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Seattle's School Program Sets Off Marketing Frenzy

Education: Under unique open-choice system, money follows students and officials compete for enrollment.

April 09, 1998|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — Elsa Holm is a shopper, but navigating the mall is nothing compared to sorting through the intimidating array of education choices laid out before her, the schools vying for her attention. With her son Julian entering high school next year, Holm feels a little like a Christmas shopper in the middle of a Tickle Me Elmo frenzy. Will Julian win a place in one of the city's best schools? What if he has to settle for one closer to home, where the curriculum is scarcely more advanced than what he already has studied?

A landmark financing structure in which money follows individual students to the campuses they attend has touched off a marketing frenzy as Seattle public schools compete for enrollment.

"It's been totally anxiety producing," said Holm, who won't be able to close a deal on a school until May. "I like having a choice. But we don't know how it's going to turn out. We're kind of sticking our necks out in making a request, without knowing what the odds are."

Few other places in the country have gone as far as Seattle in transforming its schools into independent economic enterprises, succeeding or failing in part on the number of parents who elect to enroll their children.

The city's most desirable schools are turning applicants away. Some of the rest are struggling to attract enough students to keep the doors open. All of them are seeking to carve themselves a market niche, a way of standing out in a competition that could see less successful schools forced to close.

"We've created a free market. We've put total choice into the system: A parent in this city can send their child to any school in this city," school board member Don Nielsen said. "So now, the onus is on the principal and the staff to create an educational environment that's attractive to parents in their neighborhood, or risk going out of business."

With its 20-year-old desegregation program ending this year, Seattle has thrown open the doors to schools all over the city. Students living in the neighborhood have first choice on open spots, followed by students who have a sibling at the school, those who live in the general area and students whose race would promote desegregation goals at the school.

Schools Launch Marketing Drives

Although many school districts have moved toward more open enrollment plans, Seattle is the first major urban district to adopt a formula that links each school's budget directly to how many, and what kind, of students it attracts.

Over the last three months, as parents made their annual selections, schools mounted active marketing campaigns--touting their programs and pulling the community in for a look.

Most schools scheduled parent tours and enrollment fairs; Coho Elementary took out recruiting ads in a monthly tabloid on parenting. Chief Sealth High, which is boosting its performance art programs as a way of attracting enrollment, scheduled its choir for performances at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel.

A recruitment committee at John Hay Elementary, a school in Seattle's tony Queen Anne neighborhood, put together a brochure. "Why choose John Hay for kindergarten?" it asks, before boasting about low class sizes, a $250,000 technology grant and fourth-grade test scores 19% above the district average.

Rainier View Elementary, whose slipping enrollment threatens it with closure if it can't attract more students, decided to offer two full-day kindergartens this year, a powerful lure for working parents.

In a brochure, the school emphasizes its enhanced reading and math programs for young pupils, its hands-on science program and technology lab.

Others promote special programs for bilingual students, low-test-scoring students and the developmentally disabled: all considered more costly to educate, thus earning the schools that enroll them a financial premium.

Many campuses nationwide have moved away from the old model of the neighborhood school by offering students a broader array of options. Eighteen states even allow students to choose schools outside their own districts.

But Seattle is among the first to follow that up with a budget formula that ties money directly to the students, favors those with the greatest needs and leaves principals free to decide how to spend it.

Los Angeles has moved increasingly toward decentralized schools. But funding still is based largely on standard staffing formulas. David Koch, business manager for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said a move toward competitive enrollment "is a very interesting idea" but might be difficult to implement in Los Angeles because of overcrowding.

"You can't just opt to go to a school that you might select, because it's already on a year-round calendar," he said.

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