district vision. We also have one of the largest bond programs in the state and we need to make sure that our voters trust us and have confidence to support our school district when we need to go back to the ballot to improve our school facilities. Lastly, we want to make sure we are attracting and retaining the most qualified staff so that we can make good on our district’s vision for student success.”

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Any basic marketing initiative begins with research — and where better to start than Google? Cramer of Pleasant Valley SD suggests a district needs to understand what information about it is already out there. “What do they see online about your district? Is the information accessible or are they forced to just go off of Great Schools and Google reviews?” she said. “You have to see what your digital footprint looks like in order to start making some changes.”

Once you have surveyed your digital landscape, there are several ways to get additional feedback from stakeholders. “If possible, talk to your district’s parent groups,” said Cramer. “Harness the power of your PTA parents who would be willing to talk about these things openly. Look to your parent advisory groups as well.”

“We need to understand that our neighborhood public schools face this competitive environment. It’s not something that we’ve prepared administrators or teachers or principals to do.”
—Rebecca Cramer, board president, Pleasant Valley
Parent surveys are another essential tool in the research phase, according to Jennifer Dericco, director of Communications in the Santa Clara Unified School District and president of the California School Public Relations Association. “Surveys and polls are easy ways to gather info, even if you don’t have a dedicated communications person,” she said. She suggested free tools like SurveyMonkey and Google polls. The purpose of the surveys is to find out what families in your community want and need. “It’s important to hear hard truths about your district and what if offers,” Dericco said.

When Natomas USD began surveying its digital footprint, it found that charter schools had a lot more information readily and easily available to the community. The district started marketing by creating simple elements like fact sheets on their school programs and making them available on campuses and at community events. The district’s public information officer amped up their social media presence, pitched inspiring school programs and stories to reporters, and began monthly community newsletters that highlighted different school programs and community partnerships. The district also used data to analyze when they were losing students and surveying parents to find out why.

“We immediately started growing our enrollment in the midst of a flood moratorium,” said Kaplan. “We found we were losing kids to charters in fifth grade and high school. So, when we started highlighting the different specialty programs that we had, we started seeing parents stay with our district or choosing our middle school options.”

Launching a formal marketing campaign
While getting the word out to the community and school partners about the accomplishments and offerings of the LEA is an important part of marketing schools, districts can also work on larger, more traditional marketing and branding initiatives to support district enrollment. One example is the Redwood City School District’s “Meet, Choose, Love RCSD” campaign, launched in 2015.

The district was facing declining enrollment due to new charter schools in the district’s boundary, and rising housing costs that were driving many middleclass and low-income families from the area. Low rankings on further contributed to the erosion of RCSD’s potential student base as many new families moving into the area chose private schools or moved to neighboring communities with higher test scores when their young children reached school age. The district began surveying current parents and found satisfaction levels were high, but when they surveyed potential kindergarten parents, they found a lack of confidence in RCSD due to class sizes, funding, test scores and other factors. Naomi Hunter, then the district’s communications professional, noticed that most parents of children enrolled in the district were really happy with them. “One of the key things in marketing is to draw on what you know about the people you’re marketing to,” said Hunter. “I noticed that the people who were open enough to enroll their kids in a school that was not necessarily ranked highly but they enrolled their kids, they took the chance — and they fell in love with the schools.”

From there, the slogan was born: Meet, Choose, Love RCSD. The campaign features printed materials about what the district has to offer; a videographer was hired to highlight school programs and staff, students, and the fun that can be had at school. They showed the videos everywhere they could — before board meetings, at festivals, on social media and even as a commercial in local theaters. After continuing surveys year to year, especially during kindergarten roundup nights to see what parents are looking for, the campaign continues to attract more families to choose RCSD.

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Another key part of Natomas USD’s marketing effort — and a particularly strong strategy during distance learning — is featuring short videos on its website. “Do you have videos that are accessible on your website that have teachers talking about their programs, or principals talking about their school?” asked Kaplan. “We know many districts are down in kindergarten enrollment right now. Parents can’t touch the school, can’t see the teachers — why don’t sites have their kindergarten teachers do a video, show what a classroom looks like and introduce themselves to the community so that community members can see their local school and see who their kindergarten teachers are?”

