Marketing Your School District Without Hiring New Staff

by Ronald J. Leon

An old adage suggests the further you move away from home, the more you are appreciated.

In educational circles, Rowland Unified School District is considered one of the best mid-sized school districts in California. Locally, however, the district’s reputation was being tarnished by inaccurate reporting by a local newspaper, especially about the safety of a few of our schools.

This factor, alongside the implementation of new legislation affording parental choice and the stepped-up promotion efforts by private schools in the area, had caused a decline in the district’s enrollment. Between 1990 and 1995, our schools lost 819 pupils, mostly through interdistrict transfers and moves to private schools. As a result, we were forced to lay off personnel and reassign others. Obviously, the board of education was growing concerned about the loss of revenue and its impact on school programs.

To reverse the declining enrollment pattern, improve the community’s awareness of student achievement in our district and set the safety record straight, the school board identified marketing as a strategic focus. Board leaders believed it would be a mistake to add an administrative position during a layoff period. Instead, they allocated resources for me to launch a marketing campaign using contracted support.

Our Trade Secrets

During the past two years, without hiring another staff member, our marketing effort has redirected the word-of-mouth in the community and increased parental and community support of our schools. These accomplishments earned our marketing program a National Gold Medallion, the highest honor accorded, from the National School Public Relations Association and other national and statewide recognition for excellence in public relations and marketing communications.

Here are several of our secrets for effectively marketing the image of a school district without the benefit of adding full-time staff:

* Select the right firm.

We wanted to hire a firm that understood our issues, had a demonstrated track record in marketing public schools, was fiscally responsible and would complement our team. After launching a request for proposals process, we chose Twineham Public Relations based in Orange County, Calif. One of the firm’s core beliefs is that marketing is the responsibility of the internal leadership team. This principle is the foundation of our effort. The firm provides strategic direction and technical support, but we handle implementation.

We invested about $25,000 during the first year. In subsequent years, our expenditures have doubled as we developed a new visual identity, mission statement and set of core values.

* Marketing is everyone’s business.

Because the plan was devised for our administrative team to implement, our contracted firm provides in-service training on marketing-related topics, including school-based public relations planning, crisis communications and marketing schools of choice. The aim is to empower our management team and employees to make marketing communications part of their ongoing responsibilities.

One of our most successful tactics has been to expand our marketing team to include students, parents and early retirees. We found these advocates have unparalleled credibility in the community. As paid administrators, people expect us to speak positively about our schools. But when a student, parent or retired educator comments positively or illustrates from personal experience why our schools are terrific, parents who are shopping for a school value the endorsement. Our firm has helped us train these advocates, whom we call "ambassadors," as community spokespersons for our schools.

* Responsibility with accountability.

Each member of my cabinet has responsibility for one goal area. For instance, the deputy superintendent oversees all communication with the Board of Realtors and residential developers. I also have delegated specific tasks to key principals and assistant principals. Every quarter, we meet to review our achievements and determine our priority activities. This process keeps us on track and ensures we make real progress toward our goals.

* Partnering with local agencies.

We have formed partnerships with local organizations that have the resources we don’t. For instance, we sponsored an orientation breakfast for key business leaders with the regional Chamber of Commerce. We partnered with a local developer to host a one-day promotional event showcasing our schools. And to educate real estate agents in our area, we collaborated with the Board of Realtors to host breakfast meetings.

An Essential Practice

Marketing isn’t just a matter of survival any more for our school district. We’ve learned that marketing is an essential business practice.

In this age of parental choice, charter schools, privatization and mounting attacks from various special-interest groups, public schools need to be strategic about their public image. That’s what we’ve done. We don’t take our public image for granted. We strive, with our every activity, to promote a highly professional, customer-centered image.

Moreover, by involving a cross section of staff and contracting with the right firm, we’ve kept our costs to a minimum while developing a program that has earned national acclaim.

Ronald Leon is superintendent of the Rowland Unified School District, P.O. Box 8490, Rowland Heights, Calif. 91748. E-mail: