Imagemakers' New Client: Beleaguered Public Schools

An ad in a Dallas newspaper features a Hispanic student with chemistry formulas superimposed on his forehead. It reads: "You don't need to be a biochemist to understand the structural formula of glucose. Eleventh grader Mario Rodriguez will be more than happy to explain it to you. After basketball practice."

The punch line: "Higher test scores. Better attendance rates. And the education kids deserve. Dallas Public Schools."

The message is clear: Despite negative publicity, the public school system is still providing the key that unlocks the American dream. The recent ad campaign here is emblematic of a growing attempt by public schools across the country to burnish their image in an era of tight funding and competition for students.

While it is still rare for schools to promote themselves as if selling cars or soft drinks, a growing number are buying ad space, hiring marketing professionals, and even conducting classroom tours to tout the progress they are making.

At stake is more than just fostering a feel-good image. Proponents believe the moves can be crucial to attracting funding, influencing where parents send their children, and shaping how people feel about their communities. For example:

*In Irving, Texas, school officials recently took realtors on a tour of local campuses so they could better sell people moving to the city on the virtues of public education. The move came in response to complaints from real estate agents that, although corporations are moving to the area, their employees prefer to buy homes in other districts.

*In Kent, Wash., realtors hired a public-relations firm to promote the schools in an effort to get a $50 million tax levy passed in recent elections. Had voters not approved the increase, the schools would have had to cut athletic, music, and library programs, says Judy Parker, director of school-community relations for the district.

*In Orange County, Calif., public-relations professionals are tutoring school principals on how to "position" their schools in the marketplace. One reason: The district now allows open enrollment, under which students can attend the school of their choice.

"Increased competition is fueling the change," says Rick Bagin, executive director of the National Schools Public Relations Association, who is conducting the Orange County workshops. "It's strange, new stuff for educators."

He notes that choices are spreading throughout education: charter schools, open enrollment, home schooling, talk of vouchers allowing students to take public dollars to private schools.

The forces that led to the campaign in Dallas mirror those of many metropolitan school districts across the country: Communications had reached a crisis.

There was one media relations person for the entire district of 200 schools and 150,000 students. Reports of racial tension, violence, and low test scores often led the news. School board members settled their differences in the press. Communications between classroom teachers and administrators were strained. Parents felt unwelcome on campus and wondered if their children were safe.

A collaborative effort involving the superintendent of schools, the school board, and the business community set out to improve the situation. The full-page ads that ran in the Dallas Morning News were paid for by corporate donations. More are planned.

Business donations also paid for an outside consulting group to conduct an audit of the district's communication needs. As a result, the district's approach to public information is in the midst of a major overhaul.

"Within the last year, we have decided to take a different direction," says Jon Dahlander, executive director of media relations for the Dallas Independent School District. The school budget was expanded to hire additional people for both internal and external relations.

While some critics contend money would be better spent on improving schools than "image management," proponents say their intent is not to whitewash the challenges facing education.

"It's not a case of putting the best face on a bad performance," says Rick Douglas, president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce and part of the Dallas school-business coalition. "We are trying to get out the message that the schools have made tremendous gains in the past three years."

Many in the business agree more is needed than jingles and glossy advertisements. Annell Todd, head of the Texas Schools Public Relations Association, says there is often an unrealistic expectation about what PR can do. "You can't 'fix' the problem with the media until you fix the problem," she says.

Administrators in nearby Irving are finding that out. When realtors told them people moving to the area preferred to buy homes in other districts, they cited a variety of reasons. They ranged from the way schools look (many are older) to the way students look (several realtors want uniforms so students won't dress like gang members).

Still, the 30 agents who participated in the tour of schools said they gained information that would help them "sell" the district, and therefore homes.

"Communications is the key," says Mike Kunstadt, president of the Trustees of the Irving Independent School District. "You have to let people know what's happening in the schools."

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