In Milwaukee, the signs are everywhere.
Drive through heavily trafficked downtown, and you’ll see brightly colored billboards perched above office parks promoting the Milwaukee public schools’ “Choose a Leader, Choose MPS” advertising campaign.
Walk into a McDonald’s in the city, and your Big Mac and fries may come on a paper tray liner featuring the Milwaukee schools. “It’s cool, it’s real, it’s back,” says the message emblazoned across the placemats, which promote the district’s new teen-oriented television show.
Or turn on a local radio station, and you might hear a public service announcement promoting the district’s public-school-choice program.
“The years when kids just showed up at your door are over,” said Don Hoffman, the acting communications director for the 105,000-student Milwaukee school system. “We have to compete now, and we have to tell our side of the story.”
More and more public school districts are trying to upgrade their images and attract more students through a blitz of commercials, 50-foot-long billboards, fast food coupons, and other tactics. These aggressive marketing campaigns are a response to competition from home schooling, charter schools, and private and parochial schools.
This business-style approach to promoting public education is flourishing primarily in larger districts, but will eventually trickle down to smaller ones, said Rich Bagin, the executive director of the Rockville, Md.-based National School Public Relations Association. “When there is a new boy on the block [like a charter or private school] touting new programs, people just don’t gravitate back [to the regular public schools],” he said. "[Public schools] need to demonstrate how they’ve changed.” Mr. Hoffman puts it in more alarming terms. “We’re fighting for our life,” he said. “We’re competing for every kid.”
Threatened by a shrinkingenrollment—and consequently fewer state and federal dollars—the Milwaukee schools decided last year that since students weren’t coming to them, they’d go to the students and their parents. This school year, district officials spent $95,000 on television commercials, radio spots, direct-mail campaigns, billboards, Web site design, and other marketing tactics to court families back to the system.
As the site of the country’s biggest publicly financed voucher program, as well as many charter schools, the Milwaukee district faces especially stiff competition.
But other large urban districts are taking similar measures to promote themselves, and some are spending even more money on marketing.
School leaders in Detroit, for example, spent $180,000 last summer on radio and newspaper advertisements and enrollment fairs, and have visited local churches to drum up student enrollment.
In San Juan Capistrano, Calif., school administrators use telephone public opinion polls to gauge community support and market district programs. And in the Charlotte- Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina, district officials publicized information about the system’s school choice offerings by posting promotional material on eye-catching red billboards throughout the city, rolling out commercials on the radio during heavy commuting hours, and enlisting a local K- Mart store to tell shoppers—via the store’s public address system—about the choice program.
Such campaigns signal a fundamental shift in how public schools think of themselves as more like businesses in a competitive marketplace rather than government agencies, says Nora Carr, the assistant superintendent of public information for the 109,000-student Charlotte- Mecklenburg system.
In the past, Ms. Carr said, districts were not aggressive in communicating their progress to parents, students, businesses, and local residents. Most districts relied, and many still do, on the local news media to tell “positive” stories about their schools. But Ms. Carr said they are often dismayed when newspapers and television stations ignore those stories.
She emphasizes that school districts should not fault the media because the press is not an arm of a district’s public relations department. Getting the message out, she said, is the school system’s responsibility.
But because of public schools’ traditional reluctance to communicate what they’ve had to offer, a huge gap exists between how communities perceive their public schools and how their educators see them, Ms. Carr said.
“Allowing that gap to grow has hurt all of us,” she said. “It’s long overdue that we become more aggressive in communicating what we do, why we do it, what works, and what doesn’t, and taking strategies other industries have [used] for a long time to let the general public know what’s really going on.”
The Milwaukee system has lost several thousand students since 1990, when the Wisconsin legislature adopted a voucher program that gives qualifying families tuition money to send their children to private and religious schools. Publicly financed but largely independent charter schools have also eaten into the district’s enrollment pie—a dozen of the 92 charter schools in Wisconsin are in the Milwaukee area.
In response, the district, with the help of advertising agencies, created a very aggressive marketing campaign. Over the past few months, the city schools have:
- Aired up to 5,000 radio spots on 25 stations, and more than 3,000 commercials on nine television stations;
- Mailed 246,000 postcards to families highlighting famous district alumni, such as Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and R&B musician Eric Benet, as well as postcards publicizing “Making the Grade,” the district’s new television show for teenagers;
- Worked with local McDonald’s franchises to print 177,000 tray liners that showed Mr. Hoffman’s smiling face, along with broadcast times for “Making the Grade” and the show’s Web site address; and
Placed information about the school system on more than 100 billboards throughout the city and on 75 signs on city buses and bus shelters.
