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Selling Schools: Education's new challenge

By: Doug Snover

May 26, 2007

Several years of declining enrollment has set off an unprecedented competition for students among local school districts and brought “marketing” to the forefront of education strategy, according to Kyrene Superintendent Dr. David Schauer.

It’s not like the good old days when kids went to their neighborhood public school and stayed there, Schauer said.

Charter schools and open enrollment policies have created serious competition for students in Arizona, he said.

Charter schools draw students away just as Tempe’s population is maturing and family size shrinks. Open enrollment, meanwhile, allows school districts to lure students who live outside their boundaries by offering more and better classes and alternative education.

“We in Arizona have probably the most competitive educational environment of any state. I know we have more charter schools than any other state,” Schauer said.

“Marketing is much more prominent in education today than any of us in the field ever thought it would be,” he said.

“It’s the competitive educational environment that exists in the state of Arizona. We have to be competitive in getting kids to come here.”

Finishing his first school year as Kyrene superintendent, Schauer recently began reorganizing the Kyrene administrative staff to bring the marketing arm closer to the district’s alternative programs, including the recently announced “self-contained” classrooms at Sureńo Elementary School next year for academically superior third, fourth and fifth graders and the Kyrene Middle School “preparatory academy.”

Alternative education and public relations/marketing, along with prevention services, will be under the newly created Education and Outreach Services, Schauer explained.

Kyrene is interviewing for the position of Director of Education and Outreach Services and soon will begin interviewing for the newly created position of Community Relations/Public Information Manager.

Kyrene is reorganizing “to create a more efficient, effective operation because it will be such an important piece of our work,” Schauer said. “I won’t have marketing and community relations in a vacuum. I want to keep everyone connected and on the same page.”

“What I believe will become more important as Kyrene moves forward will be this whole area of alternative education and marketing.”

Marketing can be as simple as hanging banners on each of Kyrene’s 22 “excelling” schools to remind people of the district’s high ranking among school districts.

“It’s about making sure people understand that this is a quality school district. I feel an obligation to maintain our enrollment because our budget is determined by how many students are enrolled in the district.”

Not too long ago, when Kyrene’s student population was booming and classrooms were filled to the brim, the district actually shunned out-of-district students.

“We had a ‘gatekeeper mentality’,” Schauer acknowledged. “It’s not like that anymore. We are open. We are welcoming.”

Schauer, a transplanted Midwesterner who came to Arizona in the mid-1990s, is typically serious when he talks about Kyrene’s struggles with declining enrollment.

“We call it a slow, painful death,” he said.

But he smiles when he pronounces, “I’ve declared an end to declining enrollment” as if it were that easy.

“I think most people are resigned to the fact that it’s going to happen, but I’m not,” he explained, the seriousness returning.

“Kyrene now has nearly 2,700 out-of-district students (in its student population of about 18,500) and that’s due to our marketing efforts and reputation.”

There’s a second reason for the restructuring that is now under way, Schauer adds.

For the past four years, Kyrene has received about $2 million per year from a federal “Safe Schools” grant.

That money is no longer available and the programs it helped fund – mostly aimed at making schools safer through disciplinary programs and character education – must be financed without federal assistance.

“As a result of it (the federal grant) going away, we’re going to have to do some things differently,” he acknowledged.

Grants, he explained, “give us an opportunity to try things you normally wouldn’t be able to afford to do … As you develop (grant-funded) programs, you try to figure out which pieces are sustainable when the grant ends.”



Photo by David Stone


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