More schools = more marketing, competition

TRAVERSE CITY – Schools have been competing for years in the athletic arena and even in academics, from test scores to debate competitions. Now K-12 schools are finding competition in simply appealing to students.

In recent years even the traditional public schools have created extensive marketing campaigns, something that was unheard of 20 years ago. In the Traverse region, school administrators see this competitive environment beneficial for the constituents they serve: the students.

James Feil, now in his third year as superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), views it less as a competition and instead as a positive that is benefiting not only the students of the area but the region's economic development.

"I am a strong supporter of having choices; it is healthy for everyone involved," said Feil. "I don't see what we have here in this community as competitive…rather I see it as collaborative. As educators we want everyone to succeed in their mission of educating our youth. We (TCAPS) have several partnerships with these other choices. While we want to be the school of choice, we also know that for a variety of reasons parents and students may go elsewhere, and regardless of where they attend we want them to succeed. It is important for our community."

Nathan Tarsa, director of the Woodland School (formerly Traverse Bay Community School, the first charter school in the region started in 1996) agrees with Feil.

"It is very healthy for the region on several counts. We are very fortunate to have several excellent educational opportunities here. By having so many choices, every educational option has to raise its level," said Tarsa. "Parents should take the same approach they would with college at the K – 12 level as well. Check out the options and make a decision based on what is best for their child."

As for the competition, for students for years the choices were between TCAPS, the Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, Pathfinder and, to a certain extent, Interlochen Arts Academy. Over the past 25 years Montessori, additional Christian schools, home schooling and now charter schools have all come into play. But Feil doesn't see all those choices as the challenge, instead he sees the economy and the inequity in school funding as the "real competition."

"Last year we lost 255 students in the district to families who moved outside of Michigan for reasons that can be directly attributed to the state's challenged economy," said Feil. "I was at a school district downstate that had 1,000 less students than TCAPS, yet had $45 million dollars more than we do in their annual budget. These are the real competitors."

But Feil sees at least one of those competitors being met head on by the community.

"We have a very close relationship with the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and are a part of their collaborative effort for economic development in the region. They use the fact that we have strong schools, award- winning schools as part of their campaign to attract business to the area," said Feil. "We also work closely with the hospital. They use our strong schools in their recruitment of doctors and other medical practitioners. I see so much positive on this front."

Area schools in recent years have taken aggressive approaches in developing marketing and public relations campaigns.

"Our best approach has been word of mouth," said Tarsa. "We have used display ads, but ultimately, word of mouth has been best for us."

TCAPS has used several approaches, from display ads to having an information tent at events around the area.

"We set up at every Friday Night Live in Downtown Traverse City," said Feil. "We place display ads, have listening sessions. We feel it is important to stay visible in the community."

Staying visible in the community through advertising and marketing campaigns goes beyond student recruitment it is about educating the residents as well.

"Sure every school wants to market their wares," said Tarsa. "We each share the common goal and we each have our way of accomplishing that. Not every school is for every student. So it is important that we convey our approaches."

Feil also feels that it is important to let all residents and taxpayers know about the importance of the schools regardless of whether they have children in the system.

"In the Traverse region we are the second largest employer with around 2,000 working at TCAPS," said Feil. "Plus we have a $100 million impact annually on the local economy so our presence here is important to every resident. We know we need to do a better job in conveying all aspects of what we are and what we mean to the community."

Part of TCAPS' challenge is the negative publicity it receives over school closings and budgetary challenges.

"Certainly this does create a negative, but as family sizes dwindle and the fact that we receive in some cases $5,000 less per pupil than many school districts of our same size, we have met these challenges head on," said Feil. "First of all, we have been given one of the highest honors in the state for our fiscal management. Certainly, with dwindling enrollment that means closing some schools and as a district with 10,000 students we must look at the district as a whole in the decision-making process. I understand the frustration of parents because we have asked them to get involved in their schools, to take pride in their individual schools and then economics forces us to close their school. So, ultimately, we have to do a better job of marketing the district as a whole."

These challenges faced by TCAPS are not marketing fodder for the region's other educational options.

"Having choices isn't about who is better, it is about offering what is better for the students," said Tarsa. "We try to market differences such as small class sizes, multi-age classrooms, and we have elective classes at all levels. We also market our environment, being that we are on 250 acres in the middle of the woods with a lake. Also we market that we are a public school with no tuition."

Feil said that TCAPS uses its size in its marketing.

"There are advantages to being a big school. We actually have the ability to respond quickly to changes because of our size, because we have more resources than smaller schools to accomplish change," said Feil. "I have been in education for 36 years and I see a lot of potential here in Traverse City that doesn't exist elsewhere in the state. One great example of this is the quality of the educators we do have. Despite higher-paying positions downstate, we get more than 1,000 applicants every time we post a position. That says something about TCAPS and it says something about this community."

As area school systems continue to ramp up their marketing efforts, Feil believes it just means a win-win environment for everyone.

"I see more collaboration in the future between the offerings as budgets tighten," said Feil. "Ultimately this is a good thing for our community, economic development in the region and, most importantly, to the students and families we serve. Our competitor is failure and failure is not an option for us." BN