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    Pinellas seeks school choice marketing tip

    The district looks to a North Carolina school system that aggressively marketed its choices of schools to parents.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 19, 2002

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Parents at Highland Renaissance Academy don't always go to the school, so the school decided to go to them.

    To spread the word about a new school choice plan, teachers called and visited students' homes. A parent advocate handed out extra applications in the car circle. Students pressed their parents to return applications on time so their classes could win pizza or popcorn.

    In the end, 100 percent of Highland's parents returned their applications on time.

    "Don't be afraid of the parents," said Jovetta Dennis, Highland's assistant principal.

    In a visit to North Carolina last week, Pinellas educators learned that a choice plan's success depends on community support and a diverse marketing campaign.

    Even more, it depends on schools.

    Charlotte's example showed that making choice work requires widespread cultural change -- a challenge in a bureaucracy as big as a county school district.

    Principals and teachers will have to stop thinking of marketing for choice as a burden. Instead, Charlotte officials said, principals must embrace change as a new opportunity to show off their schools.

    "We started communicating the way we should have been for 50 years," said Nora Carr, Charlotte schools' former spokeswoman.

    Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a sprawling urban district much like Pinellas. It's a verdant place whose population is growing rapidly. Every year, about 3,000 new students come in.

    Mecklenburg and Pinellas are undergoing the same dramatic transition: from court-ordered busing for desegregation to parental choice. Charlotte is one year ahead; its plan started in August.

    Charlotte's plan is similar to Pinellas' in that it's complicated, controversial and districtwide. Not surprisingly, it required marketing efforts that stretched from Hispanic groceries to public libraries to alternative newspapers.

    A "showcase of schools" was held at a mall. A hotline answered parent questions. "Lunch and learn" sessions were scheduled for the county's major employers.

    Committees helped schools develop themes and brochures. Schools filmed videos. Eighteen firms donated $100,000 of marketing help to 32 schools.

    "They were the front line," said Donna Bell, executive director of planning services. "They had the contact with the parents on a daily basis."

    Principal Susie Johnson faced enormous challenges as she marketed a new school. Since the 1960s, court-ordered busing had forced students in the mostly black neighborhood to go to school far from home.

    She relied on community groups and religious leaders to help pick the school name and to stoke enthusiasm about Greenville Park Elementary School. Despite the efforts, Johnson's school, with room for 700 students, will open with about 300.

    "It has been a difficult experience having people understand your vision before they ever meet you or see your building," Johnson said.

    Charlotte officials said principals at first resisted choice. But as momentum grew through ads and news stories, so did the principals' enthusiasm.

    Plus, it became a source of competition.

    "If you're trying to attract kids from an existing high school, you're a pariah," said David Baldaia, principal of Berry Academy of Technology, opening this fall. "Everybody is out for the same prize."

    By most measures, the marketing drive worked.

    In all, 96 percent of students (about 105,000) returned their applications on time. About 86 percent got their first choice schools; 7 percent got their second choice.

    Pinellas choice officials said it was helpful to see what worked in Charlotte. They plan to duplicate most of it. Marketing coordinator Andrea Zahn said the overarching lesson was clear: You can't get the message out too many times, in too many ways.

    "What visiting them did was really emphasize how much of a part of it school principals are," Zahn said. "It reinforced the things that were already going to happen."

    Mirroring Charlotte's success will be a challenge.

    Pinellas' choice plan begins in 2003, but parents start making choices this September. That leaves four months to educate the staff and the public, and to turn skepticism about choice into enthusiasm.

    Pinellas' marketing budget is limited to $50,000 to $80,000, and Zahn is the only person who markets choice full time. Charlotte had a half-dozen people in the public relations department.

    With limited resources, Zahn is seeking donations and partnerships.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King, a Gibbs High graduate, will film a public service announcement targeting incoming kindergarteners and other hard-to-reach families.

    The district is teaching principals how choice works and how to market their schools.

    A district fair this fall will highlight magnet programs and high schools because those will draw students from all over the county.

    Zahn's office has helped schools develop brochures, and every school will soon have a Web site. Information will go out in several languages. In the fall, every school will hold "discovery nights" and schedule tours.

    During the three-month application process, principals will get reports showing how many parents have filled out the necessary forms. Then they'll search for parents they haven't heard from.

    Zahn hopes principals will follow the example of their counterparts in North Carolina, who said choice was a lot of work but rewarding.

    Charlotte's Ashley Park Elementary School is a high-poverty school that lost its magnet program. In nine years, it has gone through seven principals. Every year, its teacher turnover rate tops 60 percent.

    With the help of a charismatic and gregarious new principal, Ashley Park remade its image.

    Ashley Park has a new theme and new partnerships with an insurance company and nearby universities. A "brag board" showcases projects students are doing in class. It has a new mascot, a donated bald eagle named Nate.

    "It wasn't just Ashley Park that had to market itself," said principal Melissa Dunlap. "It was the whole school district. It became a matter of pride."

    Ashley Park will have some empty seats next year, but the choice campaign has re-energized the school. For the first time in years, no teachers are leaving.

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