Schools need students. That sounds trite, but until a very few years ago, this was not a concern for the vast majority of public schools. By far, the majority of students attended the public school closest to their home. That has now changed, and changed substantially for many American families who have a large and increasing array of choices, including magnet, choice, charter, independent, faith-based, online, hybrid, and home school options. The bottom line is that if school leaders, which includes teacher, administrators, and parents, don’t create and justify a strong value proposition, families will go elsewhere, and this is no longer the problem of just those schools that charge tuition. If you think the logic does not apply to you and your school, private or public, you are wrong.
This week I visited Rios Elementary School in the Cajon Valley District of east San Diego County, an area that, forty years ago was called “the back country” of sage-covered granite hills and valleys. Like much of America land values closer to downtown San Diego soared; brighter, newer neighborhoods for the middle and upper middle class who were willing to put up with long commutes sprung up, and along with them newer schools. Now the area has pockets of wealthier and pockets of poorer families. District-wide school choice followed, and families living near Rios voted with their cars and feet to send their kids to the newer, brighter schools. Enrollment at Rios dropped.
So Rios re-branded itself as a computer science magnet school. This post is not about the learning outcomes of the wonderful coding program that is engaging students and parents at Rios; it is about the need to engage those families in something that they value. Superintendent David Miyashiro and principal Maria Kehoe retained marketing consultant Howard Shen to work with the school to help build up enrollment. Simply, says Howard, “We have a great product here but people don’t know about it.”
I attended a day celebrating student successes in programming and making, proud parents and grandparents learning what has excited their kids all year.Maria had posters about the day printed and hung in small shops and restaurants around the neighborhood. Prospective families had a chance to see how the school differs from other options they have. Unlike just a decade ago, schools, like all other consumer-driven organizations, have just a few variables upon which to build value and market share: cost, quality, market segment, and differentiated brand. Public schools can’t compete on cost, so they have to focus on the other three. Rios has chosen differentiated brand, and Maria understands that one of the new roles of a successful principal is as “brand champion.”
I happen to think the new approach to student learning that is taking root at Rios is a wonderful upgrade from a traditional, undifferentiated learning model, but what I think is not important. Rios, like so many other schools will survive and thrive based on what their consumers think, feel, and believe. Some schools will do well in this environment; others will not. Evolution is not always friendly, but it is inevitable.