Photos of smiling children in school uniforms grace the sides of buses, large billboards and flyers in mailboxes throughout the St. Louis area. Those images — and the selling points written underneath them — are meant for parents trying to figure out which school to send their kids.
With the dozens of charter schools and St. Louis Public Schools vying for students (and the state tax dollars that follow), the institutions have to act more like businesses, marketing themselves — sometimes heavily.
Recruitment has become big business for national charter school organizations, said Catherine DiMartino, an education researcher at St. John’s University in New York City. And there’s a simple reason why: “Because the kids equal money, and wherever the kids go, the money’s going to follow them.”
Missouri doles out almost $7,000 per student in state funding. If a charter school spends $30,000 on ads, it needs to recruit four new kids in order to break even. A fifth means an increase in tax revenue.
Education scholars say charter schools that are part of national networks pump lots of money into streamlined marketing strategies. Missouri’s charter schools are required to be nonprofits, though it’s harder to find exact spending amounts and budget documents for charter networks compared to traditional public school districts.
St. Louis examples include:
- EAGLE College Prep, run by Open Sky Education, spends 1.5 percent of its budget marketing its three area schools (a fourth will open next month), according to spokeswoman Amber Kraus. That equals about $60,000, which Kraus said comes from its general budget.
- KIPP St. Louis, part of the larger KIPP, Inc., spends $25,000 per year, or 1 percent of its budget, on marketing. It’ll open a fifth school in August. The money for marketing comes from fundraising efforts, according to Ericka Zoll, KIPP St. Louis’ Director of Development & External Affairs.
- Gateway Science Academy, managed by Concept Schools, did not respond to St. Louis Public Radio’s requests for marketing spending.
Some of the charter schools in St. Louis aren’t part of broader networks, so they don’t spend as much on advertising because budget margins are too slim.
It’s not just through bus ads or radio commercials that school use to hone their image.
Charter school advocacy organizations have step-by-step guides on how schools can present themselves to prospective parents. And schools have sleek logos on school uniforms, stationery and pencils.
Social media has become an inexpensive but highly used way to reach new parents, too, according to industry watchers.
“In some ways, (charter schools) market public education better than the longtime players in public education,” said Nora Carr, a school administrator in North Carolina who is a member of the National School Public Relations Association.
Even the school’s name matters, and many use things like “academy” or “college prep,” even though, DiMartino said, many are elementary schools.
Charter schools tied to national organizations, like EAGLE and KIPP, benefit from centralized marketing teams that provide strategies and resources.
“I think it’s a really efficient use of our time and resources,” said Kraus, the community relations manager for St. Louis EAGLE schools. But the biggest recruitment tool her schools have, she said, is word of mouth from parents.
Another tactic is going door-to-door. Above Kraus’ desk is a map of EAGLE’s schools. Staff members will talk with people in the neighborhoods, as well as nearby parks and daycare centers.
What’s a public school district to do?
As charter schools court new students, so, too, must St. Louis Public Schools. SLPS isn’t trying to out-market charter schools, deputy superintendent Rachel Seward said, but it must “dispel myths” about the district’s perceived quality after a state takeover and loss of accreditation in the early 2000s. Seward said marketing helps “get our story out there.”
Despite banners on the side of every school and billboards announcing that SLPS regained state accreditation in January, the district is projecting a 3 percent decline in student enrollment for the upcoming school year.
The district spends less on advertising than charter networks, proportionally speaking — about $1 million of its $390 million budget.
“We think of our students as students and wonderful people, we don’t necessarily think of them as just sort of little dollar signs over their heads,” Seward said. “But I think if you have to get to get down to it, certainly we’re accountable to that sort of return on investment just like any business would be.”
No matter the advertisement, from SLPS or charter schools, DiMartino said, parents should look at it like they would commercials for a new medication. But since ads aren’t regulated like drugs, it’s best to do research before picking a school, she said, adding: “It does seem to me, that to some extent, we do need some sort of explainer with some of this advertising.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney