Competition is a new experience for many Michigan public schools. The state's charter school and public schools-of-choice laws are giving families access to an ever wider range of educational options. Consequently, many school districts are scrambling to find creative new ways to attract and keep students and the state funding to educate them. Administrators in districts including Kalamazoo, Jackson, and Royal Oak are meeting this competitive challenge head onby contracting with private advertising and marketing professionals.
The first lesson these districts have learned is that, in an era of expanded educational freedom, families must now be treated as customers with choices and not as captive audiences. Kalamazoo Public Schools have taken this lesson to heart by hiring private marketing expert Alex Lee to launch an ad campaign designed to convince education consumers that their schools are the best product for the price.
Lee, hired as the district's executive director for communications, believes that the campaign is working, despite Kalamazoo's continued loss of students to two area charter schools and elsewhere. "We have only lost 300 students to charter schools and they were expecting 460 of our students," he says. "So we see our marketing as a success." Lee also believes that the district's marketing campaign has been successful in dampening public demand for a third charter school in the Kalamazoo area.
Jackson is another district struggling with decreasing enrollment, having lost approximately 900 students in the last four years. Normally, Jackson promotes its schools through the use of conventional media including cable access television, news releases, and school newsletters. Recently, however, officials contracted with a local private public relations firm, R. J. Michaels, to help market the district's programs through less traditional media, such as billboards.
Jackson schools' Mike Rodriguez, temporary head of public relations, notes that the district's advertising is geared toward elementary students, where the decline in enrollment has been greatest. Although the new marketing campaign is under way, Rodriguez reports that it is too early to report whether or not it has had a positive effect.
Royal Oak schools are engaged in a vigorous $95,000 campaign to stem the loss of nearly 250 students per year, representing $2.25 million annually in state education funding. District officials recently contracted with Coomes and Dudek, a private marketing firm, to produce advertisements for the local access cable channel, community newspapers, radio, and banners hung throughout downtown Royal Oak. The district's new customer-oriented approach is also reflected in the surveys it gives to families to assess problem areas in schools. The result of these efforts? Two hundred new students have applied so far, according to district officials.
Marketing expert Lawrie Drysdale, author of The Evolution of Marketing: Implications for Schools, says that schools must face the needs of their customers while students are still enrolled and not wait for students to leave before taking a competitive approach. Professional advertising and marketing techniques "now appear to be appropriate for schools as they face increased levels of complexity, instability and competition," she says.
The burgeoning number of charter and private schools, along with inter- and intra-district public school choice, are giving Michigan parents an increasing array of options for their children's educational needs. The resulting competition among schools is changing attitudes among traditional public school administrators.
Although aggressive private-sector marketing is no guarantee of increased enrollment, more public school officials are beginning to realize that it is a necessary and permanent component of helping their schools thrive in the new competitive marketplace.