Schools learn to market selves

March 3, 2019

Fort Wayne Community Schools wants you to see what they do.

East Allen County Schools wants students to know they can dream it, do it.

And Canterbury School wants the community to know that, at the private school, each person matters.

If these slogans sound familiar, then the local schools are getting their message across.

Promoting schools has become increasingly important : especially for public institutions : as families’ K-12 educational options have increased, particularly with the advent of vouchers in Indiana.

“Schools are finally realizing that they just can’t do it the way they’ve always done it,” said Donna Petraits, executive director of the Indiana School Public Relations Association.

Indiana’s voucher program, known as Choice Scholarship, began in the 2011-12 academic year. It’s grown from 3,911 participating students to 36,290 in 2018-19.

Of the most recent number, 4,642 students live within FWCS boundaries; 1,032 live within EACS; 258 live within Southwest Allen County Schools; and 236 live within Northwest Allen County Schools.

“There’s all this movement now,” Petraits said, noting it puts pressure on public schools. “In order to survive, they have to market themselves. They have to market themselves like private schools have always had to market themselves.”

Telling own stories to set selves apart

Petraits recommends districts consider what they want to be known for and what they represent.

“That branding process needs to take place so they create this personality, this image, this place that people want to be,” she said.

With so much information available, Petraits added, schools must be part of the conversation and be consistent about their identity. If they don’t tell their stories, she said, somebody else will and possibly spread inaccuracies or misperceptions.

Officials at Canterbury School, which doesn’t accept vouchers, know some perceive the independent institution is for elite or wealthy students.

“That’s really not the case,” spokeswoman Taylor Feighner said, noting Canterbury offers financial aid and has a diverse student body.

“We want the community to see that,” added colleague Jessica Morales.

Feighner and Morales launched a marketing campaign this academic year with the overall theme “each person matters” and a different focus each quarter, including “each student matters.” It was important to them that they showcase stories rather than the same statistics other private schools promote, such as small class sizes, they said.

“We want to be authentically ourselves,” said Morales, director of enrollment management.

They hope the effort sparks conversations with prospective families but said Canterbury doesn’t want students to enroll if it’s not the right choice for them.

School districts working together

Some school districts “don’t play nice in the sandbox” and blatantly poach students from neighboring corporations, said Petraits.

That’s not the case in Allen County, spokeswomen for local districts said.

“We’re stronger if we work together,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said, adding the spokeswomen regularly meet and discuss ways to address issues affecting all schools, such as school bus stop-arm violations.

When EACS sought quotes for a billboard campaign a few years ago, school officials vowed not to rent space in the FWCS geographic area, spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said. Both districts are in the business of educating children, she explained, adding there is no need for East Allen to lure Fort Wayne students.

That’s not to say the billboards promoting the district’s slogan : “Dream it. Do it.” : didn’t target families considering other schools.

“We don’t want to lose our children to private schools or charter schools,” Kelly said. “We want kids in our district to come to our schools.”

FWCS : the Indiana district hardest hit by vouchers : has spent nearly 120,500 : because of a website redesign and a larger video project that will be completed this year, Stockman said.

Devoting resources to a digital presence : including websites and social media : is important because those platforms serve current students and families and are resources for families moving to the area, Stockman said.

Along with losing students through vouchers, FWCS experiences losses when young couples move to neighboring districts once their children become school age, Stockman said.

“They don’t need to leave,” she said. “That’s on us to make sure (they know) what their options are.”

Unaware of how to market selves

A 2015 article about marketing in the Journal of Academic Administration in Higher Education said many schools were unprepared to promote themselves.

“Schools today are being asked to market themselves but are not given the instruction on what it means to market a school, let alone the resources to do it properly,” state the authors, professors at the University of Indianapolis and Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

Petraits acknowledged the task can seem daunting. In Indiana, it’s typical for larger districts to have a dedicated public relations employee, but in smaller districts that responsibility often falls to the superintendent.

“They don’t get much training in superintendent school about how to market themselves or how to handle public relations,” she said.

Referendums can motivate districts to hire PR people, Petraits said. That aligns with advice she gives to school systems.

“They need to function as if there is a referendum in their future because there probably is,” Petraits said. “If you’re not creating that image and that brand and that reputation of who you are, it is going to be very hard to sell your community on a referendum.”

NACS hired a chief communications officer last academic year as it pursued an ultimately successful $34 million referendum for a new elementary school and other districtwide improvements.

The growing district focuses on communicating to parents that it understands students are more than test scores.

NACS works to develop the talent and nurture the creativity of each child and prepare them to become contributing members of the community, spokeswoman Lizette Downey said.

“We have not historically had a marketing strategy to promote the school district,” she said, noting many in NACS don’t seek the spotlight.

Getting out in community

FWCS doesn’t underestimate the value of involving school personnel in promotional efforts.

In the summer, Stockman said, employees attend various events : including festivals and youth sporting events : to connect with families, both those new to Fort Wayne and those with children in the district. They may bring brochures about district programs with them and FWCS trinkets, such as pens and nylon backpacks, she said.

Staff members also participate in an annual door-to-door campaign designed to reach out to families during the summer. Children love seeing teachers and principals outside of school, Stockman said, noting the event also boosts the staff’s morale.

The district continues to explore ways to reach parents, such as incorporating technology that appeals to millennials, said Jen Atienzo-Fisher, FWCS director of marketing and communication.

But, she added, “the slickest marketing plan won’t do anything without relationship building.”