You are here


Students Wanted!

As competition for students heats up, districts are turning to advertising-and are prospering.

In Lima, Ohio, a town of 40,000, Michael Lamb, superintendent of Perry Local Schools, recalls thinking in graduate school 20 years ago that good school districts would never need to promote themselves. The assumption of the times was that advertising and public K12 education were wholly unrelated, and Lamb can recall writing a paper on the very topic. "Boy, was I wrong," he says.

Now Lamb employs a series of television commercials through a local NBC affiliate touting his district's elementary and combined junior and senior high schools. The ads, with action-based scenes featuring students in a variety of school settings, highlight the district's small class size, rigorous curriculum, and advanced technology.

He concedes that the educational landscape has changed considerably in the two decades since his graduate work. "There was no such thing as open enrollment, community schools or charter schools," he notes. "Today, under Ohio's open enrollment policy, a child can attend pretty much any school he or she wants to. It changes everything."

Funded on a per-student basis by the state, the process of open enrollment allows students to enroll in a public school that is outside the boundaries of their traditional enrollment zone. Some open enrollment policies are stricter than others and can even vary by racial integration requirements, space availability in transfer schools, the provision of transportation funds and approval of school boards.

Moreover, a central provision of the No Child Left Behind law requires all local districts to offer transfer options to students in failing schools.

"If you grew up thinking that schools are above advertising, think again." -John Musso, vice president of the Association of School Business Officials International

As a superintendent, Lamb is hardly alone in the advertising business. In a growing number of districts facing the same pressures, playing the advertising game has become a way of life. While the choice of media and target audience may differ, these districts share the same economic reality of having to compete for students. Most agree that advertising dollars represent a good investment and, in most cases, one they can't afford to not make.

Despite the growing awareness, school advertising is still a grassroots effort, with the districts involved in the business essentially functioning as early adopters of an innovative approach to enrolling students that hasn't yet been streamlined. School advertising has only become more common in the last several years, and there still are no specialized ad agencies to serve the schools' needs. Districts simply take lessons from each other, utilizing the resources and contacts they already have.

John Musso, vice president of the Association of School Business Officials International, an organization that includes 6,000 public and private school CFOs and other business professionals, says market conditions may provide the best argument for school advertising. "It comes down to realizing that you have to market schools because of the educational competition today," he says. "Charter schools are here to stay, and homeschooling is on the rise."

Billboards to Television

Eight years ago, Lamb could literally see the writing on the wall as he drove through Lima. One billboard hailed the Quest Academy community elementary school's "Passion for Teaching." Further down the road two private school competitors, the Heir Force and Golden Bridge academies, rented billboards of their own, promoting their free school supplies and student diversity, respectively. Perry's student body had dwindled as the local population aged and children moved away from family farms-leaving only 600 students from a census of 900 taken several years earlier.

In an effort to compete, in 1999 the Perry Board of Education began running 30-second television ads on the local NBC station. The ads were designed to attract students from other districts, highlighting three advantages of Perry's local schools: a student-teacher ratio of 18:1, much lower than the Ohio public schools' standard 25:1; the opportunity to take college level courses at a branch campus of Ohio State University; and access to the best technology, such as electronic whiteboards.

Sprinkled throughout prime-time programs, the six o'clock news and occasionally The Oprah Winfrey Show, the ads ran through June, July and August prior to the upcoming school year. Lamb showed the four commercials to other superintendents. "Many of these superintendents thought that it was probably a little cutting edge," Lamb says, acknowledging the rarity of school advertising.

But Lamb insists he was simply ahead of his time, especially with more than $5,000 per student in open enrollment funding from the state riding on the outcome. The student funds ultimately accumulated to more than $1.2 million from the state, though, when Lamb restored his enrollment to 900 for the 2005-2006 school year. Three hundred of those students came from other districts. Lamb credits the accomplishment in large part to the advertising campaign, and he has not had to cut staffing or programming since.

With Perry's success in full view, five neighboring districts have also taken to the airwaves. "It's healthy in that if you follow the thinking that competition is good for schools, then advertising is the next extension," Lamb says.

Maynard, Mass.: A Place to Shine

In Maynard, Mass., a former mill town about 25 miles west of Boston, Mark Masterson, school superintendent, got his wake-up call when a charter school opened nearby and siphoned 25 students from his district. Because the academic and athletic programs of several larger neighboring districts also posed a threat, Masterson hired New Media Associates, an advertising firm in nearby Amesbury.

Just like the Perry Local School district, the small size of Maynard's schools became their main selling point after New Media president Bill Plante conducted focus groups with students, parents and community members. "The perception was that since Maynard was small, they were offering an inferior product," Plante explains. "We found that the smallness was actually a competitive advantage. Some students flourish in a large environment, but in Maynard more students were actually able to shine."

