When residents of Macomb County, Mich., tune into Pandora internet radio, they may be surprised to hear ads selling something quite different from landscaping, new cars, or home repair services.
The Fraser Public School District is selling its schools on Pandora this year. The sophisticated, $130,000 ad campaign, which is only .25 percent of the total budget, uses internet, TV, print ads, and educational websites to court parents who live in neighboring districts. Although Fraser isn’t the first district to advertise, they are going about it in an ambitious and creative way.
Fraser operates in a state that suffered deep repercussions from the recent recession, including the restructuring of the auto industry, a loss of more than 850,000 jobs, and decreased income levels.
“During trying economic times, many school districts are forced to balance their budgets by cutting programs and reducing staff, and communications and marketing efforts often fall by the wayside,” says Joel Gagne, owner of Allerton Hill Consulting, LLC, a provider of marketing advice to schools. “If they want new students, public schools now find themselves having to go out and get them.”
In 2008, Fraser decided to aggressively inform the community about the benefits to students of a host of programs it was redesigning for learning in the 21st century. Fraser created a blended environment, allowing designated high school students to spend half their learning time in classrooms and half working online from home or the school media center.
The district also developed a dual-enrollment program, enabling students to take college-credit courses taught by Fraser teachers. Finally, the learning day was extended by giving an iPad to each student in third grade and above.
A taste of the commercials
Fraser School District officials created a few enrollment ads to entice students. They aired during last summer’s enrollment campaign and were used in broadcast and cable spots, as well as on digital ads.
As a result, Fraser was able to increase enrollment during the state’s economic downfall and is now continuing to cash in on school choice, which allows parents to send their children to other districts if they can provide their own transportation. Close to one-third of Fraser’s students come from other districts, having chosen it over their local schools.
Stemming a decline
David Richards, Fraser’s superintendent, is amazed at the degree of change he’s seen in school communications and outreach in the past 20 years. When he was a teacher and high school principal, he says, “communicating meant sending home newsletters and memos with the kids.”
In 2010, Richards took over as superintendent of Fraser’s four-square-mile, middle-income suburban district. He oversees nine schools and about 5,400 students, with about 1,700 coming through Schools of Choice, Michigan’s voluntary interdistrict program. Forty-five percent of all Fraser students receive free or reduced-price meals.
All of Macomb County’s 21 school districts participate in the interdistrict school choice program. Back in 2006, Fraser’s enrollment peaked at 5,088. However, over the next two years the population declined, and enrollment decreased to 4,845. The board of education was forced to consider closing a school.
“Community parents asked that we share the advantages of our schools to try to increase enrollment, so my predecessor started a marketing campaign in 2008,” Richards says.
And Fraser’s marketing is right on the mark, Richards says. “Our enrollment has increased every year since 2008, and most importantly, we’ve seen a very positive improvement in community support. Many applications are stimulated by referrals from family and friends.”
Competition for students is fierce
The first public school open enrollment program was introduced in Minnesota in 1988, and today, according to the Education Commission of the States, 36 states have voluntary interdistrict school choice programs. These programs give students opportunities to enroll in schools and/or districts outside of their neighborhoods. Studies show that students tend to move to districts with lower levels of poverty, higher median family income, and higher-than-average standardized test scores.
In Michigan, the program is voluntary, allowing district officials to decide whether or not they will accept students who live outside their districts. The Michigan Department of Education reports that during the 2011-12 school year, about half of the 545 districts participated, with about 100,000 students attending schools outside their home districts. Over the past 10 years, the state has seen a nearly 150 percent participation rate increase.
David Arsen, an economist and professor of educational administration at Michigan State University, has done extensive research on school choice. Arsen asserts that the growing trend for district advertising is a direct result of Michigan’s extremely competitive market for K12 education.
In Michigan and in most states, school funding is tied exclusively to the number of pupils enrolled, so many districts look at interdistrict choice as a way to increase revenues, Arsen says. Every year, the Michigan legislature decides how much revenue a district will receive per pupil.
Telling the tale
During Richards’ four years as Fraser superintendent, the district’s marketing has morphed from traditional to targeted. “In the beginning, we only used newsletters, ads in local papers, and billboards,” he says. “Since that time, we’ve expanded our campaign to focus on ‘smart marketing.’” Fraser now has a full-time community relations manager, Nicole Malak, who seeks advice and support from outside marketing experts, such as Sussman Sikes and Associates, and advertising managers at metro-Detroit TV stations.
