Public schools across the country are dealing with concerns about declining student enrollment, and therefore funding, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It used to be that if you live in the neighborhood, you come to your local school. That’s not the case anymore,” said Mellissa Braham, associate director for the National School Public Relations Association. “Today, schools have so much more competition from private and charter schools, as well as virtual and home schools.”
From fall 2019 to fall 2020, total public elementary and secondary school enrollment dropped from 50.8 million to 49.4 million students, a 3% decline that erased a decade of steady growth, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
By fall 2030, nine states are projected to have higher public school enrollment than in fall 2020, while 28 states are expected to have lower enrollment in that timeframe. The remaining 13 states and the District of Columbia are forecast to have lower enrollment in pre-K through 8th grades, but increased high school enrollments.
As competition with alternatives grows, what can public schools do to stop losing students? Here are six strategies from marketing and PR experts.
Find your value proposition
School districts must think in terms of “value proposition,” meaning the specific and unique value they bring to their consumers, or students and families, Braham said.
“You have to think of ways to differentiate yourself,” she said. “What is it that you uniquely offer as a school or school district that would appeal to families as they make their choice?”
To figure that out, schools can conduct research through focus groups with current families and surveys of families who have left — the latter being especially helpful in addressing gaps or needs, Braham said. “That’s really going to help you clarify your value proposition.”
A school’s value proposition might include special programs or services, but fundamentally hinges on the overall experience of students and families, said Morgan Delack, vice president of communications for Finalsite, a company that provides website design and content management for schools.
Delack advocated documenting and sharing the myriad warm, special stories that happen every day within school walls. “Go to the building that you serve, observe, look around, look into the classrooms — you will find stories everywhere,” she said.
Schools also can ask staff members and parents to send in stories and photos that chronicle positive school experiences, Delack said. “That’s potentially thousands of storytellers and marketers on your team — you just have to let them know what to do.”
Engage in effective marketing
Most school districts have an employee — usually an administrator or a public relations specialist — who focuses on communications, but typically that person doesn’t have specialized marketing knowledge, Braham said.
“Marketing is different than PR and communication,” she said. “Schools have to start thinking of themselves as a product. It’s more of a corporate mindset. You have to think about what value is it that we are delivering, and why would that appeal to someone.”
In the absence of employees with marketing knowledge, schools can hire consultants to conduct research and identify strategies, Braham said. Once that’s done, schools typically can tackle implementation on their own, she said.
Districts should also ensure all marketing messaging across individual schools and departments is aligned, and evaluate the effectiveness of their school logos and taglines, Braham said.
“Spend time thinking about what are people’s emotional reactions to your logo and your taglines. When they look at it and hear it, what do they think and feel?” she said. “If you’re not eliciting an emotional reaction, you’re not properly marketing yourself.”
Los Angeles Unified School District has focused on marketing for about a decade, doing things like ensuring all district websites are aligned in messaging and providing all schools with marketing toolkits, said Derrick Chau, senior executive director for strategy and innovation at LAUSD.
Choose the right advertising
With the plethora of advertising options — radio, billboards, social media, print and digital newspapers and more — schools should research how to best reach target families, Braham said.
Creative imagery is key, like when a school district did a “Find Your Seat” in-school campaign with pictures of families and employees sitting behind old school desks, she said.
Geofencing ads and retargeting platforms— online advertising based on the websites that people visit —can be very effective, but simple methods like arming current parents with yard signs can have a great impact, Braham said. Additionally, schools should be aware of where their competitors are advertising and think beyond geographic boundaries to target families who might consider moving to the area, she said.
Los Angeles Unified sends targeted mailers to families with English learners, students with disabilities and foster youth, Chau said.
The district also conducts home visits for students who don’t attend as expected, and it is expanding transportation options for students who live beyond school bus boundaries but might deal with factors like disabilities or safety issues, Chau said.
Focus on your website and email communication
“It all starts with your website,” Delack said. “It’s the first place people will go for information even before they pick up the phone or show up in person. It’s critically important.”
Los Angeles Unified has made a “huge effort” to improve its districtwide websites and their search functions, Chau said. It also has streamlined its online processes to make it easier for families to negotiate a variety of applications with different deadlines, he said.
Districts should view their home webpage as their main sales page, Braham said, because data shows employees and parents typically go directly to their favorite pages, while new families land on the homepage, she said.
Homepages should have interactive components, such as featuring questions that direct visitors to the appropriate staff members, Braham said. The homepages should also illustrate what matters to parents who are choosing a new school, she said.
“How will my kids feel in this school? How welcoming are they? What will my children be learning?” she said. “Those are their questions.”
Office staff who answer phones should point people to where they can find information on the school website, and schools should update website photos regularly, always staying away from stock images, said Finalsite Founder and CEO Jon Moser. “Most people want to see stuff that’s real and concrete,” he said.
Websites should always have easy-to-use mobile versions since smartphones drive 50% of web traffic, as well as effective search engine optimization that can eliminate the need to invest in pay-per-click ads, Moser said.
Families that speak languages other than English particularly rely on mobile devices, so push notifications should be enabled, Delack said. Push notifications also can be used to show parents their time is valued, such as by letting them know a sports event is delayed due to weather, Moser added.
Effective digital communication is essential to ensure families have a positive experience, Delack said. All school emails should be sent out mindfully and ideally with a cadence, with newsletters, for example, showing up in parents’ inboxes at the same time every week, she said.
Schools should use tools that allow them to monitor email metrics, such as bounce rates and how frequently people click on links, and the website should have a communications hub featuring all messages sent out to families, Delack said.
Collect data, improve ratings
Los Angeles Unified collects and analyzes data regarding student retention and matriculation to spot trends and patterns, Chau said.
“Where in our system are we losing our kids, and where are they going to?” he said. “A lot of principals were not aware of their retention data, and that heightened awareness has led to different actions at the school sites.”
It’s also important to counter outdated perceptions about schools, such as those that aren’t overcrowded anymore, Chau added.
“Some schools used to be 2,000 or 3,000 students, and now they may have 600 students [but families aren’t aware of that],” he said. “It’s about, ‘How can we better communicate what our district offers now and how we can make sure everybody [involved with the school] is advocating for our district?’"
Braham and Delack said prospective parents often check out school rating websites, so first-person experiences can make all the difference.
“Those ratings are mainly driven by state testing and data reported to state, but most have components where parents and students and teachers can talk about their experience and share their commentary,” Braham said. “When you look at people’s primary information sources, user testimonials is one of the most trusted sources.”
Consider starting early
In November, Los Angeles Unified launched a “Born to Learn” program aimed at recruiting future students by making contact with new parents at local hospital maternity wards.
Parents get a welcome package with baby items like onesies and blankets that feature the district’s logo, plus information about child developmental stages and early education options, contact information, a letter from the superintendent and a mock high school diploma. Families can opt in to receive additional information via text or email about resources, enrollment deadlines and more, Chau said.
“We are hoping this is the start of an ongoing relationship with the family,” he said.
The program is part of a comprehensive strategic plan to boost enrollment, including partnering with organizations that support families who experience homelessness and communicating with charter schools that might be downsizing, all to make sure families are informed of their public school options, Chau said.
Los Angeles Unified has also hired strategic enrollment counselors to serve as “district concierges” by helping families navigate enrollment deadlines, paperwork, program signup and more, Chau said.
A great customer service experience in schools is crucial for families, Braham said.
“If you have a poor experience with a company — they don’t answer phone calls, emails are not returned promptly, they don’t deliver promised services — you won’t go back. That’s the same for public schools.”