In February, faced with troubling open enrollment losses, multiple members of the Cedar Rapids school board questioned whether the district could do a better job of telling its story and shaping its public image.
It wasn’t clear what they had in mind. But one effort showed up in my Marion mailbox.
Cedar Rapids is sending a series of full-color postcard mailers to all 95,000 Linn County households touting “Success Stories” of its students. The first mailer went out in November. The second arrived at my house Tuesday, telling the story of accomplished Washington High School senior Aleena Hobbs. Two more are planned.
“This is an opportunity for us to tell the good news and positives of the area’s largest school district and is also a way for us to highlight student successes broadly,” said Marcia Hughes, the district’s communications relations supervisor in an email. She said the initiative came from a committee of administrators and board members. The students were selected by principals.
Hughes said, with postage and printing, each postcard costs 17 cents. That’s about $16,150 per monthly mailing.
Not an insignificant sum in the cash-strapped public education game. But then there’s the
$3.6 million the district’s budget report says Cedar Rapids will lose this year in per-pupil funding because of a growing open enrollment gap. According to enrollment numbers compiled to figure the district’s share of state funding, 988 students are using open enrollment to leave the district, compared to 389 coming in.
That’s a 599-student gap, and it’s been growing steadily in recent years. In 2005, the gap was just 137, rising to 430 in 2012. And while Cedar Rapids’ gap grows, the gap at neighboring Linn-Mar is shrinking. Many factors are at play, including the strong draw of Marion’s home-school assistance program. The mailings’ reach outside Cedar Rapids suggests that the district is starting to make a pitch to reverse the trend.
Will the mailings matter? I wouldn’t get your hopes up. But state aid is $6,121 per-pupil, so even if the sales pitch has a modest effect, it could exceed the investment.
What’s more important is that the district is taking its image issue more seriously. I've criticized the board plenty over the last couple of years, but I see this as, at least, a hopeful sign. It wasn’t long ago that district officials insisted this open enrollment gap was a nothing-to-see-here problem.And although postcards are swell, what will really turn heads, in the long run, is a strong push for educational innovation and transformation.