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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Schools Emphasize Marketing In The Era Of School Choice

Rachel Morello
Students work with their peers at St. Anthony School on Milwaukee's South side.

Gov. Walker has declared this week “School Choice Week” – and if there’s one thing that characterizes choice in Wisconsin these days, it is competition to attract students.

Schools are working to distinguish themselves through marketing.

It’s happening in Milwaukee, which has one of the largest choice programs in the country, meaning parents have a lot of options here for a publicly-funded education – from MPS to a growing field of charter and voucher schools.

“Schools should attempt to identify to the parents, what is it that they bring to the education of their children,” says José Vásquez, president of St. Anthony School.

St. Anthony is the biggest Catholic school in Milwaukee and serves a majority Latino population. Vásquez says those are two facts it emphasizes to parents.

"Schools should attempt to identify to the parents, what is it that they bring to the education of their children."

“We really have to be very clear and honest with our parents: this is who we are, this is what we will do for your son or daughter,” he says. “We really should always be trying to match the right educational setting for the right student.”

Ideally, advocates say, school choice forces parents to compare their options. Studies show that parents look at a variety of criteria – anything from AP classes and afterschool programs to safety and proximity.

Mark Rollefson is superintendent of the Jefferson School District, 30 miles east of Madison. He says it also has started funneling more resources into marketing, because of increased competition from the private sector and choice program.

“There was a point in time when, if you lived inside that fence, that’s where you went to school,” Rollefson recalls. “Now all of a sudden, you have an opportunity to shop around. And so it makes you business-like.”

And Jefferson leads the pack. The district has won awards for its aggressive marketing strategy, including the use of social media sites like Facebook.

Jefferson's technology director Amanda Price touted its effectiveness at a conference last week in Milwaukee.

“Why I want people to be using social media is we’ve got to meet people where they’re at,” Price explains. “The community is already on there…there’s more people touching it than you could even imagine.”

Because Jefferson focuses on reaching parents online, staff members have updated the district’s website and created a new smartphone app. They also track Facebook clicks, shares & likes on a daily basis.

Superintendent Rollefson says his team understands the nature of the “business” education has become.

“Whether you like that or not, whether you agree with the free market of education, it’s competitive. We compete with our neighbors for kids,” he says. “I personally struggle with that. I have a hard time thinking that’s the right thing to do. I think we should be working with our neighbors in this profession. But that’s what we have right now. That’s the game we’re in."

Back in Milwaukee, St. Anthony faces a growing choice scene just in its South side neighborhood.

Credit Rachel Morello
Construction is well underway on Augustine Prep, the latest voucher school to hit Milwaukee's South side neighborhood.

Just a few blocks away, construction is underway on a brand-new, massive K-12 school - Augustine Prep. One tool it’s using that you may have seen other schools use is billboards.

Or maybe you remember Stellar Collegiate, a South side charter school we reported on a few months ago – its staff spreads the word about its programs by going house-to-house, talking to parents at their own front doors.

So, St. Anthony’s is working to tighten up its messaging. In fact, the team recently designed a new logo, and re-wrote the school tagline, changing it from “One team, One family” to “Faith, Family, Forward.” A website re-design is scheduled to launch by spring.

Admissions supervisor Jennifer Cespedes says all of St. Anthony's marketing tools aim to reach parents at the different pain points they bring when approaching a new school.

“If I’m talking to a parent that speaks Spanish, is here from the south side, we mention our choice program that is available for low-income families. That’s what would get their attention,” she explains. “If I’m talking to a parent from the suburbs, who is interested in enrolling their student but they’re not really low-income, then I might use some different key words.”

“It’s about knowing your audience, and who you’re talking to, knowing what message you want to convey to them,” Cespedes adds.

Soon, parents will have another tool to do a quick comparison of school options.

Just this year, the state of Wisconsin began releasing data on voucher schools through its annual report card system. It already includes statistics on public schools.

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