Baltimore schools' ad campaign follows a nationwide trend

Systems' self-promotion has cut loss of students

May 06, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

By launching a $933,000 marketing campaign, Baltimore's school board has joined public school districts across the nation that are promoting themselves to a shrinking pool of students.

From Milwaukee to Detroit to Charlotte, N.C. - cities where the public schools are in hot competition for students with private, parochial and charter schools - officials are finding that campaigns such as the one announced by Baltimore two weeks ago help to bring back families who had abandoned the public schools.

"The future of public school education lies in its ability to market itself. The days when you could open your doors and expect kids to come in is over. You are in the competition of your life," said Don Hoffman, director of communications and public relations for the Milwaukee public school system.

Milwaukee, which has one of the largest publicly funded voucher systems in the country, was losing students until it began an aggressive advertising campaign last year. Today, it has 105,000 students - an increase of 1,200 after school officials put their message on television, the radio and even the paper that lines fast-food trays.

Why fight for students? "It becomes a major fiscal issue," said Richard D. Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association, based in Rockville. Nationwide, school districts lose about $5,000 in state funding every time a student decides to leave a public school system, he said.

In Baltimore, the district can lose up to $8,000 a student if the child is qualified for extra services, said Mark Smolarz, the school system's chief operating officer.

Baltimore parents are taking advantage of expanded choices of where to send their children to school. The public school system serves 60 to 65 percent of the city's children. Private schools are thriving, county schools are bulging as families move to the suburbs and Catholic schools educate some 34,000 students in metropolitan Baltimore.

In recent years, the Baltimore schools have faced a new intruder: Edison Schools Inc., a private company that was given three failing elementary schools that now have more than 2,000 pupils. Parents of those pupils are clamoring for the school board to allow Edison to open a middle school next year.

In the face of this competition, the school district's enrollment fell by 15,000 students in five years and is now about 95,000.

But five years after the state and city formed a partnership to improve the school system, scores have risen significantly at the elementary schools.

School officials say they want to market that success and start improving city high schools and middle schools. If their campaign is as successful as those in other cities have been, they could begin to slow the rate of student departure.

In Detroit, where the school system was losing students at about the same pace as Baltimore schools and faced competition from a growing number of charter schools, officials say the campaign helped.

"We went out and found out what parents wanted," said spokesman Francine Burgess. After offering parents extended day care at schools, all-day prekindergarten and kindergarten classes, enrollment declined by fewer than 1,000 students, rather than by the projected 4,500.

As part of an ambitious school choice plan introduced this school year, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system launched a $500,000 campaign to get students to choose which public school they want to attend. The school system held hundreds of meetings and open houses at schools, advertised in the media and used a number of languages, including Spanish and Vietnamese, to get the word out.

As part of the campaign, said Nora Carr, assistant superintendent for public information for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, the system used billboards to advertise facts about the system, such as that it has the second-largest number of national board-certified teachers in the nation and that it produced 44 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists last year.

They not only got parents to sign up their children for a particular school, they also brought about 2,000 to 3,000 students back to the school system.

Despite the $933,000 price tag for Baltimore's two-year campaign, many advocates for public education support the idea of marketing the system.

"I think it is long, long overdue," said Baltimore City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, chairman of the council's education and labor subcommittee. "There is a lot of positive things that occur in this city and the schools that no one hears about."

State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, said she thinks there is a lag between the improvements made in the city's schools and public's perception of the schools.

"Baltimore City has the best school board in the state. We have the ability to plan, we have a good school board and an improved system, and you have to tell the story," she said.

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