A course in marketing

  • Article by: James Walsh
  • Star Tribune
  • September 17, 2007 - 9:59 PM

Mo Chang spent 21 years working for the St. Paul schools and reaching out to Hmong families for the state's second-largest school district. So when she opened her own charter school this fall -- and quickly drew nearly 200 students, many from the St. Paul schools, to her still unproven Community School of Excellence -- well, it should give St. Paul pause.

"The [traditional public] schools are not welcoming. Parents who come to charter schools want to feel welcome, respected," said Chang, who has spent much of the past year selling her new school in local news media and at Hmong community meetings. "Because of that, the best recruitment is one on one, visiting homes, having relationships with people you know."

School choice in St. Paul and Minneapolis used to mean magnet schools, busing and desegregation -- a way to balance diversity and keep middle-class families. But as charter schools and open enrollment siphon thousands of students away, choice now means persuading parents to choose traditional public schools.

It's a crucial concept for districts because the more kids you have, the more funding and flexibility are available to teach those kids and improve achievement. This new way of looking at choice requires something charter schools are pretty good at but traditional public schools still struggle to master -- selling themselves to families.

"We do have to market ourselves. But we don't need to go back and redo a lot of stuff," said St. Paul schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who said she has no plans yet to overhaul St. Paul's system of magnet schools. "Really, that just basically means serving families well."

But winning the choice battle is increasingly vital in St. Paul, Minneapolis and inner-ring suburbs that are seeing more schools with a majority of minority students -- and eroding overall enrollment.

"A school district that has an increasing number of racially and socially segregated schools has never been able to maintain a stable enrollment," said Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty. "As neighborhood schools become more segregated, people with choices don't choose them."

Choice through the years

When St. Paul had a little more than 10 percent minority students in the early 1970s, its goals were to move them from a handful of "racially isolated" schools in the inner city while also attracting white students to the inner city, said Yusef Mgeni, director of educational equity for the St. Paul schools. They created "magnet" programs, offering enhanced math and science, enrichment classes or language immersion along with citywide busing.

The rule was that a school could not have 15 percent more minority students than the overall minority percentage for the district.

But as St. Paul became more diverse, magnet programs' impact on racial balance waned, Mgeni said. St. Paul enrollment now is 30 percent Asian, 30 percent black, 26 percent white and 13 percent Hispanic.

St. Paul still receives $22 million a year in state desegregation funding, but changes in state law mean schools no longer assign students to magnet programs by race. Many St. Paul kids now attend schools mostly populated by minority students.

In fact, nearly half of Minnesota students this fall attend schools that are anywhere from 10 to 50 percent minority, Orfield said. In 1992, the Twin Cities had nine schools that were mostly minority. Ten years later, there were more than 100.

And Orfield said that means more families will choose other options, including more minority kids going to charters.

Today, about 40,000 children attend St. Paul Public Schools, down from nearly 44,000 in October 2002. Last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, nearly 6,400 St. Paul children attended public school districts other than St. Paul -- mostly charter schools. More than 10,000 Minneapolis schoolchildren attended other districts.

Carstarphen acknowledges that the best way for St. Paul to ensure its future is to hang onto its students. That won't be easy, Orfield and others say. And it will require fresh ideas.

Sometimes it's easy

It's not always hard.

At the Student Placement Center in St. Paul, Ann Nordby was filling out paperwork for her daughter, Caroline, and her son, Erik. They've lived in Hong Kong, California and, most recently, Dublin, Ireland. In St. Paul, they wanted a neighborhood where "we can walk to find a quart of milk" and a strong neighborhood school.

They picked St. Anthony Park Elementary after researching the district's website and the Department of Education site.

"If you put the information out there, people can make informed choices," Nordby said.

But it's not always easy

Sometimes, it takes more.

The Minneapolis schools advertise not just in local publications but also at the registers of Cub Foods stores. Staff members walk around town, putting leaflets on car windshields. In addition, the district is talking to leaders of the faith community about spreading the word about the district's schools.

It's all about bringing kids back, said Jackie Turner, director of recruitment and community relations.

"Because the more you drain a system, the fewer resources you have to work with," she said. "Ultimately, it's really about quality. And quality will drive enrollment."

Kent Pekel was point person for former St. Paul schools Superintendent Patricia Harvey on a project to revamp school choice to cut busing costs while increasing access to the city's most popular programs. The idea: Discontinue citywide busing for elementary students, rework some school boundaries and create three or four geographic zones for busing. Citywide busing for secondary schools would continue.

The report sits on a shelf, caught in transitional limbo between Harvey leaving and Carstarphen's arrival last year. The St. Paul school board has put off changing its current choice program until 2008-09.

"It's critical to redo the choice infrastructure," Pekel said. "But just doing that won't attract new families. You have to get to the core questions about how inviting your school is for families."

When Sharon Freeman became principal at Prosperity Heights Elementary, a St. Paul neighborhood school with no busing, enrollment was bleak. So the former executive with a marketing background walked into area businesses, met apartment-building managers and marched in neighborhood parades. Her message: We're a good school; we're your school.

In four years, enrollment rose from 250 to about 340.

"You always need to market," said Freeman, who now directs Adequate Yearly Progress and 4-year-old programs for the district. "It's called letting your customer know what you're doing."

James Walsh • 651-298-1541

James Walsh •

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