From Fortune 500 companies to neighborhood family stores, businesses recognize the importance of marketing, viewing it as essential to their existence and growth. But many school districts, from large urban cities to remote rural communities, may not see the need for marketing campaigns.

Public school leaders also worry about how their communities might respond to the use of tax dollars to position their district and students in the best light. However, private schools, charter schools, and colleges have no such worries. To compete and survive, they must market themselves. Glossy brochures, social media campaigns, TV commercials, user-friendly websites, and other digital marketing strategies provide timely and engaging materials to their prospective audiences.

Traditional public schools, which are increasingly facing marketplace competition, should do the same. It’s what we’ve done in Connecticut’s Meriden Public Schools by reusing and repurposing current resources to support our efforts. This is how we did it.

Here, students succeed 

Meriden Public Schools is an urban system, located halfway between New Haven and Hartford. We compete with charter schools, a Catholic school, and private schools in neighboring communities. We felt the need to tell our story, market our innovations, and dispel the myth that urban schools cannot be pioneering leaders and havens to student success.

To do this, we created a family school liaison team a decade ago using current attendance staff and truancy officers who serve as an extension of our district in the community. Our bilingual/bicultural teams engage students and families in the life of our schools.

The liaison team sponsors school events and partners with community agencies to run buses to sports contests, organize intergenerational events at a local senior center, and highlight student and staff success stories. The team quickly has become the bridge between families, schools, and community agencies.

Creating this team was the start of our broad marketing strategy, which uses multiple measures to showcase the great work being done in Meriden Public Schools. Seeing the positive momentum generated by the team, we decided then to brand our district with a consistent logo and color scheme as well as introduce a new and improved website. We also developed a family-friendly, student-centered theme for the district—“Here, Students Succeed”—that appears with our logo and web address on all print and online materials.

A person looking at a school website on their tablet

“Here, Students Succeed” also appears on flyers, school signage, staff apparel, school vehicles, giveaways, and student awards. We created electronic billboards as well as 30-second commercials that were shown on Comcast stations and viewed on major networks. The commercial also runs at our local movie theater, which donated the ad time to the district.

Our efforts have been noticed. Over the past 10 years, students and families have taken pride in the Meriden brand.

Start outreach internally 

Developing, maintaining, and building on a successful brand requires school districts to engage both internal and external audiences. Typically, the most receptive initially are internal: your students, staff, families, and elected leaders.

These are the people with a vested interest in your schools who want to help you share your success stories. Give them the positive data points, the brief sound bites, and let them tell others what you’re doing.

The best way is to be specific and keep it simple. Use examples like, “Graduation rates increased 20 percent;” “Third-grade reading proficiency is up 18 percent;” or “We had the highest state scores in reading in district history.” Share these data points with elected leaders, especially your school board, and regularly reward students and staff for academic success or innovative projects.

In Meriden, for example, students and staff receive ribbons and certificates for being top performers. This is an opportunity to reach both internal and external audiences in a way that supports our “Here, Students Succeed” theme. Project Excel Award winners in elementary, middle, and high school are honored at district ceremonies. They also are featured on a promotional flyer that appears in our local newspaper and is prominently displayed on our website.

As part of this effort, we bring in nationally known and student-recommended guest authors to encourage reading and student interest. Author visits have included Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor (Just Ask), Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), R. L. Stein (Goosebumps), Avi (Sophia’s War), Nick Cannon (Neon Aliens Ate My Homework), Jason Reynolds (Long Way Down), and Octavia Spencer (Ninja Detective). These celebrations are promoted to families and the media as examples of our students being digital learners. They also spotlight our staff embracing student-centered approaches and our schools serving as centers of innovation.

Reaching external audiences

Your external audience consists of community partners who work with children and families, local and regional companies that do business with your district, and any other local business that your students and families frequently support.

We invite businesses to attend, participate in, and enjoy school and district events. Events like Music in the Park, the Future of Learning Symposium, and student-led productions allow businesses to see our best salespeople—our students—in action. All seniors and veterans in our community can request free passes to school athletic events and concerts.

A Community Learning Walk Program provides opportunities for residents to visit our schools and classrooms so they can see firsthand how learning has changed. We developed a monthly Web Wednesday event for senior citizens from the Meriden Senior Center to meet with a group of high school students in the media center to learn about technology. These residents have become our best ambassadors in the community.

Recently, more than 500 students and families attended a Take Charge and Code event at one of our elementary schools. Participants completed an hour of coding, programming robotic mice and pocket robots. They also took part in virtual reality demonstrations that included diving with sharks, exploring the solar system, and touring the pyramids of Egypt.

With backing from the school board, we created a Community Support Award to honor and thank partners who give back to our students and schools. Among those recognized are the restaurant that gives a free slice of pizza to students who make the honor roll, and the barbershop that offers free haircuts to students who improve their grades. Each of these partners is recognized with a plaque at school board meetings.

Community providers also work with the staff in our extended learning time school to provide enrichment activities. We also have developed a Meriden campus of Middlesex Community College at one of our high schools. Instead of paying rent, the college offers five free seats to our students or staff in all college classes offered on site.

Several popular social media websites layered over one another

These programs are all forms of external outreach that support and reinforce our brand. We also have developed promotional videos and flyers for our middle and high schools. Fifth- and eighth-grade students and their families are invited to meetings to learn what our public schools have to offer. Despite competition from private and charter schools, few families have chosen to leave our district.

We use a similar strategy to market our special education programs, which have been redesigned to provide better in-district learning experiences for children in neighborhood schools. Again, promotional videos, flyers, and tours convince parents and guardians to keep their children in the district, which in turn saves us millions of dollars.

Local community groups, such as Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, NAACP, the Chamber of Commerce, and others, are always looking for luncheon and dinner speakers. And good press is another crucial part of this strategy. Keep your local media informed and be available so your voice can add to the accuracy of their stories.

By giving the news media what they need, including structured access to your schools, you have a better chance of having your special events, student successes, and staff awards covered. The worst thing that could happen is they do not cover the event or story, and you wasted a few moments sending an informational email.

In developing a systemwide marketing effort for our schools, we’ve learned that you must be dedicated to engaging both internal and external audiences. By informing everyone of new programs and inviting them to take part in your school community and activities, you develop a two-way relationship that comes down to this: Together, we can support and celebrate student success.

Mark D. Benigni (mark.benigni@meridenk12.org) is superintendent of Connecticut’s Meriden Public Schools. Lois B. Lehman (lois.lehman@meridenk12.org) is coordinator of grants and special projects. David J. Salafia (david.salafia@meridenk12.org) is the district’s family school liaison coordinator.

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