Cedar Rapids Community School District steps up marketing efforts

District's effort not about enrollment, superintendent says

Published: December 23 2013 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:12 am in
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Linn County residents will soon get to know the Deutsch family. The quintet — which includes David and Elizabeth and the couple’s three sons Dawson, Barrett and Gibsen — is featured on the final of a series of four postcards the Cedar Rapids Community School District is distributing to local postal customers.

Under the taglines of “Rooted in Tradition” and “Growing in Innovation,” the mailers tout district-deemed “success stories” featuring students enrolled in the Cedar Rapids school system.

“It’s exciting to have the opportunity to tell the story more broadly and not just to our district families,” said Marcia Hughes, community relations supervisor for the district.

School board members and administrators proposed the marketing initiative – modeled from a similar campaign that a Kokomo, Ind. School district used – in part because of the difficulties of getting those positive narratives out through local media, Hughes said.

The cards are all available online. Hughes noted that using direct mail is becoming a less-common way for school districts to reach families.

“We have to remember there are still people who don’t use the Internet,” she added.

The first postcard, which featured Washington High School senior Zachary Weston and Jefferson High School 12th-grader Nate Weger, went out in early November. The district distributed a second, with seniors Aleena Hobbs of Washington and Jimmy Cunningham of Kennedy High School, in early December.

The third and fourth fliers are scheduled to hit mailboxes in the first weeks of January and February.

The campaign is largely in-house: Principals recommended the students, and district staff designed the mailers. Each round reaches 95,000 homes, a number that includes families living within and outside the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s boundaries as well as those sending their students to private schools.

The cost to the district is 17 cents for postage and printing per card, or $64,600 for all four mailings.

Other needs?

That’s money that Cathy Sneller said could be better spent elsewhere. Hughes said that the district has received “very few” phone calls or inquiries about the campaign. Sneller was among them.

“It just seemed like a huge waste of money, of taxpayer money, that they’re promoting the schools,” said the Cedar Rapids resident, whose two children are district alumni. “Taxpayer money is what is supporting the school district, and I just feel like there’s needs that would be better met by spending the money toward the students that they do have.”

Sneller actually filled out a district complaint form related to the mailer in early November. She received what she believed was an incomplete response from the district about the motivations for the campaign.

“It almost seems like they’re trying to recruit for the schools,” said Sneller, who doesn’t think school districts should market themselves. “I wasn’t satisfied with that answer.”

The district’s marketing efforts will soon expand to include web videos, narrated by school board members, highlighting successful Cedar Rapids Community School District alumni.

But neither Benson nor Hughes mentioned anything about attracting additional students in regard to the marketing effort.

“We want to highlight the positive educational opportunities in Cedar Rapids and our great results with our terrific kids,” the superintendent said. “We’re really wanting people to understand the quality educational opportunities afforded by the largest school district in the county.”

Student numbers

However, the enrollment woes of the district, which has the second-largest student population in the state, are well known.

The number of students in Cedar Rapids Community School District classrooms has declined every year since 2008-09, and an Iowa Department of Education report from earlier this calendar year shows that the district posted the state’s largest loss of learners in the last five years.

But enrollment actually rose for the 2013-14 year – by 190 students, though that number has fluctuated – for the district. It now has 16,033 alternative kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

Superintendent Benson said the increase, which was spread evenly throughout the district geographically, was unexpected. Demographer predictions had the rise beginning in 2014-15.

“We had pretty much across-the-board growth in elementary schools, we always have growth at our high-school level because there are students whose families choose to come to our comprehensive high schools who may have been in some sort of other educational setting,” he said.

Because the growth was evenly distributed between buildings, Benson said it did not require additional staff or accommodations.

The superintendent did not provide a definitive cause for the uptick, though he cited flood recovery and development in the city’s core as possible sources.

“I have a conjecture that the growth is based on housing recovery,” Benson said. “... Our housing and apartment growth provides the opportunity for families to move into the district, and I think families are taking advantage of that.”

Though Benson cautioned against calling the increase a trend, saying it will take three years of continued growth to warrant that word, he did say the district student numbers should increase in the future.

The superintendent said that marketing and enrollment should not be tied together, and that district publicity initiatives are more about identity.

“We always look for ways to distinguish ourselves in the educational marketplace, whether that’s by highlighting our programs or by creating new and different programs,” he said.

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