Schools Struggle to Sell Themselves

Schools Struggle to Sell Themselves
Principal James Gray at Hamilton Elementary, standing in what used to be the counselor's office. The room, one of the first parents see when they enter the school, has been converted to a student art gallery.
Schools Struggle to Sell Themselves
Principal James Gray at Hamilton Elementary, standing in what used to be the counselor's office. The room, one of the first parents see when they enter the school, has been converted to a student art gallery.

Schools Struggle to Sell Themselves

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This month, many Chicago parents are deciding where to enroll their children in elementary school. A generation ago, Chicago Public School kids overwhelmingly attended their neighborhood elementary. Today, there are magnet, gifted, and charter schools to choose from. More than 30 new elementary schools have opened in the last five years. The changing landscape has neighborhood schools studying a new subject: marketing.

Parents can be discerning customers.

Take these moms and dads, who showed up at a new schools fair earlier this year—to shop.

DAD: If I have to put them in a faster pace school, that’s what I intend to do.

MOM: It’s crowded with a lot of kids, and I want them to get into another school with less students.

MOM: Safety issues like gangs—it’s something that we really don’t want our child to be around.

MOM: I really liked the school with the solar windows and the chickens running around. You know, it was like an organic elementary school.

New schools at the fair are competing for these parents. And so are traditional neighborhood schools.

ambi: We begin Week 20 today, Week 20. Please stand for the Pledge. I pledge allegiance to the flag …

Principal Marian Strok says she’s pushing a darn good product.

ambi: classroom at Evergreen

Test scores at her southwest side school— Evergreen Academy—are above the district’s average. There are honors courses that help kids jump ahead in high school. Everybody studies Mandarin.

But Strok is lsoing kids—so she’s stealing a page from the competition’s playbook.

STROK: The charter school down the block from us had an ad in the paper. They also had a large open house—again, touting the fact that they just put on an addition. And they’re really marketing all over the place, and that’s what we have to do in order to get children. I’ll do it, I will do it because I think we’re that good a school.

For Strok, this is the world tipped on its head: the public school principal is now thinking of advertising for students in the Sunday bulletins of nearby Catholic churches.

And you can understand why. There are real consequences to losing students. Programs and staff can be cut. And in the last 7 years, Chicago has shut down 36 schools for low enrollment.

UNO radio ad

In Pilsen, principal Zoila Garcia of Whittier Elementary says she’s up against radio ads like this one and recruiters from nearby charter schools who go door to door through the neighborhood. Thirty-seven percent of kids in the area now go somewhere else.

Although Whittier‘s test scores aren’t great, Garcia insists a lot of parents would be interested in her dual language school. She knows what she’s talking about: she used to work at a popular magnet school with a similar program. But here, she has to battle the stigma of being a regular old public school. And to be honest, she’s not sure how to begin marketing.

GARCIA: We don’t really have the personnel or the expertise, because we never thought that was going to be part of our job.

And there are teachers at Whittier who resent the whole idea.

TEACHER: We’re not marketers, we’re teachers. But yet we have to go home and grade papers and on weekends we have to man tables to try to get our schools populated.

RANGEL: They should be out there, in the street, going door to door, and hustling like everybody else. This is a tough business.

That’s Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, which runs UNO charter schools. Rangel says recruiting students is like running a political campaign. You do radio ads, you go door to door. UNO uses volunteers and spends less than $3,500 a year total on student recruitment. Rangel says any school can do this.

RANGEL: But if people are complacent in their classroom—in their little office, and then just complain that, ‘We don’t have a marketing budget,’ they’re not thinking outside of the box, as everybody likes to say. But I think that’s what’s required.

Rangel says it’s neighborhood schools that have the big advantage in this competition. They get students routed to them by default.

UNO schools have had to recruit every one of their 3,300 kids. With eight schools across town, UNO is building a brand. Rangel has found a niche market among Mexican immigrant parents. He says parents know quality when they see it.

RANGEL: Our children wear uniforms, and uniforms does not mean a white T-shirt with baggy pants. It means full uniform with a tie, and that’s what parents want. We say that our teachers do home visits. They’re committed to visiting you twice a year in your home. That’s what parents want.

Millions of public and private dollars have been spent on creating Chicago‘s new schools. Advocates for school choice say too many kids are still trapped in low-performing neighborhood schools—and they’ve pushed CPS to do more to let parents know the new options exist.

ROBOCALL: Hello. This is Ron Huberman, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. I’m calling to invite you and your family to the New Schools Expo…

This automated call went to 260,000 households. And it left many neighborhood schools feeling like the district is favoring charters. CPS has struggled in the past with how to level the playing field when it comes to marketing. The district prints a directory that lists every school in the city; part of the initial idea was to get parents to see options beyond big brand-name magnet schools.

If you’re wondering what the future might look like for schools and marketing, check out Hamilton Elementary. The North Side school came close to death last year, but then won a last-minute reprieve.

PARADIS: And actually what Ron Huberman said was, ‘Why would I close a high performing school that just needs to be marketed for more people?’

Since then, local school council chair Stacey Paradis and others at Hamilton have embraced marketing with a fervor.

PARADIS: It is very much about the positive buzz or the negative buzz that was out there. And not that Hamilton had negative buzz before. I think we just had no buzz.

Paradis talks about “branding” Hamilton and “spinning the school.” She has professional marketing experience, not something every school can count on, especially in poorer neighborhoods. It’s helped Hamilton launch an all-out campaign, with direct mailings, phone calls to prospective parents, a new Web site and more signage. There are now open houses and school tours.

GRAY: This was a counselor’s office, we tore everything out and created a student art gallery.

The first two rooms you see when you enter Hamilton have been rehabbed, and principal James Gray says that’s no accident. But he says beautified spaces and new books in the library don’t just attract parents. They’re also real improvements that benefit kids.

GRAY: Marketing only gets people interested in a school—so that’s the first part of it. Once they come to the school, we have to sell them on the school, and that’s really where the parent signs on the dotted line.

Gray says part of marketing has been figuring out what parents want. They seem to expect a science lab, he says. So now the school is fundraising to build one. Then they’ll tout it. If that leads to more students, there’s more benefits. The district could send Hamilton a librarian, for instance.

All the time schools spend on marketing can take time away from the business of educating kids.

GRAY: Last summer, probably half my time was spent on a marketing strategy, thinking about what we were going to do to get more applicants to our school.

But Gray prefers to see that as an investment. And it seems to be working. In just a year, Hamilton has doubled the number of students applying to kindergarten.