Overbuilt St. Louis area district looks to recruit students

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HAZELWOOD, Mo. (AP) — Officials at one of the largest school districts in the St. Louis area say they overbuilt the district in preparation for a population surge that never happened.

The Hazelwood school district has capacity for 22,000 students but had only 17,889 students this year. The district is advertising and marketing to recruit students to fill the many empty desks, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

District officials have turned to billboards, mailers, videos and social media.

"We're borrowing a page from the private sector," said Kimberly McKenzie, the district's director of communications. "Effective marketing is the lifeblood of private schools. Parents make conscientious decisions to send their kids to those schools. We need to ask ourselves: Why would a parent choose to send their student to us?"

District officials blame the excess classroom space on the recession that started in 2008, which lead to housing foreclosures and job losses.

But an average of 3,100 Hazelwood students also leave the district every year. McKenzie is leading a committee studying the district's exodus trend.

The group found that many students withdraw because they either move out of the district or transfer to private schools.

"We have heavy recruitment of our students, mainly from the private schools," McKenzie said. "If parents see we have been adding specialized programs, and that we have strong athletics, we think they'll want to stay."

Hazelwood added eight advanced placement programs last year. The district also plans to turn a middle school into one for gifted students next fall.

District officials created an accelerated program that allows eighth-grade students to start taking high school classes so that they can graduate early, or eventually earn a degree in a vocational program.

McKenzie's committee found the withdrawal trend increases after students complete kindergarten, fifth grade and eighth grade. In response, district schools are hosting more social and mentoring activities to ease grade transition and reduce anxiety.

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com


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