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As Minnesota kids go back to class, school choice pushes districts to up their marketing strategy

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Gaeli Iverson, principal of Hayes Elementary in Fridley, thinks a lot about the children who aren’t attending her school — at least not yet.

She visits nearby day cares and preschools, drumming up enthusiasm among families who face many options of where to send their child to kindergarten. And she’s quick to snap photos and videos of fun school traditions to share on the district’s social media.

“It used to be you just went to your neighborhood school and you didn’t have choices of where else to go, but that hasn’t been true for a long time,” said Josh Collins, director of communications for Fridley public schools.

Traditional public school enrollment across Minnesota has slipped for three consecutive years as families select other options: Charter schools and private schools saw bumps in enrollment and the number of homeschooled students across the state surged during the pandemic. As the new school year begins Tuesday, school district leaders hope to reverse that trend.

That means they are thinking about how — and to whom — they should intentionally market their schools. State funding is doled out per pupil, so attracting and keeping students is crucial to a district’s bottom line. When each student means about $10,000 for a school, losing even a handful of families can be costly.

Terms like “customers,” “marketing” or “branding” were long seen as dirty words in education and district communication, said Julie Schultz Brown, the Minneapolis Public Schools’ recently retired director of marketing and communications. But that has shifted in recent years, accelerated by the push to boost enrollment and influenced by the ubiquity of social media.

“If we want to preserve a 150-year-old institution like Minneapolis [Public Schools] and of course we do … then we have to think about what our audiences want,” Schultz Brown said.

A fix for falling enrollment?

MPS, which served about 35,000 students in 2016, is down to about 28,000. Amid projections of a continued slide, district staff in Minneapolis schools have redoubled efforts to promote the city’s schools.

District staff have been attending community events and parades and have prioritized targeted marketing efforts. That includes mailed information, billboards and video messages that play at gas station pumps across the city.

“We’re trying to get to families when their baby is born so that at least once a year something goes to them so they know that MPS is one of their options,” Schultz Brown said.

The district is also rolling out a new website by the end of the year.

St. Paul Schools, which saw its enrollment slip by about 1,000 students between fall 2021 and fall 2022, published a kind of catalog to help parents understand the many options for the district’s 33,000 students. Those choices include language immersion and magnet schools as well as International Baccalaureate and Montessori programs.

With so many options, both within and outside the public school district, families can be overwhelmed while trying to look for something specific, said Erica Wacker, the director of communications for St. Paul Public Schools.

This year, St. Paul is launching marketing efforts to help boost enrollment at six schools: Hamline Elementary, Highwood Hills Elementary, Riverview Spanish/English Dual Immersion Elementary, Cherokee Heights Elementary, Dayton’s Bluff Elementary and Txuj Ci Hmong Language and Culture Upper Campus. Each of those schools will get $50,000 to help with marketing. The new East African Magnet School will have a similar marketing budget, Wacker said.

The district also uses billboards, digital and social media ads and recently partnered with Sheletta Brundidge, a local radio host and podcaster, to promote the district’s School Choice Fair.

Still, a survey of St. Paul parents showed that the majority of parents used “friends and family referrals” to research and choose a school.

“Word of mouth is still king,” Wacker said. And marketing efforts “should never take the place of and aren’t effective without a high-quality product behind it.”

Selling success and community

In Minnetonka public schools, enrollment has remained stable in recent years, buoyed by the district’s aggressive open-enrollment strategy to draw students from outside the attendance boundaries. About 40% of the district’s students are open-enrolled.

The district leverages “authentic content” as the “biggest vehicle for getting the word out about our schools,” said JacQui Getty, executive director of communications for Minnetonka schools. That means sharing stories and videos of student successes and communicating often with families, she said.

The high school principal’s Instagram account has more than 5,700 followers in a district that serves about 11,000 students. And last spring, the superintendent began hosting a podcast as a new way to communicate with families.

Though parents in metro areas may have more school choices than those in rural areas, leaders in small districts are also thinking about what message to send the community.

Kerry Juntunen, the superintendent of Proctor public schools in northern Minnesota, has two daughters who work in marketing. Dinner table conversations, Juntunen said, often veer toward some version of, “Dad, what’s the story of Proctor public schools?

His answer: small class sizes across the district of about 1,800 students, the career and technical education offerings through the high school’s pathways program and a commitment to school-community partnership.

“One of the things I noticed about kids and the parents here is that they are very service-minded. They have a strong sense of community and what they need to do for each other,” Juntunen said. “We can market that.”

Though the district is too small to have a dedicated communications team, Proctor schools’ staff get help from #SocialSchool4EDU, a Minnesota-based company that helps more than a dozen school districts in the state train employees to be “social media storytellers to stand out from other schools, celebrate your students and staff, and reach thousands in your community every day,” according to the website.

Scenes from school

For school leaders in Fridley, the return of in-person traditions after pandemic-era distance learning was a chance to rethink marketing efforts.

Fridley schools enrolled about 2,500 students last school year, down from about 2,900 in 2017-2018. About 25% of students living within the district chose to enroll outside it last year.

But attracting students from other places has stemmed the tide somewhat: Over 40% of students attending Fridley schools last year open-enrolled from elsewhere.

“I think one of the ways that we really market our school is by sharing the stories of the beauty within it,” Iverson, the Hayes principal, said.

The key, said Collins, the communications director, is showing parents something authentic, not just overly polished productions.

That might be a photo or a quick video from school.

“Who’s a better storyteller than a child experiencing joy?” he said.





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Traffic disrupted but no injuries reported after BNSF freight train derails near Big Lake, Minn.

