Lagging state funding and declining births put more pressure on school officials to find ways to entice and retain students.
First comes the stork, then the schools' sale pitch.
Just months after a baby is born in Mound or its surrounding communities, a large white envelope arrives with a card from Westonka's superintendent, a red-and-white Westonka canvas bag and a tiny Onesie bodysuit stamped with the district's motto. To show its continued interest, the district sends the child a birthday card each year for the next five years.
Competition to snatch up students -- and the state money that follows them -- is intensifying across the metro due to lagging per-pupil school aid and declining births statewide.
With open enrollment an option in Minnesota, more and more parents are looking beyond their neighborhood to find the best school for their child, putting pressure on school districts to find low-cost, creative ways to attract or keep families. Sunday is the deadline for those considering open enrollment to apply to another school district.
"Any school district that doesn't believe it needs to be communicating and marketing will find itself with a different budget situation," said Janet Swiecichowski, communications director in Minnetonka schools. "It would be akin to a business saying 'I don't need any new customers.'"
Signs of the lengths that schools are going to for early recruitment are evident across the metro. Chaska, Hopkins and Minnetonka all hand out similar baby bags to encourage families to join their early childhood classes. Hopkins started airing local public radio ads three years ago for an immersion program. And this year St. Paul public schools launched radio ads and a marketing campaign to win back students who left for charter schools.
Efforts pay off
The extra marketing efforts worked for 26-year-old Christine Charlson. As a new parent who was also new to Minnetrista, she signed up her now 7-month-old son, Chase, for classes in Waconia, their school district. But when Westonka's baby bag arrived at her door, it prompted her to sign up for their classes, too. "It put it on my radar," she said.
The number of parents like Charlson who are willing to go beyond their district's borders is growing.
Statewide, open enrollment has risen by 20,000 students in four years. In 2007, about 38,700 students open-enrolled, 4.7 percent of all K-12 students, according to state data. By last year, that was up to 58,000, 7 percent of all students.
The change in attitude has put pressure on schools to not just compete on the playing field, but also for who ends up in their classrooms. Lagging state aid and the 7 percent drop in number of births statewide from 2007 to 2010, to their lowest level since 2002, has intensified that pressure. Each first- through 12th-grade student brings in a minimum, on average, of $7,161 in state aid, according to the state; districts that boost enrollment are rewarded with thousands of dollars more in aid.
Minnetonka, a western suburban district of 9,000 students, is a prime example of a district that has ratcheted up its efforts to bring in more students. In 2002, nearby private schools were running ads and open enrollment was claiming more students. Signal the offense.
Now, the district touts offerings such as its high school's iPad program, running ads in local magazines, newspapers, radio, public television, even regional editions of Newsweek. It also sends out mailings across the metro. The move has paid off.
Nearly 2,000 students from 41 school districts as far away as Brainerd and Le Sueur now make up 21 percent of Minnetonka's students. Swiecichowski, however, doesn't credit their marketing or $40,000 annual advertising budget, but rather their innovative programs.
"They're probably Googling 'great education' and finding Minnetonka," she said. "We want families thinking of their school choice to think of Minnetonka as their first choice."
Other districts disagree with trying to recruit nonresident students. In Hopkins and Mounds View, school leaders said they share the philosophy of focusing on attracting students from within the district, not outside. In Mounds View, where 9 percent of students open-enroll into the district, Public Relations Director Colin Sokolowski hasn't placed an ad in about a decade.
"For us, I don't see it's an effective use of money," he said, adding that many schools are near capacity.
Every kid counts
Private schools such as Benilde-St. Margaret's in St. Louis Park have relied on marketing for years -- in a decade, its enrollment of Minneapolis students has increased by 53 percent as the school has hosted neighborhood events or had parents display Benilde yard signs. Public schools, though, have been slow to get on board.
That changed in Mound, Superintendent Kevin Borg said, as pressure to relay their story has increased. The district scans a list of Hennepin County births each month and sends bags to families in the district and nearby areas. In a year, they've sent more than 330 baby bags. The $4,900 cost is offset by a $3,000 grant.
Early childhood education coordinator Sandy Wing deemed it a success after six parents signed up for classes last fall. For a 2,300-student district bordering much larger Minnetonka and Chaska, every kid counts.
"It's just a way to remind parents to stay," she said.
Amanda Moodie of Mound wasn't sure if she'd send her newborn to Westonka. But when she got the baby bag -- "it was cute, his first official mail," she said -- she signed up for classes and is now considering sending him there for preschool and beyond.
"It's given me a more positive outlook of what my community can offer," she said.
Hopkins gives about 300 baby bags a year to parents who meet with an early childhood teacher. The West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district sends mailings to the 38 percent of families who enroll elsewhere, hoping to draw them back.
And in St. Paul, a school bus goes to community events, wrapped in a banner bearing comments from families about what they like about the district, "like a walking, talking billboard," communications director Julie Schultz Brown said.
It's part of the district's new, privately funded $225,000 marketing campaign. Its biggest marketing blitz to date, she said, is all in hopes of bringing 3,000 St. Paul students back to the district by 2014.
"Now you have a lot of choices [for schools]," she said. "You have to give them a reason to come here."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141