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PR Firm Turns Students On to Math, Science

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Thanks to a savvy public relations campaign, educators in Clinton County, N.Y., are making it hip for sophomores to sign up for math and science.

Eleventh grade enrollment in upper-level math and science courses in the county's nine school districts jumped 15 percent and 10 percent, respectively, this fall after an economic-development group hired a public relations firm to raise students' interest in the two subjects.

The campaign, called "Learn To Earn," combined guest presentations in schools, pamphlets for parents, and an interactive CD-ROM featuring a Smashing Pumpkins rock concert to inform students about the types of jobs available with local companies and the math and science courses they need to qualify for them.

"What's interesting about the program is the way a professional PR firm used the tricks of its trade to sell not jeans or candy bars to teenagers, but education," said Jeff Wakefield, the director of public relations for KSV Communicators, a public relations firm based in Burlington, Vt.

Wanted: Technicians

The Clinton County Development Corp., a regional nonprofit organization working to bring jobs to the community, hired KSV Communicators last year in hopes of broadening the area's pool of skilled technicians.

Located just south of the Quebec border on Lake Champlain, Clinton County has successfully marketed its location to Canadian businesses for years, said Adore Kurtz, the president of the development corporation.

But when a local U.S. Air Force base closed its doors in 1995 and a major corporate prospect passed over Clinton County to set up shop in New Jersey, local officials realized that they had to work aggressively to grow a technically skilled workforce, Ms. Kurtz said.

"We found that the best and the brightest perceived that they couldn't find jobs here," she said. "And we couldn't provide companies with the sophisticated workforce they needed."

Local companies are always looking for "white smock" technicians who fill jobs that involve neither assembly-line work or upper-level management skills, Mr. Wakefield said.

KSV shaped its pitch to the county's 900 sophomores after first conducting smaller study groups with the teenagers they most wanted to reach: average students who go to school every day but who are not likely to pursue a four-year college degree.

"The four-year college students are taking this stuff already," said Sydney Garrant, the director of guidance at Beekmantown High School. "This is geared for the kids who slide through, take exactly what's required, and then go straight from school to work."

Reaching teenagers during their sophomore year is critical to this program, Ms. Garrant said, because county students can opt out of taking mathematics and science in the 11th grade.

'Myth Vaporizer'

To dispel the notion that technicians are "geeky," KSV centered the Learn To Earn campaign around interactive presentations by technicians from such area employers as the Georgia-Pacific Corp., a producer of paper products, Mr. Wakefield said.

Every sophomore participated in at least one presentation timed to coincide with the course-registration period at each high school.

In addition, the public relations firm mailed a descriptive booklet to the parents of every sophomore, and produced an interactive Learn To Earn CD-ROM to distribute to the high schools' guidance offices and libraries.

The CD-ROM features such options as a "myth vaporizer," which explains why technician jobs are interesting, and an "answer transducer," which lists salary levels for various technical jobs.

With the click of a computer mouse, students can also groove to a performance by the rock group Smashing Pumpkins and learn that a concert-video technician needs to know math and physics.

At Beekmantown High School, administrators have had to create two new geometry sections, an additional physics section and a new chemistry section just to meet the increased demand, Ms. Garrant said. Since the program will likely be a long-term effort, the school expects to do the same next year, she added.

"This is opening the eyes of general education students," Ms. Garrant said.

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