Where should my child attend school? What are my choices?" These are familiar questions for parents and students as they search for a quality pre-K to 12 education experience. Education can be obtained through a variety of options: public, private, specialized, charter, home school, voucher and online education formats.
Within the framework of these choices, the trend is toward "special branding, " focusing to attract parents and students into a unique experience. Over the past decade, public school districts have created specialty schools to address student needs, entice students to remain in a district school, help students to graduate, and address accountability concerns from outside forces.
This trend toward choice and competitiveness in pre-K to 12 education has led to facilities planning and design efforts that instill quality, uniqueness and excellence in schools. Ultimately, the result can lead to great opportunities for students, and if student enrollment continues to increase, a multitude of options may be easily sustainable.
Enrollment and Demographics
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, school-age national enrollment will continue to rise. But that doesn’t apply to every region of the nation. The Center for Public Education reports enrollments from 2000 to 2008 increased in 13 states and decreased in 37 states (with significant decreases in 16 states). School-age population is becoming more diverse; these dynamics can cause repositioning and student movement.
Public-education state aid has decreased; many school districts are scrambling to close funding gaps. To remain financially viable, places of education are recreating and rebranding themselves to increase visibility, differentiation, uniqueness and flexibility, setting themselves apart from the competition to attract students.
Public Challenges and Opportunities
To add to the variable, public charter schools have been established that offer curriculum models that may be different from school district offerings. Charter schools have themes that cover a wide range: classical education, performing arts, entrepreneurship, language immersion, cyber technology education and others.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter school enrollment has grown by more than 600 percent since 1999, with the largest increases in urban areas. Having a student in a traditional public school switch to a charter school may cause a school district to lose the funding attached to that student and drain the district of the resources need to maintain high-quality programs.
Open enrollment across school district boundaries, which is allowed in some areas, increases competition among school districts for students. Many school districts relax their boundaries to encourage students to come to their schools in an effort to increase district revenue. From research conducted by the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, the relationship between competitiveness and educational performance suggests that a district’s reputation for achievement plays a major role in recruiting students to a district. A suburban school district west of Minneapolis advertises in national magazines for students, and open-enrolled students make up 17 percent of its enrollment.
Some school districts also are lifting internal attendance boundaries to give students the flexibility to attend the school they prefer within a district. Theme-based schools and programs focusing on international baccalaureate, STEM, STEAM (arts inclusion), advanced placement, fine arts, performing arts and individualized student plan options may be offered by public schools to give more choices and entice students to attend or stay in a district.
For example, the Anoka-Hennepin Public School District, north of Minneapolis, has five special focus schools in addition to its traditional K-5 education format: Academy for Math and Environmental Science; World Cultures Community School; School for the Arts; School of Mathematics, Science and Children’s Engineering; and the Aerospace, Children’s Engineering and Science School.
Private education is going through extensive rebranding as well. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s "The Condition of Education Report 2012," from 2002 to 2010, private school enrollment declined by nearly 13 percent nationally. The 2008 recession placed financial constraints on families, and charter-school education has cut into the private-education market share.
Private schools emphasize their education model as unique, advertising extensively to capture their market. Characteristic private school models emphasize a college-preparatory concentration, post-secondary focus, faith-based theme, cultural specialty, language/international immersion, or a blend of themes to expand their draw of families. For example, Maranatha Christian Academy, a pre-K to 12 school near Minneapolis, has rebranded itself as "an academically rigorous college-preparatory school that offers a distinctly Christian environment built on a strong foundation of faith and Christian values."
Education at home
Homeschooling and online education are growing substantially. The National Home Education Research Institute estimates homeschoolers in 2011 at more than 1.6 million compared with 850,000 in 1999. Researchers expect a new generation of homeschoolers to continue to boost enrollments.
Online education, threaded into public, charter, private and homeschool models, increased from 45,000 students in 1999 to more than 1.8 million for the 2009-10 school year, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Full-time online schools have increased by 25 percent from 2010 to 2011. Charter schools with online themes have tripled their enrollment over 10 years to 150,000 students in 2011, and public school districts are expected to increase their online learning opportunities.
The Kahn Academy, which started with a family member using YouTube to help his cousin with math, now is a worldwide online resource for students and schools to "flip" education into at-home learning and at-school homework exercises with teacher-student assistance. Students watching videos (at their own pace, "rewind" included) at home, permit teachers more time with each student in class at school.
As pre-K to 12 education choices grow, so do school marketing campaigns. Private schools have been advertising for years. Public school districts are new to the scene. Press releases, radio time, ads on buses, billboards, promotional YouTube videos, mailings, movie-trailer ads, phone calling, Twitter feeds, direct-mail DVDs, Google search strategies and website/blog promotions are all communication tools that may be used to attract students.
An Arizona school district, determined to stop the loss of students to charter schools, developed a specialty-school concept. Through phone surveys and focus groups, parents selected a "School of the Future" theme with technology integrated throughout. After developing the new brand, the district sent marketing blasts via its website, banner ads, e-mail blasts, a direct-mail letter from the principal, local newspaper and magazine ads, local media coverage, news releases and mockup classroom demonstrations, as well as open houses. The result was a 26 percent enrollment increase, with 80 percent of the increase from out-of-district students. The "student funding gain" to "marketing expenditure" ratio was 5 to 1 to the positive.
On a larger scale, Indiana recently enacted the nation’s largest school voucher system. As a result, Indiana’s public schools are buying billboard space and ads at bus-stop benches, sending principals door-to-door, and airing radio ads to prevent families from fleeing to other alternatives.
Public schools are into new territory, marketing their services over other education options, and "striving to thrive" through competition.
Sidebar: Facilities Affect Enrollment
More education choices and an increased push to attract students have created a trend toward rebranding that is affecting school facilities design. Schools are promoting facilities as a catalyst for persuading students to enroll.
Some examples: •Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Public School District #191, in a suburban area south of Minneapolis, is carrying out major upgrades and rebranding of its facilities, especially Burnsville Senior High School. The renovations include science labs with 21st-century instrumentation, mechanical systems for improved indoor air quality, and improved administrative/student-services areas. Virtual high-tech learning resource centers provide students with access to technology throughout the school.
•Eagle Ridge Academy, a charter school west of Minneapolis, is developing a long-range facilities plan to address growth with facilities that support the traditional, classical education and liberal-arts curriculum brand that has attracted students to the school. The planning approach includes parents and students in focus groups and input/feedback sessions as the master plan is developed.
•Austin Public Schools in Minnesota is constructing a new intermediate STEAM school for grades 5 and 6 that integrates science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum. Design features including STEAM labs, project teaming areas, wireless technology, smart partitions, “garage doors” for easy transformation to group learning, and educational graphics on walls and floors. Technology help desks are designed to attract students from within the district and neighboring districts.
Erickson, AIA, NCARB, REFP, is president of ATS&R Planners/Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis, specializing in pre-K to 12 and post-secondary school planning and design. He can be reached at [email protected].