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Districts campaign to compete in era of school choice

Schools amp up communications and upgrades to keep from losing students to charters, private schools
Lakota Local School District in Ohio recently increased its communications staff to compete with private and parochial schools.
Lakota Local School District in Ohio recently increased its communications staff to compete with private and parochial schools.

The era of school choice and open enrollment has driven many district leaders to create innovative programs and to more aggressively publicize their offerings to compete with charters and private schools that have drawn away families and funding.

Here, three districts turned the tide on enrollment with enhanced communication, construction and even recruitment initiatives.

Increasing communications

Lakota Local School District, a 16,500-student system in southwestern Ohio, has for years been losing students to private and parochial schools. Private schools with larger budgets now market through television commercials and billboards, increasing pressure on the district to inform the community about its own merits, says district spokesperson Randy Oppenheimer.

Administrators hired a brand new web content specialist last year to connect with students and parents on social media. “Because of the alternatives, it’s important that we do a good job communicating what’s good about our district, what we’re doing and where we’re growing to the community,” Oppenheimer says.

It’s also important to convey the benefits of public schools to the 70 percent of community members who do not have students in the district, but whose tax dollars contribute to it, he adds.

Getting the information out to the public is only half of the job. Parent and community input must be collected Oppenheimer says. “When people depart from a district, you tend to hear comments that they never felt they were listened to or were part of decision-making processes,” he adds. “It needs to be a two-way communications program to keep people satisfied.”

Improving traditional schools

Broward County Public Schools in Florida saw charter school enrollment nearly double from 23,000 students in 2010-11 to 40,000 in 2014-15.

In the past three years, the district has made improvements at more than two dozen traditional schools in hopes of drawing students back, with plans to redesign some 20 more by next fall. Changes include creating an elementary Montessori program, an early education center and dual-language programs.

Quick tips to attract or keep more students in your district

  • Greet visitors and answer calls with friendly, helpful staff
  • Improve your district’s social media presence to communicate the positive work your district is completing
  • Develop innovative programs and renovate schools
  • Promote benefits of neighborhood schools, such as transportation and the sense of community

School officials say the plan is working: Enrollment in Broward Countys’ traditional schools rose for the first time in four years by 400 students, for a total of 224,350 students this school year.

It’s also the first year in the last few that there has been less of an increase in charter school enrollment, Leslie Brown, chief portfolio services officer for the district, stated in published reports.

Recruiting parents

In Metro Nashville Public Schools, total enrollment is up significantly, from 78,000 students six years ago to 85,000 this year. But in East Nashville, open enrollment policies have led 40 percent of parents to send their children to magnet or charter schools outside of their neighborhoods.

This past fall, principals and teachers from local elementary schools visited the homes of pre-K students to promote the benefits of attending neighborhood schools, such as provided transportation and a greater sense of community.

“Our approach is to promote families coming to any of our schools, even charters,” says district spokesperson Joe Bass. “But we hope people’s first choice is their neighborhood school, and want to encourage parents to look there before applying to others.”

When a student attends a charter, about $10,000 of per-pupil funding goes with them. Struggling, under-enrolled traditional schools in East Nashville are at risk for closure or even conversion to charters if they do not gain more students, according to local reports.

All forms of communication—from teachers’ interactions with parents to how the front desk staff greets visitors—should be taken seriously, Bass says. “If we want to attract involved parents and make a difference in a school, it takes extra work these days.”