The Marketing of our Schools
Saturday, May 26, 2012 5:00 AM
Much like businesses competing to market similar products, Indiana public schools have been increasing advertising efforts in the wake of recent state mandates for tuition support. The ads are targeting students and parents from within their respective districts, but also those in different counties or school districts altogether.
The change came after the state took over the school general fund in 2009 and tweaked the rules for student tuition support. Under the new format, commonly called open enrollment, the tuition support follows the student. It extends to charter schools, as well, because they are public schools and open to students across the state.
For public school corporations, the shift has blurred the lines of district boundaries and has forced schools to seek fresh marketing initiatives to promote programs in order to compete with each other.
"Good or bad, that's the nature of the game," said Southwestern Superintendent Steve Telfer.
Southwestern recently installed a billboard on Clifty Drive in the Madison Consolidated Schools district. The advertisement includes the phrase "Choose Southwestern Schools" in bold letters, along with the tagline, "Where students come first."
Separate from the billboard, the district has been hosting "Celebrate Southwestern" events to get the word out about services offered at the school. Those events are just as much for prospective students as they are for current students, Telfer said.
That's because even if some students leave the district to pursue an education elsewhere, the district needs to remind current students and parents about the school's programs, he said.
"As those kids leave, you have to do more to keep the kids you have," he said.
Nearby Jennings County Schools unveiled a billboard in Madison this month at the intersection of Clifty Drive and State Road 7. The billboard reads "open enrollment" in bold letters.
The new advertisements come as the Madison Consolidated Schools board is considering a proposal by Interim Superintendent Steve Gookins to close Anderson and Dupont elementary schools. Dupont is less than eight miles from Graham Creek Elementary School in Jennings County. The board will vote on the closure plan at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the high school cafeteria.
"It's not a message that we think, in any way, that our neighboring school systems are not doing a good job," said Jennings County Superintendent Terry Sargent. "The state has forced us to be more competitive with one another, so we are."
Sargent said he has received several calls from Jefferson County parents requesting information about schools in his district. So much, in fact, he said the district is "strongly considering" running a bus to a collective pick-up site in Dupont if enough Jefferson County students enroll.
Students transferring from Dupont most likely would attend Graham Creek Elementary School - a Four Star school - or Brush Creek Elementary School. There are six schools in the Jennings County corporation.
In the new education climate, the idea of a billboard promoting a public school corporation is not out of the ordinary.
But in the case of Jennings County Schools, the new marketing outreach is the result of a newly formed public relations task force. The volunteer group, made up of parents, teachers, administrators, school board members and local media representatives, meets once every six weeks to discuss marketing strategies for the schools.
In addition to the marketing strategies, the group has created a media liaison - designated by the principal - for each school.
"It's a very diverse group, and they've done a great job," Sargent said.
He said if the school system gets just one student to transfer from a different corporation, it will cover its advertising costs for the year. But, like Telfer, he added that while the school is crossing district lines to advertise and attract new students, "primarily the message is aimed at our own residents."
At MCS, Gookins believes a fresh marketing campaign is right for Madison. But because of current matters on the table - conducting a reduction in force and developing a major cost-cutting proposal for the district - he said it is something the administration has decided to pursue under the guidance of Superintendent Ginger Studebaker-Bolinger. She will begin her three-year contract with the district July 1.
Gookins said the district should consider attracting students from a 30- to 50-mile radius and look to market each of its buildings, not just the high school. And while he considers current parents and students as the greatest ambassadors, he said the corporation should market with brochures at businesses like banks or real estate agencies.
"You need to market to the people and places that are bringing people into the community," he said.
With the high school's AVID program, dual-credit opportunities, numerous advanced placement courses, partnership with the Southeastern Career Center and planned Fine Arts Academy, to name a few, there is no shortage of marketing points, he said.
Gookins also said that the state only allows a small percentage of funding to be used for promotional expenses. However, he said funding for marketing or advertising could come from the private sector, which historically has been very supportive of MCS.
Having worked as a superintendent or interim superintendent at several area school corporations, he said, "The partnership between the public schools and the private sector here is the strongest I've ever seen."