Who’s Really Selling Your Schools?

Over the past few years, public school districts have seen a shift from natural school enrollment from neighborhoods in their boundaries to… losing enrollment to private and charter schools. Districts have turned to marketing campaigns, advertising and more to re-attract parents to their schools. What happened?

Private schools have always engaged in advertising. Pick up any local social or parenting magazine, and private school advertisements comprise the majority of their ads. Charter schools have made great headway by riding on the wave of “education reform” and parent choice, and communicating their best student achievement results. Public school district superintendents have been scratching their heads to determine why they are losing students, and turn to district-led efforts to sell their schools.

Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Your district is not selling your schools. Your schools are selling your schools. Or not. In fact, when parents go about making a decision about where to send their child to school, they’re not deciding between your district and a charter school or a private school; they are literally making a decision about whether or not to send their child to one of your district’s neighborhood schools. So … why do central office administrators spend so much time pumping up their districts?

I’ll give you a few answers … and a few ways to turn these assumptions on their heads, and to start focusing on selling your schools, instead.

1) Districts use compiled data … and that makes the district look better:

That’s great, but parents are looking at their neighborhood school data. If the school data is great, then they look into other factors, like quality of teachers and programs. Often, they are comparing this with one or two private or charter schools that may have similar data. So, what’s the make it or break it for them? We’ll get to that, later.

2) Districts have better spokespeople — sometimes even a hired PR person:

Now, this is a great thing … this is a wonderful thing. It’s a thing I used to do. However, if your district’s spokesperson or communication director is just being used to churn out a newsletter and press releases, and is not turning your schools’ principals, teachers and staff (these people are also known as “key communicators”) into better communicators, then their talents are not being maximized. Because it’s right there … in your central office. Where few parents come to check out their neighborhood school. The neighborhood school they are considering — along with other independent private or charter schools that offer them a tour, and a school spokesperson who is available to talk to them, anytime — may have a busy staff, restrict campus tours, and only provide surface level information. We’ll get to that later, too.

3) Districts are polished and professional (as in: “Check out our website/social media/brochure!”):

All too often, districts launch their new central office website, social media presence, and even develop snazzy collateral materials well before providing their schools the resources (policy and/or budget) to do the same. And…that’s great…districts should have great websites, a social media presence and collateral materials…but, also make sure that you take care of your schools, too—because more potential parents will go to a school’s website before the district’s to get information about…their school.

And, while you’re pumping up your district’s website with search engine optimization tags…competitors are pumping up their school’s websites with the same SEO tags. Because people like the path of least resistance, when your district website (which requires a new parent to click through to find their neighborhood school) pops up along with “XYZ Competitor School” which one do you think new parents will click on first? Not the bureaucratic-sounding school district…but the friendly, welcoming school.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Your district should be polished, professional, and well-communicated, but, not without supporting schools’ needs, as well.

So, now that assumptions are standing on their heads, let’s get standing upright again … with a “schools first” frame of mind:

1) Your schools will sell your district:

Each of your district’s schools have great things happening—some have great test scores, while others have excellent programs. Focus on what parents want to know about your schools—“data driven results” is not one of them (yet, is so often communicated by superintendents). “Student driven achievement”—now that goes a long way. “Individual student initiatives” even better. Parents want to know that their child is valued, their child’s individual needs will be at the forefront, and that their child will be successful. Not that their child is another notch in the test score belt. But…if your schools have excellent test scores, then speak to how they achieved those scores—describe the academic rigor, supports, and other programs that are leading to student achievement. But, don’t just put the number. Numbers don’t mean anything without substance. And…if current parents have positive impressions of and interactions with your schools, they’ll sell your school, too.

Studies show that teachers and classified staff members are trusted by parents more than administrators. Source: National School Public Relations Association, 2012

2) Trust your principals, teachers and staff to sell their school … and your district:

Guess what? Studies show that teachers and classified staff are more highly trusted than district administrators. Excellent customer service, positive and effective communication, by the principal, teachers, and staff, and proactive communication about schools’ successes by the principal, teachers and staff at each of your district’s school go a long way with selling current and new parents on your schools.

If you haven’t already, establish district-wide customer service practices—why should one school in your district be known as the one with poor customer service, and another one be known for excellent customer service? Find out how your schools respond to new parent inquiries-do they offer a tour, set aside time to answer questions, provide a handout? Each of your schools should provide time, people and information in a consistent manner to new parents. What about consistent messaging about your district, that is supported by school facts?

For example, if your district fact sheet outlines your district’s vision and mission, and accomplishments, then each school should be able to indicate their own examples of how they are achieving the district’s vision, mission and contributing to its accomplishments. Your district’s reputation relies on consistency in messaging, practices and approaches—and as a leader, you are in the position to establish these expectations. And, remember, if current parents have positive impressions of and interactions with your schools, they’ll sell your school, too.

3) Support your schools’ communication needs:

If your district has a social media presence, but your policies prevent your schools from having their own, take a step back. What can you do to help your schools establish their social media presence? So often, districts think that social media policies have to be more complex than their other communication policies—social media is just another form of outgoing communication. Let’s repeat that: social media is just another form of outgoing communication. What are other forms of outgoing communication? Talking, email, telephones, newsletters, websites…therefore, why should social media be treated any differently?

In fact, statistically speaking, most social media users are between the ages of 18-40 years old. That means, most of your district parents are already using social media (and even your students, especially those in high school). Open up your policies to allow schools to use social media as another form of outgoing communication. Provide your school the resources to develop professional, dynamic, and informative websites—parents (and potential new parents) turn to these websites first to find information about schools.

Provide opportunities for principals, staff and teachers to participate in public relations and communication training so that they can effectively and proactively communicate with parents and other stakeholders. And…did I mention this before? If current parents have positive impressions of and interactions with your schools, they’ll sell your school, too.

Selling your district isn’t difficult if you increase the number of people selling it for you—and provide them the tools, information, and resources they need to be successful.

About Heather McGowan

Heather McGowan increases public confidence in public education and improves opportunities for non-profit organizations to succeed through proactive communication and marketing. She provides strategic marketing and communication services that exceed her clients’ unique goals and delivers results that motivate audiences to act, change, and/or otherwise change behaviors for a greater good.

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