The result? So far, 1,200 more students enrolled during this year’s open-registration period compared with last year, the first such increase in five years, Mr. Hoffman said. And more students translate into more aid money, he pointed out.
“If you just add up the additional enrollment of 1,200 kids, multiply that by 12 years, you’re talking about literally millions of dollars brought in by recruiting efforts,” he said.
The communications chief added that while the district spent $95,000 in marketing efforts this school year, local businesses donated much more in radio and television airtime, advertising space, and other resources.
Roxanne Starks, the president of the Milwaukee PTA, said that the district’s public relations campaign has made it easier to learn about the local schools, and that people are starting to see the district in a more positive light.
“I have heard of parents who have reconsidered and brought their children back from the private voucher program,” Ms. Starks said. Meanwhile, the recent marketing campaign in Detroit helped staunch the steady flow of students out of the city schools, where enrollment has dropped steadily, from 215,000 in the late 1970s to 167,000 today, according to Stan Childress, the district’s communications director.
But instead of losing a projected 5,800 students earlier this school year, enrollment fell by 1,700 in grades K-12, but actually rose by 763 pupils if prekindergarten is included, said Mr. Childress.
“We were wildly successful,” he said.
High above downtown Charlotte’s mid-rise office buildings looms a big red billboard. Commuters driving toward the North Carolina city on busy 4th Street, right before they cross Independence Boulevard, will see it immediately. “Apply Now,” it says—referring not to a bank’s loan program, but to Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s public-school-choice program.
The billboard is just one element of the district’s $480,000 marketing campaign, which blends television, radio, and print advertising across the system’s 540 square miles. But the most important part of the campaign is also the least visible—the personal contact and grassroots organizing that goes on behind the scenes, said Ms. Carr of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
“No matter how high-tech we get, and how marketing-savvy we get, there’s no replacement for person-to- person contact,” she said.
In recent months, school employees and more than 75 volunteers have knocked on doors to talk to parents face-to-face and have hung yellow fliers on front doors to inform local residents about the district’s school choice program.
District leaders also hosted a school “expo” that brought in more than 20,000 people; held “Lunch and Learn” sessions for major employers in the area; created a parent phone information line; and enlisted businesses to donate time and money to promote local schools.
In addition, the district reached out to its Latino constituents by making presentations about school programs after Hispanic youth soccer matches, posting signs in Latino grocery stores, and printing school information in Spanish. It also targets residents who speak languages such as Vietnamese. Like Milwaukee and other districts, Charlotte-Mecklenburg faces competition from charter schools, parochial schools, and home schooling. But while the system’s enrollment has been growing by about 3,000 students a year, school officials don’t take those increases for granted.
“You know that movie where they said, ‘Build it and they will come’?” Ms. Carr said. “Well, that only works in Hollywood. You can’t take public support for granted.
“Your teachers can love you, your parents can love you, your kids can love you, but you can still miss 70 to 80 percent of the people who vote,” she said.
That’s a sentiment that Jacqueline Price has taken to heart. The assistant superintendent of California’s 47,000-student Capistrano Unified School District, Ms. Price peppers her speech with business terminology, and she takes a data-driven approach in promoting her school system.
District leaders rely partly on public opinion polls—both districtwide and school-specific—to gauge what the community knows and doesn’t know about its schools. When the district polled parents on the best way to communicate with them, for instance, it found out that the glossy quarterly district newsletter sent to parents was not a very effective communications tool. So now, parents can sign up for a weekly email news update, which is both well-read and cost-effective.
The Capistrano district also randomly polled parents on whether to do away with the annual back-to-school night. Ms. Price said she hadn’t been sure the event warranted the energy and time educators took to put it together. Or, as she puts it, she didn’t know if “we were getting a return on our investment.”
“But we found out that parents love back-to-school night,” Ms. Price said. “We can’t sit here in the ivory tower and think we have all the answers. If you want to survive in the marketplace, you need to focus on the customers and comply with their needs.”
In fact, Ms. Price believes she saw how well the district’s marketing approach was working when voters overwhelmingly approved a $65 million school construction bond two years ago.
“This is an extremely conservative community, but it was approved by 74 percent,” she said. “People don’t vote to tax themselves if they don’t have confidence in their schools.”
Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Sales Pitch: Go to School In Our District