Schools ramp up marketing as competition intensifies

By Chastity Pratt Dawsey

Detroit Free Press

(MCT)

Oct. 18–A new trend in public education — intense marketing to attract and retain students — has K-12 schools renting billboard space, knocking on doors, making pitches at church picnics and even offering free access to health care.

The winners fill classrooms. The losers can face closure down the road.

— Database: Academic performance of every charter school in Michigan.

This increasing competition is reaching new levels in the Detroit neighborhood around Linwood and Oakman Boulevard, where three public schools within a mile compete for students — and the state funding each pupil brings.

Glazer Elementary, one of five buildings Detroit Public Schools converted to charters this fall, is about a mile from its stiffest competition — Joy Preparatory, a charter, and Stewart Elementary Middle, a DPS school.

The competition has created a new landscape of blatant marketing and angst, said LaChelle Williams, the principal at Stewart, who was transferred from Glazer last year. “It’s overwhelming,” she said.

She now competes against her former school for students in the marketing tug-of-war.

Matt Friedman, partner at the Tanner Friedman public relations firm in Farmington Hills, said he expects schools to pump up marketing as competition grows for the city’s dwindling school-age population.

Experts say to expect more marketing, particularly if the Legislature passes a bill allowing an unlimited number of charters in the state.

At Glazer Elementary, a small brick school in the middle of the city, the aroma of cedar mulch and new flowers invites visitors inside. The bright halls smell vaguely of fresh paint.

Ralph Bland, whose company manages the new charter school, strolled the hallways pointing out highlights: a restored, glass-enclosed courtyard; an art class; a male kindergarten teacher leading 5-year-olds to a Spanish class.

Since the school was converted from a Detroit Public Schools building this summer, it has adopted a new curriculum proven at other charter schools. “We’re creating a new normal for the neighborhood,” Bland said.

Despite the upgrades and promise, the school lost about 100 students this summer, many following a principal to nearby Stewart Elementary Middle.

Within a mile in the Linwood and Oakman Boulevard neighborhood, three schools compete fiercely for students and the state funding each new student brings. The neighborhood provides a prime example of the growing competitive nature of Detroit’s new educational marketplace.

A few blocks to the east, there’s a charter school, Joy Preparatory Academy. And a half mile to the west, there’s Stewart, a DPS school now run by Glazer’s former and popular principal, LaChelle Williams. To improve Stewart, DPS transferred her and the staff. The district then converted Glazer into a charter.

This summer, staff members and parents from the three schools knocked on doors, visited churches, held open houses, conducted tours, recruited at community and government offices and advertised free health services and more to win favor in the community.

“We passed out flyers at the Little League games,” said Bland. “We do what it takes.”

Competition for public school students is expected to increase even more if the Legislature passes a bill that would allow an unlimited number of charter schools in the state.

Supporters say competition makes every school work harder. But critics say the recruitment war is causing some good schools to lose students to bad or unproven ones simply because they don’t have a good marketing pitch.

Matt Friedman, partner at the Tanner Friedman public relations firm in Farmington Hills, said marketing should intensify each year as the city’s school-age population dwindles.

His company’s clients include the DPS Foundation and the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, founded this fall by the former NBA player, University of Michigan star and Detroit native. Before it opened, the academy advertised on a massive billboard over a freeway that featured a picture of Rose and the caption: “Jalen wants a Fab Freshman Class.” The school had no trouble filling its 120 freshman seats, Friedman said.

“In general, we tell our clients … you need to communicate in as many different ways as you can afford.”

Word of mouth still works

Joy Preparatory Academy has advantages over Glazer and Stewart that include better academic results and an advertising budget.

Even so, Joy lost students this year, too — it’s down to 133 students from 152 last year. Their parents moved out of the city, said Fran Gardulescu, the principal.

The school has met federal annual yearly progress standards. And Joy has been in its building, a tiny, former Catholic school on Oakman, for 11 years. That’s enough time to build a reputation and a slew of after-school programs, said Gardulescu.

In the spring, when re-enrollment is in high gear, Gardulescu keeps flyers at the ready in her car, dropping them at nearby stores.

Joy is one of 13 schools in the city operated by the Leona Group management company. Leona has a marketing team, producing recruitment billboards and radio commercials for the school. But nothing beats old-fashioned methods.

“We got a lot of calls from the radio ad,” Gardulescu said. “But word of mouth works. It is our biggest marketer.”

Dan Varner, executive director of Excellent Schools Detroit, said competition is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be unbridled. Excellent Schools is a coalition of foundations, businesses, politicians and nonprofits that seeks to raise $200 million to open up to 70 new, high-quality schools for Detroit students by 2020.

“It’s like any marketplace. Frankly, it needs to be regulated,” said Varner, who worries that lifting the state cap on charter schools without some checks will attract bad actors. “History has shown if you don’t regulate markets, they tend to fail in significant ways. The mortgage industry might be the most recent example.”

Hitting the streets

Staff and parents from Glazer hit the streets this summer, passing out flyers to let people know the school had become a charter. A school bus took prospective parents to see DEPSA, a high-performing charter school near Eastern Market that is run by the same charter management company, New Paradigm.

Bland wanted to show off a health clinic and recycling center that would be open to Glazer families. More than anything, he needed to persuade them to keep their children at Glazer, to give the school a chance to grow and survive as a charter.

“It’s the landscape,” he said. “You’ve got to expose the parents to what they need and haven’t gotten — us.”

Jackie James, a Glazer parent before and after it became a charter school, is now on the charter school board. She said that once the school gets a reputation, marketing won’t be so important.

“It’s a name game,” she said. “Parents need to know who you are.”

Doug Ross, the DPS official in charge of overseeing the district’s 14 charter schools and opening new ones, agreed. DPS has lost about 100,000 students in a decade, and 56,000 Detroit children were enrolled in charter schools last year.

Ross said he thinks that regardless of marketing, at some point, quality will ultimately win.

“We have begun to bring together all the major charter authorizers serving children in the city to voluntarily establish a set of high common performance standards,” he said in a written statement.

Following the principal

Stewart Elementary Middle is on the brink. At least 12% of its students have been held back one or more times. If test scores don’t get better this year, the school could be closed or taken over by a new statewide district for failing schools.

However, if there’s a winner in the neighborhood’s marketing blitz for students, it’s Stewart. The school lost 48 students, but exceeded the projected 477 — enrolling 485 students by mid-September.

Since the summer, staff members have cleaned the school from top to bottom while planning Saturday sessions to help increase test scores, said principal LaChelle Williams.

The best marketing ultimately could be Williams’ reputation in the neighborhood.

Mary Woods brought her granddaughter to Stewart because of the staff and principal, who were transferred there by DPS this summer in a bid to improve the school.

Woods said she thinks other parents made the same choice.

Woods has a unique perspective: Her granddaughter has attended all three neighborhood schools: Joy, Glazer and now Stewart. She tried Joy after seeing a flyer. She didn’t like the three-story building or her granddaughter’s teacher. She tried Glazer because her own kids had good experiences there.

She now has a Honolulu blue “DPS — I’m In” sign in her yard to support and market for Stewart.

Some aspects of life are so basic they shouldn’t require ads — such as school — but it works, she said. In a changing city, how can a parent know if a school is open or closed without an ad, flyer or knock on the door, she said.

“It makes parents give schools consideration.”

Contact Chastity Pratt Dawsey: 313-223-4537 or cpratt@freepress.com

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