City schools launch drive to spruce up public image

Marketing effort aims to boost enrollment, funds

April 27, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore school system is launching a $933,000 marketing campaign to help improve its image and make it more attractive to families and potential funding sources.

Baltimore-based Eisner Communications Inc. was hired this week to devise over the next two years a "comprehensive marketing plan" for the 95,000-student school district that will touch on everything from image-building to fund raising to event-planning.

City education officials said that being able to better promote the system's message - that significant progress has been made here and that more is on the way - will help attract parents who might otherwise send their children to private or parochial schools, as well as generate financial support from foundations and businesses.

"Because of all the [reform] initiatives going on, we want to sell our story," said Mark Smolarz, the school system's chief operating officer.

"I know some people might say, `Why are you spending on something that's glitzy?' I don't think it's glitzy. I think you have to spend a quarter to save a dollar, and that's what we're doing here."

About two-thirds of the cost of the contract, which was approved by the city school board this week, will be funded from public sources, Smolarz said.

Between $100,000 and $200,000 will be funded by the Gates Foundation, which pledged $12 million to the school system in February in the name of high school reform, Smolarz said. School officials said the foundation stipulated that part of its contribution be set aside for marketing.

The school system is trying to replicate at the secondary level the successes it has had in recent years raising academic achievement in the elementary grades. Student performance in most city middle and high schools remains low.

Several education advocates expressed support yesterday for the new marketing campaign, calling it crucial to a drive to create confidence and trust in a system that a few years ago was described as "academically bankrupt."

"If the schools are improving, it doesn't mean a thing if people have the image of the school system as a place of destitution," said Christopher N. Maher, education director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore nonprofit. "The middle-class flight will continue from Baltimore city schools unless the middle class can be convinced these schools are actually improving."

"I think it is valid for the school system to think about the way it is presenting itself to the public," said Bebe Verdery, education director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "There are many parents who are unaware that their children can get a good education in the Baltimore city schools."

Mayor Martin O'Malley said through a spokesman that he supports spending money on such a campaign.

Smolarz said the public school system serves 60 percent to 65 percent of the city's children.

"That's not where we want to be," he said. "We want to be higher."

Edie House, a city schools spokeswoman, said Eisner will first conduct a "communications audit" to determine how good the school system has been at getting its message out to parents, teachers, administrators and the community.

She and Smolarz said that when they tell people they work for the city school system, some immediately ask why. That is the sentiment the communications campaign is designed to reverse.

"We as a system have to look at our image," said House. "I mean, we're out there competing every day with other school systems. This is about making sure that our story is told. We just want to make sure that we position ourselves as a viable option for parents seeking a place for their children or as a businessperson looking at supporting our endeavors."

Eisner, whose clients include US Airways, Major League Baseball, Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Maryland State Lottery, will help the school system with media and public relations, strategic planning, event-planning, fund raising, crisis management, creating a logo and the production of videos and other promotional material.

The company will also help school officials convene focus groups on reform initiatives, particularly at the high school level.

Steven C. Eisner, the company's president and chief executive officer, said about a dozen people will be working for the school system as part of the contract and that their work will begin immediately.

Instituting an effective communications plan in the education system, he said, should help entice businesses to the city, attract more qualified teachers to the system and encourage more parental involvement within schools.

"It's a mushrooming effect that creates incredible good will and momentum," he said. "That's what we're trying to build."

Diana Morris, director of the Baltimore office of the Open Society Institute, one of the school system's funding partners, said large publicly funded institutions need to communicate effectively with the people they serve.

"There's a million good reasons to make sure that you are really communicating well with a whole set of communities and that they have a chance to respond back and that there's a whole dialogue," she said.

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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