Colorado schools vying for pupils
The Denver Post
In an attempt to fill his dual-language school with more Spanish-speaking students, Valdez K-8 school principal Peter Sherman is taking to the streets – going door to door in the gentrifying northwest Denver neighborhood to recruit new students.
Sherman hands out slick brochures and hangs posters in Mexican restaurants near the school to generate a buzz. On Saturday, he canvassed the neighborhood with the community group Padres Unidos to encourage parents to sign up their children.
– where schools are in direct competition for each student who is worth thousands of dollars in state and federal money.
Schools are hiring marketers, figuring out how to brand themselves, and districts are developing guidelines for principals on how to promote themselves.
“It used to be, if you build a school, they will come, but now families have a lot of choices,” said Amy Slothower, executive director of Get Smart Schools, who is helping Denver Public Schools develop marketing guidelines.
“We are teaching schools how to do it well and also avoid some problems that have come up with competition,” Slothower said.
In Denver, where there are more magnet schools and charters than in any other Colorado district, North High School, Denver Center for International Studies and Martin Luther King Jr. Early College all have staff members hired to market their schools.
“That’s the environment we are in now,” said Rachel Bruce, admissions and outreach manager for Martin Luther King Jr. Early College. “Families have a choice. If I do nothing, they will go off and choose something else.”
Next year, DPS plans to open a student recruitment center in far-northeast Denver to reach out to parents in the fast-growing neighborhoods.
“We are now in an age of choice, and choice necessarily means competition for students,” said DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg, adding that each student brings about $5,000 to a school in per-pupil funding.
“Schools being able to clearly communicate to parents their offerings and strengths is increasingly important in this era of choice,” he said.
The need for schools to market themselves helps them figure out their missions, said Jim Griffin, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
“Fifteen years ago you were just a public school,” Griffin said. “Now it will force them to think about themselves: ‘Who are we?’ ‘What do we do well?’ ‘What is our brand?’ That is a healthy thing for schools to think about.”
Schools in Denver are in constant competition. Almost half of DPS students choose a school other than what is in their neighborhood. And about 30,000 school-age youths in Denver every year leave DPS for surrounding districts, private schools or other options.
It is about to get even more competitive.
A dozen new schools – mostly charters – are planned in Denver in the next five years, the first of which open next month. If fully enrolled, the schools would serve a total of 7,771 students.
The district, with an enrollment of 75,269, is working with Slothower to draft a code of best practices for school marketing campaigns, urging schools to focus on the positive and not bash other schools.
An issue arose earlier this year in a mailing sent out for a private fundraising event from officials with the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.
The mailing included performance statistics of at least two DPS high schools – North and West, where fewer than half of Latino students graduate on time.
The mailing to prominent Latino businesspeople and community members said KIPP’s new high school, which opens in August, will try to give those students a better shot.
The comparison between the charter and non-charter schools rankled some.
“It is very important to get the truth out there and have people understand the true situation, but I don’t think negative campaigning is the right thing to do,” Boasberg said.
Boasberg complained to KIPP leaders, and the flier was withdrawn.
Rebecca Holmes, director of KIPP Colorado Schools, said the flier was not meant to disparage other schools.
“You can’t necessarily appreciate the outstanding outcomes (of KIPP) unless you understand how the exact demographic does in the existing system,” she said. “We are challenged about how we communicate that. We are careful with how we talk about those results to not give DPS worse PR than they already have.”
She also questioned schools using public money to market themselves.
“If you are not producing good academic results,” she asked, “should you be putting money behind PR or academics?”
North High School two years ago created a position for community outreach and public relations.
“North has been going through quite a change, and we want to inform the community and parents exactly what we are offering,” said principal Ed Salem, who said he accepts the challenge from KIPP.
“It drives me to focus more on what we need to do,” he said. “I am ahead of the game. North is already rolling with our changes. (KIPP) will have to market themselves.”
Jeremy P. Meyer: 303-954-1367 or email@example.com