DFW school districts hiring firms to spiff up their image

By Shirley Jinkins, Star Telegram

May 12, 2012

A note in the backpack used to be sufficient to clue in parents about new classes, available electives and school ratings.

But now? That’s so old-school.

Arlington is joining other school districts in hiring outside marketing firms to burnish its image and push its programs with parents who have alternatives to neighborhood public schools.

That requires billboards, targeted direct mail, e-blasts, widespread blitz advertising, fliers, social media campaigns and brochures.

“A lot of the time we surpass the class offerings, electives and specialty programs that parents can get with charter and private schools, especially at the secondary school level,” said Amy Casas, Arlington’s public information officer. “But people don’t know about it.”

Last week the school board approved a contract for up to $100,000 with BrandEra, a Fort Worth marketing firm operated by two Arlington natives, to collaborate with administrators and come up with a theme and supporting materials to tout the district’s offerings and achievements.

It will go hand in hand with the district’s first-ever three-year Strategic Plan, which is in the organizational stage.

Casas said publicizing the Strategic Plan is only a small part of BrandEra’s overall public information campaign, which will be directed at parents, students, teachers, staff, real estate agents, businesses, city leaders and other Arlington residents.

“It’s going to be about increasing public awareness of all the academic and extracurricular programs the district has to offer, and taking that to market,” said BrandEra’s Beth Owens, adding that more and more districts are seeking help with crafting the message. “There’s a growing awareness of school districts that they have to consider the consequences if the district is not telling their story effectively.”

‘Competitive market’

The Arlington school district has some notable accomplishments of its own to tout, such as four International Baccalaureate high schools and a fine-arts program that consistently ranks it among the best public school districts in America for music education.

However, Arlington also has some public perception challenges, including five schools currently on the state’s list of academically unacceptable campuses, including two of its six high schools. A recent district survey revealed low teacher satisfaction.  Owens and Reecanne Joeckel of BrandEra are both products of Arlington schools and still live there. Their clients have included nonprofits, municipalities, industries, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district, the University of Texas at Permian Basin, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas.

They also crafted the informational campaign of the neighboring Grand Prairie school district’s sweeping Schools of Choice plan, which has rebranded some schools into fine-arts academies, science and math magnets and other distinctive identities.

“We now live in a time where parents have educational choices for their children,” said Sam Buchmeyer, Grand Prairie’s public information officer. “There is a competitive market out there now. We all know what the state of school funding is like; we know we have to maximize all our dollars.”

‘Ability to choose’

Observers outside the districts are like-minded.

“It’s not so much about creating an image as getting out the information that Texas public schools are actually doing a better job than they ever have,” said Scott Milder of the Plano-based Friends of Texas Public Schools, a nonprofit formed to fight public schools’ bad publicity. “Over the years, public schools have taken a beating in the media and politics, and the charter schools and whatnot are surely out there telling their own story.”

Charters are state-funded public schools that were approved by the Legislature in 1995 to provide parents with an alternative to pricey private schools. Though they must have the same accountability tests and instructional days, charters operate with less state regulation over instruction methods, class ratios and instruction hours than traditional public school districts.

Today, almost 400 charter schools operate in Texas, serving an estimated 120,000 students. Waiting lists have about 56,000 students, according to the Texas Charter Schools Association.

“Because the state school funding formula pays the school district based on how many students are enrolled, the more kids you lose, the more revenue you lose along with those students,” Milder said. “Competition is definitely an increasing factor and definitely a part of public education.”

‘Great reservations’

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the new branding campaign is convincing a skeptical public — which has heard the complaints about deep cuts in educational funding — that now is the time for spending money on a public relations contract.

“I have great reservations,” said Richard Weber, who has served on numerous school district committees. “I do not believe it is money well spent.”

The one-year contract approved by school trustees allocates up to $100,000, which includes the cost of all campaign materials.

Each project will be submitted per approval for payment separately.

The contract can be renewed twice by the district, but the price would be renegotiated every time. District officials say it won’t be as much as $100,000 in future years. The money for the campaign would come from the district’s fund balance.

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