Faced with the threat of losing students to charter schools, private schools, and even better-performing public schools as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts across the nation are spending millions of dollars marketing themselves using everything from electronic and print advertising to roadside billboards.

Critics of the trend say such dollars should be spent on instruction, not marketing. But some school district officials argue that such expenditures are necessary to keep and attract students—as well as the federal and state per-pupil funds that accompany them—in this new era of school choice.

Over the summer, the Detroit Public Schools was widely criticized for spending $1.3 million last year to enhance its public image. But Detroit wasn’t the only large, urban district to invest heavily in marketing. The Baltimore City Public Schools launched a hefty marketing campaign of its own, spending nearly $1 million to promote itself. And the Milwaukee Public Schools conducted a multimedia marketing campaign to increase parent awareness and encourage early registration.

The Milwaukee district placed ads on television, radio, billboards, and before-show trailers in movie theaters, titled “Be in your seats when the bell rings” and “Double your chances of getting your kids in the school you choose.”

The campaign substantially increased student enrollment, which made school officials believe the money was well spent—especially considering the per-pupil funding each student brings to the district over several years.

“We are just thrilled by the apparent success of our marketing campaigns,” said Don Hoffman, Milwaukee’s director of communications and public affairs. “When ads put more children in classrooms, we feel like it’s worth the effort.”

Such campaigns don’t have to cost millions, experts say. The amount spent depends on the needs and size of the school district, and district officials also should consider more cost-effective methods of getting their message out to parents, such as the internet, eMail, and telephone messages.

“I worry that many school marketing programs overlook the value of technology,” said Nora Carr, senior vice president of Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising firm.

A former assistant superintendent of public information for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Carr writes a monthly column on improving stakeholder and community relations for eSchool News. “I’m glad that schools are getting into marketing, but they are going to more traditional forms of marketing only,” she laments.

Technology played a huge role in marketing Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school choice program, and it turned out to be a huge success, Carr said. District officials promoted the program on the internet and cable television. They also set up a telephone answer line, sent flyers home with students, and advertised in the media and on billboards.

Approximately 100,000 students participated by enrolling in the schools of their choice, and the district recruited a few thousand students back into its school system. A third of these students enrolled over the internet, a third used an automated telephone system, and a third used paper and pencil.

“I think technology is really important now. It’s a tool schools can’t overlook,” agreed Karen Kleinz, associate director of the National School Public Relations Association.

School leaders need to take a look at what their schools do well and what makes them unique and then communicate this to students, teachers, parents, and the community, Kleinz said: “It’s important that [schools] talk not only about what they do well, but also the areas that they want to improve.”

Web sites and newsletters are cost-effective marketing tools that school leaders can use to communicate their schools’ strengths, especially if they have limited funds.

“Schools really need to make interesting web sites that put the information out there while parents are shopping,” Kleinz said.

Some school officials knock on doors, distribute fliers throughout the community, and—in communities with large businesses—get school news included in company newsletters. At the district level, educators are advertising on TV, radio, billboards, and city buses.

“Here in Arizona, we have over 400 charter schools, so one of our challenges is keeping kids in public schools,” said Craig Pletenik, public relations coordinator for the Phoenix Union High School District. “Our challenge is not to build a case against charter schools, but to sell the virtues of our own school districts.”

Pletenik said his district is focused on marketing itself, but compared with private industry where he last worked, these efforts are minimal.

“It would be nice to have a billboard campaign, to do bus ads. We would like to do more, but advertising is expensive,” Pletenik said. Instead, the district is accentuating its strengths through newsletters, newspaper advertisements that appear in multiple languages, pre-show movie trailers, and the internet.

“We have wanted to communicate more internally, and the easiest way to do that is with an intranet,” Pletenik said. “Whenever we have a press release that’s significant, we try to send [it] out to all of our own people via eMail.”

He added, “We would like to communicate better with our parents through eMail, but a lot of our parents don’t have computers.” To alleviate this problem, the district has been distributing computers to students whose families need them through a Title I program called Bridging the Digital Divide.

Links:

National School Public Relations Association
http://www.nspra.org

Detroit Public Schools
http://www.detroit.k12.mi.us

Baltimore City Public Schools
http://www.bcps.k12.md.us

Milwaukee Public Schools
http://www.milwaukee.k12.wi.us

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
http://www.cms.k12.nc.us

Phoenix Union High School District
http://www.phxhs.k12.az.us