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Continued: Some school districts selling their sizzle

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 2, 2007 - 1:47 PM

Mounds View and Minnetonka schools take an aggressive tack in their quest for students: They openly poach other districts' students.

Minnetonka extols its high national rankings and a new Chinese immersion program in Twin Cities magazines and neighboring community newspapers. Ads invite parents to Wednesday's kindergarten open houses. Mounds View has advertised for students in community papers in such neighboring districts as Roseville and White Bear Lake.

As suburban school districts age and begin to lose enrollment, competition for students has gotten more intense. The competition heats up now as winter deadlines for changing schools and districts approach.

Most districts that have stopped growing are quick to welcome new students from other districts and the $5,074 per-student state funding that comes with each one. Such student movement is allowed by Minnesota's pioneering open enrollment law or other district policies.

The impact of these advertising campaigns is clearly positive for the districts that are doing them. Both Minnetonka and Mounds View report that their enrollment declines have either stopped or slowed. That has saved them tens, or maybe hundreds of thousands or dollars a year. That's allowed them to preserve teaching jobs and prevent programs cuts.

In the late '90s, Minnetonka projections were showing enrollment declines. The school board implemented a marketing strategy to counteract that. At that point, the district had 7,700 students.

"Since we implemented our marketing strategy we have not only maintained our enrollment, but we have grown," said Minnetonka schools communications director Janet Swiecichowski. "This year, we are at 7,872."

In terms of students transferring in and out of the district, Minnetonka has turned into a big-time gainer. This year, Swiecichowski said, 693 students from other districts enrolled, while 237 left for other districts. In 2004, Mounds View won a national school public relations award for slowing down its enrollment decline, adding 65 percent more nonresident students to its schools' rosters, and adding two new kindergarten classes to accommodate the influx of new school-age children from outside of the district.

The Mounds View district has been advertising since 2003, said Mounds View schools public relations director Colin Sokolowski, who noted that a decision has not yet been made whether to advertise outside the district this year. "We're certainly not unique in accepting nonresident students," Sokolowski said. "The difference is we're among the first to invite the applications, at least in the northern part of the metro."

Not all districts appreciate it

Still, many educators still disdain such tactics.

"I think there are some questions about why would we spend public dollars on a model where we're trying to take students from each other," said Rolf Parsons, school board chairman for the White Bear Lake school district, which exported 56 students to Mounds View this year.

Nationally, the Mounds View-Minnetonka advertising-for-students concept is still in the infant stage for public schools.

"There's more of it than there was five years ago," said Rich Bagin, executive director of the Rockville, Md.-based National School Public Relations Association. "But I don't see it happening in a lot of districts."

Minnetonka schools' Swiecichowski has an annual advertising budget of about $18,000.

Minnetonka officials stress that their marketing strategy, launched in 2002, is only partly about attracting students from other districts. The district surveys its own parents to find out what kinds of programs they want in the district, for example, and then works to put them in place. Also, the district must try to keep parents from defecting to private schools, many of which advertise for students.

The impact such campaigns have on neighboring districts is uncertain. Neighboring Roseville, targeted by Mounds View ads, sent 33 students to Mounds View schools this year, but got 104 open-enrollment students from Mounds View.

Still, Minnetonka's targeting of neighboring Chaska schools might have made a difference. This year, 272 out of the 434 students who left Chaska schools for other districts went to Minnetonka. That beats the 186 students that came to Chaska from all other districts.

Chaska's reaction?

"I can't pass judgment on what Minnetonka does or what they don't do," said Chaska Superintendent David Jennings. "I can't put myself in the role of judge because I'm not in their shoes."

Educators are leery about openly criticizing sister school districts. Off the record, many say such tactics are disturbing and erode the cooperative spirit that should rule education. Most districts still won't do it. The Eden Prairie school board, for instance, discussed advertising outside the district several years ago, but decided against it.

"I think we didn't feel we wanted to compete," said Eden Prairie board chairwoman Carol Bomben.

Minnetonka and Mounds View harbor no such qualms.

"The reality is that we live in a very competitive time," Swiecichowski said. "Parents have lots of choices. We want them to think of us first when making that decision."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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