A large school district in the southwest region lost a consistent number of students year-over-year to several new charter schools during the middle-to-high school transition, particularly during the spring enrollment period.
The district worked to rehab its image after years of bad publicity over lower-than-average graduation and college enrollment rates. But after three years of consistent improvements, it found itself far outpaced by the new enrollment numbers of nearby charter schools.
The Goal To facilitate our long-term objective of a dual recruitment and retention campaign, we started with an eight-week pilot program centered around a media relations strategy to recruit 80 new students to the district and retain 100 students for the next year’s enrollment.
Caissa observed that the district had made a strong comeback in a three-year period. The school district gained new leadership and cultivated stronger relationships with the municipal government. It also had improved its finances to focus on better recruitment strategies for teachers and paraeducators, new classroom technologies and improved support for special needs students.
Before the district contacted us, its high school graduation rates had finally reached the state average, after lagging behind by five to 10 points, and 40% more graduates were moving on to two- and four-year college or technical programs. It was a remarkable success story, but one that was not being told.
Parents and students instead turned to one of five charter schools in the city for high school education, despite those schools’ shortcomings. The majority had no programs for special needs students. Some had very few athletic or extracurricular programs, if any. Others had graduation and college enrollment rates that were no different from the district, despite their claims to the contrary.
But the problem was not parents’ lack of exposure to the district’s messaging. The district maintained robust social media and email chains, as well as more traditional advertising of flyers and direct mail pieces about annual school enrollment.
In our focus groups, where we spoke to hundreds of parents over two weeks, both individually and collectively, it instead became clear that there was competition between the district’s voice and that of the news media – even some time after aggressive media coverage of problems in public schools had faded into the background. Some told us they felt the district did not fight back against unfair parts of the negative coverage. Others thought the coverage was deserved, and the district’s responses had seemed like denial of the issues they were facing. When we pointed out the new leadership in the district, close to a majority of parents had never seen their faces and could barely recognize their names.
It was clear to us that media relations training, followed by extensive media facetime were badly needed. We engaged both senior district leadership, as well as board of education members, teachers and some parents to participate. We trained them over a period of two weeks to perform various roles in the campaign. It was an unusual but tailored way to try and realize larger enrollment.
Throughout the next four weeks, we directly challenged negative and incorrect perceptions about the district, without directly addressing the past coverage. Senior leadership made television and social media appearances to talk about the next year’s upcoming enrollment. This also gave the district the opportunity to present new faces to the public and push a new, positive narrative about district schools to interviewers and reporters. Teachers and parents wrote blog posts and had op-eds published in local papers outlining the strength of a public school education, which further reinforced the themes of self-awareness and change.
The district’s media appearances included number-dropping – high-school graduation rates, standardized test scores and so on – to create a “wow factor” by highlighting improvements and directly contrasting the district’s transparency with that of some of the charter schools.
There was limited time for a shift based on public reaction to the campaign, but two focus groups in week six with parents and members of the community at large, whether or not they had students at home, confirmed that the media blitz was both noticed and positively received.
For the fall enrollment cycle, Caissa recruited 115 new students, 70% over target, and retained 99.7% of current students within district high schools.
These results were promising and welcome, with the district engaging us to work on a long-term recruitment and retention strategy that builds upon the pilot program to take back control of media coverage.
“We were very pleased with the results in such a short amount of time. Our board just passed a 5-year, district-wide contract with Caissa,” said District’s Chief Financial Officer
If you are interested in learning more about Caissa’s student recruitment and retention campaigns or other services, please contact us here.