As enrollment declines, L.A. public schools borrow a tactic from the charters: marketing

ByAnna M. Phillips

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First a delivery truck plastered with pictures of smiling children started making the rounds of the northeast San Fernando Valley last spring. Then came a billboard on Van Nuys Boulevard for the same 90-year-old product: a Los Angeles public school.

“I saw the ad. Are you enrolling new students?” parents asked Richard Ramos, a principal in his third year at Haddon Avenue STEAM Academy in Pacoima. His answer was an enthusiastic yes.

As enrollment in traditional public schools around the city has declined and charter schools have mushroomed, Ramos and other principals are having to compete for students or risk school closure. To do this, they are turning to marketing tactics long employed by charter schools: handing out glossy fliers and creating Facebook pages to promote their after-school activities. The time and attention they are pouring into recruitment is fundamentally changing the nature of their jobs.

Though much of this promotion is coming from individual schools, L.A. Unified is joining in as well. In December, the school district hired a marketing director. This week, it plans to launch a website for principals to download templates of brochures, posters, fliers and postcards.

“I grew up in this community and there was no question about what schools we were going to go to,” said Ramos, who learned the power of marketing in his previous job at a charter school. “Now things are being looked at through a different lens for sure. With a declining enrollment, you have no choice.”

Five years ago, Ramos’ school had 890 students in grades kindergarten through fifth. By the start of last year, it was down to 785, a decrease that not only injured the school’s pride but probably meant teachers would be cut.

It didn’t matter that the principal had expanded the school’s mariachi classes or brought in a decorated speech-and-debate coach if none of the neighborhood’s parents knew about it.

School board member Monica Ratliff came up with the billboard idea. While driving around her district, she noticed that  a charter school had decorated the lampposts with banners featuring photos of cheerful teachers and students.

“And I thought, we have that! We have smiling children and happy-looking teachers. But we’re not doing a good-enough job of showing that we have that, promoting that,” she said.

Ratliff spent $9,000 on a set of banners as well as the billboard and truck ad, which also featured Arleta High School. Placing the ad cost nothing because the truck belongs to L.A. Unified’s delivery fleet.

By last week, when the new school year started, Haddon’s enrollment had surged to 848, including 39 students who were enticed to leave the charter schools they had previously sought as refuge from traditional public schools.

“Haddon has been around since 1926, but we have to advertise how we’re different today and what we’re doing,” Ramos said, adding that he recently created a Twitter account to promote the school. “We have to be just like the commercials for Coca-Cola — they’re constantly selling it even though everybody knows what Cola-Cola is.”

But finding the money to advertise is where Ramos and other district principals are at a significant disadvantage. L.A. Unified has no marketing budget, according to a district spokeswoman. School leaders can distribute their brochures by hand — but blanketing a neighborhood with promotional material, as charter schools sometimes do when they open a new school, is typically beyond their means.

The KIPP LA charter network, which has 13 schools in Los Angeles, spent about $18,000 last year on marketing in the city, network spokesman Steve Mancini said.

“The recruiting approach from the beginning has involved a lot of shoe leather — going door to door and going to church meetings and youth centers and having that interaction with families,” Mancini said. The schools supplement this with social media and mailers, which can be pricey.

At Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, the largest charter school network in L.A., the recruiting budget for its 28 schools is $13,000 to $15,000, spokeswoman Catherine Suitor said.

“We welcome the competition,” Mancini said of the district’s nascent recruitment efforts. “It’s healthy; it keeps you on your toes. One of the best accountability measures is knowing you have to fill your school every year with students.”