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Baltimore Schools Could Benefit From Good Marketing, Panel Says

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Baltimore--There is nothing wrong with the beleaguered Baltimore public-school system that a little "PR" wouldn't cure.

Make that a massive dose.

At least that is the conclusion of a task force of business and community leaders who were asked by Superintendent Alice Pinderhughes and Mayor William Donald Schaefer to study the school system's reputation in Baltimore and suggest ways to improve it.

The task force of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group that is given much of the credit for the urban renaissance this city has undergone in the past decade, found that the school system is troubled by a poor public image.

The city schools do not enjoy the same "infectious can-do spirit" that has come to the waterfront city in recent years as its Inner Harbor shopping area has been developed; on the contrary, they "suffer from the same lack of confidence that plagued the city itself not so many years ago," the group states in a 25-page report that it recently delivered to the board of education and the superintendent.

Much of the blame, the report contends, lies with the system itself because it has failed to effectively "market" public schooling.

To improve the schools' current negative image, the task force suggests that system officials turn their office of public information into a professionally staffed division of marketing and marketing research, said Daniel G. Finney, vice president for public relations for Maryland National Bank and chairman of the task force.

"At first glance, it may seem inappropriate to discuss marketing in reference to education," the report states. "But it is clear that the school system does have a product: educational services. It has customers: 115,000 students who attend the city schools and their parents, and, ultimately, the businesses that will hire those students. And it has3many different constituencies it must keep informed and satisfied: students, parents, teachers and employees, school-board members, elected leaders, taxpayers, neighborhood groups, the business community, and others."

At a meeting late last week, Ms. Pinderhughes told school-board members she agreed with the task force's recommendations and would begin converting the information office into a marketing office.

Criticism From Teachers

The report has drawn some criticism from teachers, who contend the city schools need to devote more time to solving what they term the "substantive" problems of the school system rather than nurturing its image.

While it is not uncommon for school systems to carry out public-relations campaigns or to have public relations experts on staff, the Baltimore proposals go "a stage or two beyond what most school system public-relations offices do," said Michael Casserly, director of legislation and research for the Council of Great City Schools, which represents 32 of the country's largest urban school districts.

"And I'm unaware of the private sector conducting such an extensive review," he said.

But Virginia Ross, director of public relations for the National School Public Relations Association, said she is seeing a "great deal" more promotional efforts by school systems. And some are taking and using the best of business marketing ideas, she added.

Image Factors

Ms. Ross said a membership survey of her organization showed that about 50 percent of those involved in school systems' public-information offices came to their jobs from the classroom and the other 50 percent came from the media or public-relations field.

The Baltimore report found that people hold varying views of the local school system. Generally, "the closer one gets to a school and sees it in operation, the better his impression," the report states.

But the task force also found significant bases for the system's negative image. Throughout its investigation, the report says, the task force heard repeated complaints about a chronic lack of sufficient funds, comparatively low teacher salaries, poor working conditions, shortages of books and supplies, overcrowded classrooms, poor discipline, crime, and poor management.

"These issues cannot be ignored," the report states. The task force also found that "confidence in the school system is undermined by negativism on the part of employees, teachers, and administrators," and school personnel at all levels appear unduly defensive and quick to point their fingers to blame others for problems."

The task force recommended that because the morale problem is so pervasive, the school board should recognize and address it as a problem distinct and separate from improving the system's image.

The task force report also listed 25 "Image-Building Ideas," including recruiting famous alumni to be mentors for students and to appear in public-service announcements, starting a job-placement service to provide supplementary and summer jobs for teachers, and inserting news of school activities into utility and tax bills.

Precedents for Change

Previous reports on the school system by the Greater Baltimore Committee have resulted in significant changes, and Mr. Finney said he was optimistic that his group's report would be taken in a similar vein.

Last spring, a critical gbc study of the schools' budget management resulted in the hiring of a new chief financial officer and the initiation of plans to have each school manage its own budget. Another report, which surveyed employees' attitudes, resulted in an administrative reorganization and the hiring of a new personnel director.

Several of the "image-buildingel10lideas" suggested by the task force are already being carried out in the school system, according to Anne Emery, assistant superintendent for public information. Ms. Emery said the system already has a hotline number to respond to problems and complaints and new brochures are being printed to be included in a kit for new homeowners in the city. But she said a number of the task force's ideas are novel and good suggestions.

"Improving the image of the city's schools will be neither simple nor quick," the report cautions, "but it is imperative for Baltimore's continued progress that its public schools be perceived as participating fully in the city's rebirth."

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