Urban Schools Use Marketing to Woo Residents Back

Zinie Chen Sampson, AP, August 22, 2009

Most students try not to think about school during the summer. But a number of them took to the streets on a sweltering August day to talk up public education to people who might normally enroll their children in private or parochial schools.

Clad in T-shirts promoting “The Choice,” about 100 students, parents and administrators went door-to-door on a recent Saturday, asking Richmond homeowners to give their neighborhood schools a second look. Joining them was Virginia’s first lady Anne Holton, a product of city schools.

The $50,000 campaign by a school system still trying to rebound from a long history of racial segregation and white flight is an example of efforts under way in several cities to retain students. School districts are highlighting improvements to halt declining head counts so they can retain their funding, especially in light of drastic state budget cuts.

“People are still stuck with perceptions of yesteryear, and are not really aware of what we have to offer today,” Richmond Superintendent Yvonne Brandon said. “It’s not perfect, but be a part of the solution and become invested now.”

Like other urban school districts, Richmond, where 88 percent of students are black, 7 percent are white, and 71 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, has struggled on many fronts.

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Other urban school systems have undertaken similar recruitment campaigns, including Detroit, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., all districts that continue to lose students, which translates into less money to maintain educational programs.

Detroit’s fiscally troubled system has lost more than 45 percent of its students over the last decade, leading to scores of school closures. The district this month launched a $500,000 “I’m In” campaign to keep students in the district, enlisting the help of ex-NBA player Derrick Coleman and comedian Bill Cosby and donations from private companies–including pro-bono work from advertising and public-relations agencies, spokesman Steven Wasko said.

The school system gets about $7,560 in state funds for each enrolled student. Its enrollment target is 83,777, and “any student above that translates into more funding,” Wasko said.

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