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LA Unified turning to marketing to reverse declining enrollment

Vanessa Romo | May 27, 2015

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don-draper-2Where’s Don Draper when LA Unified needs him?

After more than a decade of declining enrollment, the impact of which is costing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue losses, the district has a plan to stop, or at least slow down, the exodus: Marketing!

Now, officials just need to decide on a plan.

Each year the district loses an average of 2.6 percent of students attending traditional public schools — that’s about 56,000 students per year. District officials estimate that every 3 percent drop costs the district $100 million in funding.

Currently, LA Unified serves just over 600,000 students, down from 694,000 in 2007–2008. And next year’s projections are even worse: the district expects to shrink by another 2.9 percent of non-charter students. It would make it the 12th straight year of enrollment decline.

While reasons for the declines are attributed to lower birth rates, outward migration from the city and the growth of charter schools, the board’s Committee of the Whole, chaired by Steve Zimmer, has taken up the issue to make LA Unified schools more appealing to families.

“We don’t have a strategic plan right now to present ourselves and what we do best,” he said at a meeting on the subject yesterday.

Board member George McKenna floated the idea of strategic promotions that would include hiring a marketing specialist, deputizing local school “ambassadors” to spread the word about successful programs and making better use of the district’s public television station, KLCS.

“We can put candid, taped testimonials where kids talk about, ‘I love our school, and parents can talk about, ‘I love our school,’ ’” he said. “It’s our television station. We don’t have to ask other channels like ABC or CBS or cable channels to give us PSAs; we can do it.”

Other proposals included the expansion of magnet schools and specialized instruction, door-to-door sales pitches, family literacy programs, and the greater investment in early education programs.

“We do see a high correlation between early education programs that lead to high enrollment in elementary schools,” Zimmer said. While the pre-Kindergarten programs are intend ended to eradicate the school readiness gap, he says the “byproduct” is that families most often go on to enroll their children in the elementary school because “they do not want to have to go to two or three different schools if they can avoid it.”

Principals also have to start thinking of themselves as Mad Men/Women.

“They need to take on the role of marketers,” McKenna said, and the sentiment was echoed by Zimmer and board president Richard Vladovic.

With so much competition from private, parochial and charter schools, administrators have to be more aggressive than ever, Vladovic said.

“This is a different time,” he said. “Parents are more mobile. They have more choices…if they don’t like something, they’ll leave immediately,” he said shaking his head.

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