Once you have gathered your information and know what your community is looking for, districts need to analyze the information. Do you have programs that fit local needs — but your community isn’t aware of them? What initiatives from community feedback can be implemented with current LEA resources?

Getting the word out
Having a district communications person or team is not feasible for many smaller districts, where personnel are often already stretched thin. But that doesn’t mean marketing is out of reach. Some of your LEA’s best ambassadors are ready and available, said Dericco of Santa Clara USD. “Make sure that you are communicating your successes and challenges to your staff first. Arm them with information, help them be your ambassadors, and ask them to join you in keeping families engaged with their classroom, school and district news,” Dericco said. “Provide staff with opportunities to connect with district leaders through video, virtual meetings and town halls so they feel invested and part of the school community.”

PR pro Hunter echoed this advice and took it a step further. “Training all of your staff, your principals, your front office staff in particular, on how to answer tough questions is really valuable,” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily feel like marketing, but it’s a really important part of it. For example, in our community, a lot of parents would ask, ‘How will my child learn if they go to school with a high number of English language learners?’ There are really good answers for that question that might make you want to send your child to that school — but if a principal gets that question and they haven’t been given any support in how to answer it, they might lose an opportunity.”

“Know who your local education reporters are. Make sure that you either send them emails or press releases or whatever it is they like to see about stuff your schools are doing.”
—Rebecca Cramer, board president, Pleasant Valley
Cramer said it’s a matter of framing. “Based on what I have learned from parent focus groups, we can learn how to communicate these things as a positive, rather than a negative. For example, if you are a Title I school, well, the fact is Title I is giving extra resources to that campus to serve those students,” she said. “It does not mean that resources are being taken away from other students. It means that the school is receiving additional resources to meet those students’ needs. There’s no negative connotation there. I think the fault is when, unfortunately, we have administrators, teachers and parents who perpetuate that. I think we need to actively train our administrators, especially principals, to talk about those resources as an asset. I think that is probably the most powerful thing any of our districts could do right now to increase equity.”

Another tip? “Know who your local education reporters are,” said Cramer. “Make sure that you either send them emails or press releases or whatever it is they like to see about stuff your schools are doing.”

Another way for districts to market their successes and programs — even without a dedicated communications person — is through existing community partnerships. For example, the Nevada City Joint Union High School District in the Sierra foothills does not have communications staff. What it does have is a robust community scholarship program. Scholarship Coordinator Linda Melugin said the district has more than 165 different donors for around 300 scholarships. “We essentially had organic marketing right there,” Melugin said. “We have over 165 people that already give us money, they’re already supporting us and they serve on different platforms in the community. They’re our talking heads and if we treat them as partners, they will have ownership in our district and in our community.”

The district began sending e-newsletters with special branding for the partners to make them aware of successes, challenges and events. “We try and make our donors and our community partners feel as though they have a voice in our districts because at the end of the day, they do, they’re tax paying citizens,” said Melugin. “It’s worked out well for us because now we have these ever-growing partnerships, these people feel valued, they feel like they have an investment in the school district and they feel communicated to, we update them constantly and they can get that information out to their own communities.”

Melugin noted there are many ways in which districts work with their communities, not just scholarship programs. “Career technical education has some of the same concepts as the scholarship program,” she said. “You have these industry partners from your community that make up your different pathways or your CTE courses. And again, these are people that already believe in you, that already support you because they’ve signed on to be an industry partner or they’ve signed on to serve on your advisory board — make them your talking heads. All you’re going to do is send an extra email. All you’re going to do is retitle a newsletter to make it fit the CTE world or to the sports world. Sports and visual performing arts are other examples where you might have sponsors or other outside professionals in those worlds.”

Every LEA — large or small, urban, suburban or rural — should at the very least be aware of the information available to their communities about them. The pandemic has increased digital communications and, in many cases, the accessibility of an LEA to its constituents. “I think there is an opportunity right now for public schools across California to help strengthen the identity and capacity of themselves at a district level,” Cramer said. “That’s a good thing for neighborhood public schools.”

Kimberly Sellery is managing editor for California Schools.