And so the signature slogan, "Maynard: A Place to Shine," was born. Plante's local market research revealed that students, rather than their parents, were the principal decision makers in choosing a school, so the television commercials he created ran one afternoon a week for six weeks at the end of 2005 on MTV and even imitated the MTV style of fast cuts and highly visual shots. Set to low-key guitar and drums, the up-tempo style of the ads was specifically designed to appeal to teenage students, with short student interview snippets in a 30-second segment. "In a lot of cases," says Plante, "they would finish each other's sentences." One female high school student portrayed in the ads says, "Our teachers can help us because they know us as individuals."

Plante also points out that those spots on the local cable network cost just six dollars a showing, the standard for local, non-prime-time programming. "For a modest amount of money, you can look like you own MTV for one afternoon," he argues.

Other television spots were aimed at parents and taxpayers to raise awareness and foster support in time for the annual town meeting. "All marketing is storytelling," Plante says, "and schools have a lot of good stories to tell. Most of these go unheard." While Masterson has not yet calculated the effect on enrollment, he has felt the "buzz" caused by the focus groups and related ads. "We've had parents talking about our strengths," he says, in reference to just getting the word out. "That's hugely effective."

The Minnetonka Campaign

In the affluent suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnetonka Public Schools has focused its advertising campaign on attracting parents who would otherwise choose private schools for their children. "We needed to increase the awareness of people not looking at us," explains Janet Swiecichowski, the district's executive director of communications. For the past three years the district has incorporated that goal into its strategic plan.

Swiecichowski has placed print ads in Schoolhouse Magazine, a statewide publication, and high-end residence guides catering to families who might relocate to Minnetonka without considering the public school system, which all basically say, "Think about us." With an eye to recruiting students who are not yet of school age, she has also advertised in specialty publications for young families, including one distributed to ob-gyn offices in the area.

One colorful ad portrays a mother and her child beside a bulleted list of selling points, from excellent standardized test scores to highly qualified and energetic teachers. Large letters at the top of the ad proclaim, "What Parents Want, What Children Need."

Minnetonka has also taken to the airwaves by underwriting the PBS showings of Clifford the Big Red Dog for the 2006-2007 academic year. The $6,000 contract with Minnesota's public broadcasting network provides three mentions of "made possible by Minnetonka Public Schools" during each show, seen across the state. "I think advertising keeps our name in front of parents," says Minnetonka superintendent Dennis Peterson. "Certainly the ads that we've done on public television are helpful in showing that we're child centered."

"It's important for public schools to know that private schools have been advertising for a long time. And the assumption is that public schools have nothing to say."
-Janet Swiecichowski, executive director of communications
of Minnetonka Public Schools

"It's important for public schools to know that private schools have been advertising for a long time. And the assumption is that public schools have nothing to say," Swiecichowski adds. The district counts 400 open enrollment students from outside district lines among its total of 7,700. And last fall-helped by a marketing effort that included direct mail, open houses, and word of mouth-34 of 36 eighth-graders from a neighboring private school enrolled at Minnetonka High School after graduating.

Charter schools are also beginning to advertise. In March 2005, Haas Hall Academy, a charter school in Farmington, Ark., sought to increase its initial enrollment of 17 and aired a 30-second commercial for a month on local cable networks in the hopes of luring additional students from four surrounding districts.

The following school year enrollment rose to 48, and now Haas Hall has expanded to 72 students, says Carin Shoppmeyer, director of communications. "The advertising certainly was an awareness tool," she observes.

Due Diligence

The decision to advertise does not always bode well with the competition. "It's not a way to make friends with your neighbors," says Peterson. But Swiecichowski notes that after complaining, her rivals often follow suit. "Both of our closest neighbors have gotten into the game," she points out.

These trailblazers of public school advertising say the bigger challenge is convincing their own school boards that advertising is financially logical, even though most of their advertising budgets fall between $5,000 and $10,000-pennies in the larger budget bucket. Administrators stress the high returns to convince skeptic board members that advertising is the way to go. "If we have one child who enrolls in our district, our advertising practically pays for itself," Swiecichowski says in her defense of Minnetonka's PBS campaign.

Lamb agrees the bottom line speaks volumes. "We consider spending $8,000 to get $1.2 million [state open enrollment funds] a pretty good investment," he says. "Residents see that the advertising lets us stay off the ballot [for additional funding]."

In rural Kansas, Udall Public Schools superintendent Roger Robinson was at first wary of spending money on an advertising program for schools but in the end was amazed by the results. He estimates that the campaign netted eight to 10 students and $4,300 in state funding for each. "There wasn't any conversation after that," he says. "I treat school business as any business. To stay in business, we have to have customers."

Masterson, meanwhile, points out that funding his $10,000 campaign through the Maynard Education Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that raises money for various schooling needs, has made a difference. "The fact that I had gotten a grant and it wasn't 'regular budget money' let me have more freedom," he admits.

"If you grew up thinking that schools are above advertising, think again," argues Musso. "It's really no different than college or university advertising," he points out.

"At this point, schools need to be more proactive about reaching out to their constituencies," adds Plante. "You can moan about it, but that's what's going on."

Ron Schachter is a contributing editor based in Newton, Mass.