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A train derailment near Big Lake is disrupting traffic and slowing the train company’s main line Saturday.

According to the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office, the BNSF train was carrying consumer goods when it derailed around 3:15 a.m. At least 15 rail cars were involved, blocking the crossing at 172nd Street NW. between 197th Avenue and County Rd. 14.

A BNSF representative confirmed the derailment and said crews were working “as quickly and safely as possible” to clear the wreckage.

The cause of the derailment is under investigation. No injuries have been reported, and the Sheriff’s Office said there was no threat to the public. It’s unclear what goods the train carried, or when crews expected to clear the wreckage.

A broken rail track caused a BNSF train derailment in Raymond, Minn., last year, spilling ethanol and corn syrup, which caught fire. Hundreds living nearby were forced to evacuate. Estimates at that time suggested repairing damage to railroad tracks and equipment at $1.9 million. The environmental cleanup was estimated to cost $1.6 million.



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The VA wants your help picking a name for a new clinic for female veterans

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Blueprints for the new Women’s Clinic at the Minneapolis VA have almost everything.

The new clinic space will be airy and accessible, with room for a dizzying array of veteran health services, from lactation consultation to cancer screenings. After years of planning, the groundbreaking is set for September at the Veterans Affairs Health Center.

All the clinic needs now is a name.

The VA is hoping for the public’s help on that one.

If you know a veteran, living or deceased, who served her country and her community, the VA is accepting nominations until Oct. 30.

The naming committee will be looking for veterans who were honorably discharged and who had a connection to the Minneapolis VA or the Midwest region it serves.

Maybe the honor will go to a towering figure from state history. Maybe it will go to a living legend like 101-year-old World War II veteran Marion Peck of Le Sueur, a finalist for the 2024 SilverSneakers Member of the Year award. We’ll find out if she wins on July 22.

“She did squats for me, the first time I met her,” said Dr. Alisa Duran, VA women’s health medical director. “With our aging veterans, you always do sort of a ‘get up and go’ evaluation and look at how they walk and ask about falls. And she’s like, ‘Watch this!’… We see a lot of our veterans out in the community doing really cool things.”

Women are the fastest-growing group within the VA — the number of women veterans has tripled since 2001. The Minneapolis VA Health Care System served more than 7,000 women veterans last year alone. But the clinic space that greeted them was less than they deserved.

The current Women’s Clinic sits in an old ICU deep inside the sprawling Minneapolis campus. Veterans had to thread through a series of corridors, waiting rooms and unrelated departments to reach the clinic.

Beyond an inconvenience, not having direct access to care could be a painful barrier for patients dealing with service-related trauma. One out of every three women veterans reports that they experienced sexual harassment or assault during their time in the military. The new facility will allow them to walk in directly from the parking lot, without facing the crowds inside the larger complex.

A great deal of thought will go into the new facility. The new mammogram suites will allow veterans to control the compression of a procedure that can trigger anxiety. The Women’s Clinic treats women still in their childbearing years, women going through menopause, all the way up to the Greatest Generation, still going strong at 101 like Marion Peck.

“I loved the Navy,” Peck said during a recent VA interview about her SilverSneakers competition. “If they’d take a 101-year-old I’d be on an aircraft carrier tomorrow.”

For veterans who were exposed to toxic environments like burn pits during their service, the clinic is expanding cancer screenings for at-risk groups. The new clinic space will have room for classrooms and support groups to meet. There will be social workers and specialists and counselors on hand to help new mothers — veterans can be at higher risk of postpartum depression — through the first year.

A clinic this good is going to need a good name.

“We wanted this new clinic space to represent our women veterans,” Duran said. “I think one of the best ways to do that is to name it in honor of one of our female veterans.”

The name that goes above the clinic door won’t necessarily be the veteran with the highest rank or highest profile. The committee that chooses the name will include a number of women veterans, and they know the qualities they’re looking for.

The woman whose name goes on the building will be someone whose life is an example of “service beyond their years of military service,” said Emma O’Brien, women veterans program manager. “Of course they’ll want to know about what accolades they had while they were on military duty, but also how they’ve continued to serve their community beyond that.”

Anyone who follows the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s annual snowplow naming contest knows how much Minnesotans enjoy naming things.

Last year, the St. Cloud VA Healthcare system set out to rename a hallway in honor of one of central Minnesota’s women veterans. They received two dozen nominations. The honor went to the late Paynesville native Winnifred “Winnie” Galbraith, who served in the Women’s Army Corps during WWII and went on to long years of service with American Legion posts in Little Falls and Waite Park.

The first nomination came in hours after the VA put out the call.

“This went out yesterday and I received one yesterday afternoon. They were ready,” O’Brien said. “I’m not surprised. I’ve had several people, male and female veterans, tell me, ‘You should name the new clinic after so-and-so.’ Everyone has someone they think it should be named after.”

Construction is expected to begin in September and the new clinic should open in 2026. If you know a good name for the new clinic, you can download the nomination form at va.gov/minneapolis-health-care/health-services/women-veteran-care.

If Marion Peck’s name doesn’t end up on the building, maybe we can get a statue of her out front, in silver sneakers.



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SWAT standoff in Edina ends peacefully

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A four-hour standoff Saturday morning between a suspect and a SWAT team in a residential area in Edina ended peacefully, authorities said.

According to a news release from the Edina Police Department, officers were sent to a disturbance on the 5100 block of Schaefer Road at about 8 a.m. After learning the suspect could be armed and dangerous, they shut down the area and called in the SWAT team and negotiators “out of abundance of caution.”

After negotiations with Edina police, the subject peacefully surrendered at 12:30 p.m. Several agencies assisted in the incident, which remains under investigation.



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