“Smart marketing” means using sophisticated communications channels to reach targeted audiences, Malak says. For the past two years, Fraser has reallocated a large portion of its marketing funds from print to digital marketing, with the highest frequency of advertising occurring during the school enrollment period in July and August.
For example, Malak chose Pandora because it allows an advertiser to decide who views its message based on zip code. Fraser targets zip codes from its own and surrounding districts. When an ad displays on Pandora, viewers who click on it will be taken to www.gotofraser.com. Tracking the number of clicks allows Malak to evaluate each ad’s effectiveness.
In a state like Michigan where school choice is prevalent, parents with school-age children are likely to see ads for a variety of districts. If they seek information on educational or regional websites, such as greaterschools.org or ClickOnDetroit.com, they’ll also see ads for the Fraser district schools.
Many of Fraser’s teachers and administrators share information about the district’s programs on Twitter. Even the print ads take advantage of the digital connection. One ad carries an embedded QR-code, allowing readers to use a smartphone to access Fraser’s digital content, including videos. The videos, which vary from 30 seconds to 15 minutes, were created by Detroit’s Velocity Cow commercial, video and branding production company, and feature unscripted students, teachers, and parents discussing why they like school programs.
More traditional channels are employed in very targeted ways. Malak works with the latest Nielsen ratings and Scarborough data to target women with children who are in their home, placing ads on top womens’ television shows in the market, such as “The Ellen Show” and the “The Today Show” and on cable networks, including ABC Family, TLC and Lifetime. Mothers are considered to be the key decision-makers in choosing schools for their children.
The ads have a benefit beyond increased enrollment, Richards says. “More people in the community are aware of the good things we’re doing,” he says. “Whenever we get out and talk about a new initiative, we get a lot of positive support.”
One consequence of public school marketing and shifts in enrollment is an increase in competition between districts. “Superintendents understand the reality of the setting, and they know who is eating whose lunch,” Arsen says. “They didn’t set the rules, but the rules force them to think in a more competitive way. They have to protect their programs.”
Visitors to the metropolitan Detroit area will notice school districts there have increased their focus on attracting out-of-district students. Billboards, newspaper ads, and radio spots extoll the virtues of districts. When the school year begins, principals knock on doors in their neighborhoods, and Detroit schools have offered gift cards to students who enroll. “Competition for students has led to the necessity of advertising your district’s virtues,” Arsen says.
But it is still highly unusual for a district to advertise to the extent that Fraser does, says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA. “Marketing for students is undoubtedly due to the economic pressures school districts are facing,” he says.
Oxford Community Schools—a middle-to-upper-middle-class rural and suburban area in northern Oakland County, Mich.—is another district that aggressively markets its academic programs. Superintendent William Skilling agrees with Arsen that school choice fuels competition. “Unfortunately, school enrollment is now a zero-sum game,” says Skilling. “My gain is another district’s loss. Many of my colleagues don’t like it.”
Richards shares this concern. “There’s a finite number of students, so interdistrict enrollment has an impact that is both positive and negative. If one district’s enrollment is growing, then another district’s enrollment is going down.”
So far, Richards and Skilling have been able to accommodate the students who want to enroll.
“Eventually, we’ll hit a point where we can’t continue to do that,” says Skilling. “And the system is designed so that if you aren’t growing, you are losing revenue.”
Matter of intensity
Does competition for students lead to improvements in the academic programs of districts that are losing students?
“It is a matter of intensity,” says Arsen. “If you’re losing 5 percent of your students, you are getting a signal that you need to make adjustments in your programs and can alter what you provide in your schools. But if you lose one-third of your students and revenue over a few years, that’s a downward spiral of a magnitude that is difficult to reverse.”
In such a competitive environment, schools cannot afford to be complacent. In Michigan today, schools are quite proactive and attentive to parents, more so than they were before school choice became a statewide option, Arsen says.
In the Fraser district, it appears the proactive stance will continue. for years to come “We invest a large amount of money in our marketing, and we take that very seriously,” says Richards. “So far, our board of education views it as a good investment, given the students we’ve gained, the exposure within the community, and the additional families buying homes in our district.”
And Richards concludes, “We’ve never spent more money than we’ve brought in with new students.”
Harriet Meyers is a freelance writer based in Columbia, Md.