Hard-Hit schools try media push via radio, TV


The Wall Street Journal reports public schools in the U.S. have added media campaigns to their back-to-school shopping lists. Financially struggling urban districts are trying to win back students fleeing to charter schools, private schools and suburban districts that offer open enrollment. Administrators say they are working hard to improve academics — but it can’t hurt to burnish their image as well.

Washington, D.C., for example, spent $100,000 this spring on a campaign that also included radio spots in an effort to win back students who have left public schools. The ads include quotes from students who say they are glad they stayed in public school. The district’s enrollment has plunged from nearly 150,000 in 1970 to less than 50,000 last year. To lure students, the ads include quotes from students who say they are glad they stayed in public school. They are recording radio ads, filming TV infomercials and buying address lists for direct-mail campaigns. Other efforts, by both districts and individual schools, call for catering Mexican dinners for potential students, making sales pitches at churches and hiring branding experts to redesign logos.

“Schools are really getting that they can’t just expect students to show up any more,” Lisa Relou, who directs marketing efforts for the Denver Public Schools, told the paper. “They have to go out and recruit.”

Administrators working on the PR push say the potential returns are high. State funding for public schools is based on attendance, so each new student brings more money, typically $5,000 to $8,000 per head. In addition, schools with small enrollments are at constant risk of being shuttered in this recession, and full classrooms help.

In Pittsburgh, where enrollment has dropped about 25% in the past decade, yard signs along a marathon course this spring touted a pledge by city officials to give full college scholarships to all qualified graduates of city schools. This fall, that message will be carried by $1.5 million of donated advertising space and media airtime.

The TV spots will combine the scholarship pledge with news of recent district achievements, like last week’s announcement that Pittsburgh schools met federal benchmarks for academic improvement for the first time.

The San Antonio Independent School District’s enrollment has fallen 25% over the past decade. The district recently signed a $180,000 contract with a marketing firm that has done work for grocery chains, a luxury hotel and Eye Care Centers of America. The marketing plan calls for radio spots, billboards, Twitter feeds, online banner ads and promotional videos on YouTube.

“Most public schools have a negative image,” said James Howard, president of the school board. “We’re hoping that image can be changed.”

Perhaps the boldest marketing push is in St. Louis. The urban district’s enrollment has plunged 40% in the past decade because of students moving to charter schools and suburban districts. The school district has been through eight superintendents in 10 years and lost its state accreditation. It faces a $53 million deficit and recently closed 14 schools.

But administrators have set aside $1 million for pay for publicity that may include bragging about a top-ranked high school and magnet programs in culinary arts, aeronautics and international studies.

A marketing firm will spend the next two months asking residents, “What would it take to get you to send your children to school here?” said Patrick Wallace, a district spokesman. “We’re losing 1,500 to 2,000 students a year. If we can get those kids to come back, that’s a whole lot of money.”

RBR/TVBR observation: Well, here’s a new ad category for everyone to sink their teeth into…and the timing couldn’t be better. The savvy AE and in-house copywriter and production department can fire off ads for your local school systems in time for registration. Not much time left, so use these districts as examples and contact some administrators and superintendents for the pitch.