What Can Public Schools Learn about Marketing from Charter and Private Schools?

Steve Mulvenon, Ph.D.
Steve Mulvenon, Ph.D.

Effective marketing is the lifeblood of private, parochial and charter schools. No students are required to attend them. Nobody just “shows up” on the first day of school because that’s where they are assigned. Parents make a conscious decision, based on some perceived value, to send their children there.

So, what do those schools know about marketing and what can we learn from them? As choices for parents proliferate, it’s a smart move to step back and ask, “Why would a parent choose to send their children to us? What distinguishes our schools from all the others in the area?”

Identify Your ‘Brand Promise’

In the July, 2009 American School Board Journal, NSPRA veteran and President-elect Nora Carr, APR, put it this way: “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon. Borrowing a page from the private sector, school leaders are investing more time, money, and effort in defining their ‘brand promise’ and position in the marketplace. Aspirational in nature, a brand promise represents what makes a school or district unique and sets it apart from its competitors. Taken more literally, it’s the promise school leaders make to families who trust them with their children’s education.”

Define What’s Special

Ken Koch, APR, director of marketing and communications for Francis Tuttle Technology Center in Oklahoma City, Okla., said his school (although publicly funded) is considered “a district of choice because students aren’t required to come to our school. We have to promote our offerings and the benefits and values that are unique to us in order to be distinguishable and compelling.” How do they do that?

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According to Koch, their messaging emphasizes three factors:

  • Quality of instructors, many of whom come from business and industry with real-world experience;

  • Quality of facilities and equipment; and

  • Economic value — programs for high school students are free, and the cost for adults is typically 60-90 percent less than for-profit schools.

In Reno, Nev., at the Sierra Nevada Academy Charter School, Executive Director Dr. Kimberly Regan said, “Our niche is bringing the small school community back to the neighborhood. We promote a clientele mentality where excellent customer service is the key to building relationships with families.” A pre-K to Grade 8 school, Sierra Nevada Academy has an enrollment of only 290 students. Traditional public schools in the area have 600 to 800 students.

Regan also explained that the school’s small size allows for a “personal learning plan,” jointly developed with parents, for each student. “The plan is a written contract that steers educators, students and families towards success,” she noted. “It’s a key element that sets us apart from traditional schools.”

Pay Attention to “The Little Things”

The small size of Regan’s school enables staff to know the students — and their extended families — by face and name. Another example of the “personal touch” at the school: at dismissal time, teachers escort students to the loading zone and help students into their parent’s cars. “It’s a great time for some face-to-face communication,” said Regan. The school also hosts a variety of special events and programs for families including family/student/staff camping trips.

When Koch addresses each year’s new employees at his school, he encourages them to:

  • Wear their name badge everywhere, not just at school — the sight of the badge can open opportunities for a conversation and a chance to tell the school’s story.

  • Hand out business cards (proudly) — all employees, regardless of job classification, receive business cards (with the school’s brand).

  • Wear school lapel pins as often as possible — every employee gets a lapel pin personally presented by the superintendent.

  • Follow school guidelines for marketing — the Francis Tuttle name, logo and mark can only be used with the permission of the marketing department.

Get All Hands On Deck

“Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from our school is having a commitment to marketing from the superintendent on down,” said Koch. “My superintendent considers it important enough that he reinstated the position of director of marketing as a direct report to him and as a member of the executive team. It's everyone’s job, and everyone is encouraged and expected to be a part of marketing our brand.”

Regan echoed that philosophy: “This unique small school model drives the motivation of all stakeholders at the school. When educators and families work together, with a sense of purpose and with good intentions, we produce synergy. A small school community is based on a few simple ideas executed well. But it takes all of us.”

Think One-to-One Marketing

While an effective website, quality publications, and positive media relations are all important to telling your story, nothing beats the personal stories your parents, staff and students tell. Picture two parents on the sideline at a Saturday morning soccer game. When one asks the other about the school her son attends, she says it’s a great school with caring teachers, high standards and her son is excelling there. The deal is closed.

Here’s how Regan said it: “Our culture inherently markets the school, as word of mouth penetrates the community. People who experience the small school community, and as their children succeed, share their celebrations with others. By nature, such conversations lead to more folks wanting to be a part of our school community.”

If you aren’t able to define and then communicate the special, unique or different qualities of your school, then you might as well place a message on your marquis or reader board that identifies the school as “Just Another Place To Learn Reading And Math.”

Dr. Steve Mulvenon is an NSPRA consultant and a College of Education faculty member at the Northern Nevada campus of the University of Phoenix. He can be contacted at: stevem2253@aol.com.