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In the News: Duquesne, Pittsburgh districts go door-to-door to lure students back from charters

Check out this recent article from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about the need from grassroots student recruiting. We are excited it mentions our upcoming partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools!

Duquesne, Pittsburgh districts go door-to-door to lure students back from charters

Author: Elizabeth Behrman

Dressed in matching red T-shirts, a group of educators from the Duquesne City School District on Wednesday split into two teams and packed into vans adorned with the district’s red logo.

Each was armed with a printed list of the addresses of students who live in the district’s two square miles and attend charter schools. The group, which included Superintendent Sue Moyer, raced to beat the summer rain and spent about two hours knocking on a total of 20 doors. If a parent answered, they made the case for the Duquesne district and why that student should return to their neighborhood public school. If no one was home, they left a brochure hanging on the front door. 

“Where there is choice, there’s competition,” said Sarah McCluan, supervisor for communications services at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which handles Duquesne’s communications and marketing. “If parents have choice, it’s up to the school district to market ourselves and inform parents why they should send their child here instead of to a charter school.”

Duquesne, which enrolls just under 400 students in kindergarten through 6th grade, quietly launched its “Bring Your Kids Home” campaign last summer, and recruited 18 students — and about $340,000 in tuition payments — back to the district from charter schools, officials said. The district spent just over $8,000 for the summer recruitment program, including the cost of the postcards and brochures they sent to every family or left at the homes they visited in person.

As part of the campaign, the district created a promotional video touting Duquesne’s offerings for students, like a new coding curriculum, maker spaces and access to a tablet or other technology for every student. Administrators play the video for parents and families they talk to while they are canvassing the district. 

“What we’re finding is a lot of times people don’t know what we have,” Ms. McCluan said.

“We need to tell our story about what we’re doing, because if we don’t then someone else is telling a story that’s not accurate,” Ms. Moyer added.

The Duquesne school district was placed in the state’s financial recovery program in 2013, and still sends its students in seventh through 12th grade to the West Mifflin and East Allegheny school districts. But the district has been making big strides over the past few years, said Ms. Moyer, who was hired in 2018. 

“My proficiency levels aren’t where I’d like them to be,” Ms. Moyer said about Duquesne student scores. “But my [student] growth is through the roof. That means kids are learning.”

And if students aren’t coming to the district, then the district wanted to go them, she said. 

School districts across Pennsylvania pay millions of dollars in “tuition” to charter schools each year and regularly list them among their top financial concerns as they craft their annual budgets. Each district pays a different amount, as the tuition for each student is based on what the district spends per student, an amount that varies from district to district. Duquesne City School District pays about $13,700 in tuition for each regular education student who attends a charter school, and about $32,800 for each special education student.

According to district data, Duquesne spent about $3.4 million on tuition for students who attended charter schools in 2017-18, the most recent year for which numbers are available. That amount increased from $2.8 million in 2014-15. 

Charter schools also advertise themselves, placing ads on radio and on social media, and Duquesne is among a growing number of school districts that are increasing efforts to market themselves in order to compete.

The Erie school district, which also has a state financial recovery plan, recently launched its own “Welcome Home” charter student recruitment program, modeled after the efforts in Duquesne. Separately, Pittsburgh Public Schools just approved a one-year, $60,000 contract with Memphis, Tenn.-based Caissa Public Strategy to launch a campaign to recruit students back to the city schools. 

About 13% of PPS’ roughly $650 million budget for 2019 is earmarked for charter school tuition payments.

“I just believe that sometimes you need to do something different, and this is a way to really be innovative and think outside the box,” said Errika Fearbry Jones, chief of staff to Pittsburgh Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.

Caissa Public Strategy historically has worked on political campaigns, but about five years ago started working with school districts to recruit students back to their traditional public schools, said Adrian Bond, the company’s director of community engagement. Caissa partners with school district marketing teams, members of parent groups and other community stakeholders to target its grassroots recruitment efforts at parents just like a candidate would target voters, Mr. Bond said. 

The campaign Caissa crafts could include going door-to-door, making phone calls, sending information in the mail and more, depending on who the district is trying to reach. Caissa teams work the parents as they fill out forms or start the registration process online.

Mr. Bond said Caissa helped the Shelby County School District in Memphis bring back about 2,400 students in two years by concentrating its efforts on three regions within the district where the most students weren’t attending their neighborhood public school. 

“We decided that this is a very good working model, and some of the same challenges we experienced here, those same challenges are across the country,” he said, adding that Caissa also works with school districts in Arizona, Texas and other states. “This facet is so new, a lot of schools are still trying to wrap their brain round how this works and everything. Traditionally, schools have been used to just being able to open the doors and letting the kids come in. The landscape has changed now, and a big part of that change is a result of charter schools.”

Some Pittsburgh school board members last month questioned the contract with Caissa, asking why the district should pay a company outside the city to do the recruitment work. 

Ms. Fearbry Jones said recruiting even four or five charter students back to PPS — which pays about $18,000 in tuition for each regular education charter student — would mean the contract paid for itself.

“We actually have to go and touch people, so this idea of having everything from the door knocking to event placement and actually showing up where parents are is something that's different,” she said.

After the two teams in Duquesne returned to the district offices after knocking on doors this week, the group determined that it had positive conversations with a half-dozen families or so, including with a mother of twins who need to enroll in kindergarten. 

Another mother, Neica White, promised she would be in the next day to enroll her 8-year-old son who had been attending Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School. She said she liked that the charter school offered multiple language courses, but her son wanted to go back to his neighborhood school. 

“He misses you guys,” she told the group of recruiters. “There’s different things here that they don’t do there.”

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