With state funding tied to enrollment, North Shore public schools turn to marketing to draw more students

INTERACTIVE: Use the data graphic above to examine enrollment trends across the North Shore.

Aug. 27, 2014

Mequon — Faced with an 11 percent drop in enrollment over an eight-year period, Mequon-Thiensville School District officials knew something had to change.

The school district has cut programming to reduce costs, increased its communications budget and asked village officials to allow more dense, family-friendly housing on the west side of the city. In an effort to increase enrollment, MTSD Communications Director Melissa McCrady has seen her position go from part-time to full-time, with the goal of increasing enrollment.

McCrady said marketing has played more of a role in school districts over the last 10 years, as public schools faced competition from private schools and other public school districts.

"If there is any time to market MTSD, it is now," she said, referring to the district's standing as the top school district in the state, as determined by the Department of Public Instruction. "We want families to understand the difference between a good school district and a great school district."

For school districts with aging populations, the loss of resident enrollment means less state funding — which makes for tough decisions during school budget season. Enrollment also affects a district's revenue limit, which limits the amount of taxes a school district can levy.

Most recruiting efforts are focused on getting families with young children to move into the district boundaries. Open enrollment is good for filling capacity, but the math stops adding up once a district has to start adding sections and hiring teachers.

Schools sell themselves

While Mequon-Thiensville faces the biggest enrollment crisis in the North Shore, other school districts also market themselves to ensure enrollment doesn't drop into the red.

At Nicolet High School District, Superintendent Robert Kobylski said marketing has played an increased role over the last 10 years — not so much to recruit students from other school districts, but more to keep students who live within the district boundaries from choosing a private school.

"It's become part of the conversation whereas 10 years ago it wasn't even in consideration as part of our strategic planning or our managmenet modeling," he said. "Given the multitude of options for school choice, we have to sell ourselves. We don't want to be in a situation where all of a sudden we were outmarketed by another school, when I know in my heart we're a better school. Our goal from a marketing perspective is to be open and honest and allow parents to make an informed decision. We don't want to lose people simply because we didn't try."

“It’s not just fundraising, but it’s also marketing and telling the story of the school district.”

Shorewood Superintendent Martin Lexmond

Shorewood School District felt the pinch of reduced enrollment and state funding in the lead-up to 2010, when district officials floated the idea of closing Shorewood Intermediate School and converting Lake Bluff Elementary School into a middle school. Enrollment has since spiked at Lake Bluff to the point where an additional section was added to first grade last year, and an additional section was added to second grade this year.


With 20 new resident students this year — including 10 at Lake Bluff — the district is now contracting a study of enrollment growth projections to better predict the district's future needs. As a result of increased enrollment, Shorewood has added two teachers at Lake Bluff, a kindergarten teacher at Atwater Elementary School, a full-time technical director and a full-time high school drama director.

Superintendent Martin Lexmond attributes part of that enrollment growth to the villagewide marketing program — a joint effort between the school district, village and business district. One of the goals of the program, as well as the Welcome New Neighbors program — has been to bring more young families into the community and the school district.

"There is really a concerted, collaborative effort to market the story of Shorewood, which includes quality schools, commitment to the arts and maintaining facilities," he said.

Getting the word out

Like Mequon-Thiensville, other districts have turned to communications professionals for help in publicizing their selling points.

Shorewood employs a full-time communications coorindator, which has increased the district's involvement in the village marketing program, social media and district blog posts. Shorewood also recently hired full-time advancement officer Ted Knight, whose main duty is fundraising. By having an external source of funds available, Lexmond said Shorewood will be able to maintain and expand programming, which in turn will make the district an attractive option for parents.

"It's not just fundraising, but it's also marketing and telling the story of the school district," Lexmond said of Knight's position.

Nicolet has hired a communications consultant to help the district develop a communications plan, which includes a quarterly newsletter, video messages from the principal, an annual state of the district address and a smart-phone app for district parents. Nicolet also has an added challenge of forming relationships with families in its three partner schools in an effort to ensure those students attend Nicolet in their high school years. Nicolet also projects its message into the outside community by sharing their message with local business organizations and realtors.

At Mequon-Thiensville, McCrady markets the school district through informational booklets, marketing videos, social media outreach, periodic newsletters and organizing a luncheon with local realtors. The district is also surveying newly enrolled families to better understand their reasons for enrolling in the school district.

Unlike some other school districts, Whitefish Bay does not put any resources toward marketing initiatives, student recruitment or communications specialists. And yet, the district's enrollment has steadily increased over the last seven years. Superintendent Laura Myrah said the state funding from increased enrollment has allowed the district to put more resources toward lower class sizes and programming — which in turn draws more enrollment. Families may also be drawn to Whitefish Bay's tradition of high test scores, with composite ACT scores hovering above 25 over the last 16 years.

"We do put significant time and resources into hiring, retaining, and continuously training our top-notch educators," Myrah said. "Certainly, excellent communications and public relations with our families and community are high priorities, but we see those as the job of every single employee, not just one person that holds a particular job title."

Another strong factor in the hunt for a home or a school district is a school's sports program.

Sports marketing

For football players, Nicolet's losing record and inability to field a varsity team this year may be cause for open enrollment or a change in community. Nicolet does have other strong athletic programs in tennis and volleyball, and hopes to grow its athletic appeal with the renovation of its athletic facilities. Private donations would fund a 13-court tennis complex, an expanded synthetic turf football field and a 14-acre athletic complex featuring three synthetic turf fields.

Synthetic turf is a trend sweeping across the North Shore, starting with the renovation of Whitefish Bay's football field in 2007, Shorewood's football field in 2008, and most recently, the artificial turf makeover at Whitefish Bay's baseball field. But Kobylski says Nicolet's turf plans have less to do with an athletic facility arms race and more to do with a much-needed restoration of aging and damaged facilities.

"We certainly don't want to lag behind other schools because then we might start to have an issue," he said. "We're not there yet, but we want to fix it before that ever happens."

In Shorewood, Lexmond said the improvement of the high school's sports facilities played a role in the development of athletic programs and enrollment in general.

In Brown Deer, the district's recently-renovated schools and field house may also be a draw for prospective families. To match its new facilities, Superintendent Deb Kerr said the district has also changed its logo, and works with the village to co-publish "Our Brown Deer" magazine, which comes out three times per year.

"When parents are looking at communities and school districts, they look at your website, they look at school performance and they look at your facilities," Kerr said. "We also work with realtors to give them information to sell Brown Deer."

This data was gathered from the Wisconsin Information System for Education Data Dashboard. The Brown Deer School District reports its actual enrollment decline is closer to 66 students — or 4 percent — since 2007, according to different data available on the Department of Public Instruction website.


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