Fifth-grade boys at Overton Elementary ooh-ed and ahh-ed when Principal Sterlin McGruder pulled out a sleek laptop and promised them each one if they attend the soon-to-open Young Men’s Leadership Academy at Garcia Middle School.
Virtually all the students at Overton come from low-income families, and some have no home computer, so the idea of being issued a personal electronic device has its draw.
Overton was the last of nine elementary campuses where McGruder and Ivette Savina, principal of the Young Women’s Leadership Academy at Pearce Middle School, made their pitches to prospective students.
As the Austin school district launches the all-boys and all-girls public middle schools next year, it is pumping nearly $900,000 into marketing, start-up and planning costs. The effort entails not only selling children and their families on single-sex education. It also means getting them to take another look at two campuses that have been given up on by hundreds of families because of low test scores and bad marks from the state.
Of the 1,300 students currently in the neighborhoods zoned for Pearce and Garcia, only 450 students attend each. That means 400 students transfer to other district schools or choose charter schools.
Tracee Needom, mother of one of the Overton fifth-grade boys, said she believes the new schools will be an opportunity for the largely minority neighborhoods, but she wasn’t sure whether a new computer would be enough to persuade her son to attend.
“I think he won them with the notebooks,” Needom said. “And the athletics and the robotics. Something to open their minds up.”
McGruder, who launched an all-boys public school in the Grand Prairie district, promoted the Young Men’s Leadership Academy as a brotherhood with a fraternity-like “house” system that can earn points for success in academics, athletics and behavior. He also dangled a suit and tie – the mandatory dress code – and told students the importance of dressing well.
The target is for the two new schools to open with 600 students apiece. But the schools’ leaders hope their marketing campaigns and college-preparatory programs draw more in.
“We’re trying to capture them all,” Savina said.
The district already has hired a marketing manager to work on the school websites, launch social media accounts and create brochures and logos, as well as one of the four to five recruiters it hopes to get onboard, all part-time.
The principals, district staff and recruiters will do door-knocking and phone-banking.
Such marketing practices are becoming more common as districts try to win back students they’ve lost to suburban schools, charters and private schools.
“Like a business, you’re rolling out a new product or service in a competitive market so it makes a lot of sense for them to have a marketing campaign surrounding these two schools,” said Henry Duvall, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Great City Schools, which represents 67 urban districts across the country. “It’s a competitive environment, more now than even a few years ago. They can’t sit there anymore and say, ‘Here we are.’ They have to say, ‘Here’s what we have.’”
The Austin school district this year lost nearly 1,200 students, its first enrollment decline in more than a decade. At about $7,400 apiece, that means a loss in state funding of up to $8.6 million.
Trustee Ann Teich said marketing efforts could boost enrollment at other underenrolled schools like Eastside Memorial High School, which has been plagued by negative impressions despite some stellar programs, such as its robotics team.
“It’s critical that we market,” she said. “It needs to be very coordinated and intentional, and we need to use as many avenues as the charters are doing, because we’re losing our students. It’s something that needs to be done for the entire district. It bothers me that we’re doing it for a few and not for all.”
Trustee Amber Elenz agreed: “I do feel like the board has given a lot of signals that we expect this kind of work.”
The Austin district sent out letters this month to parents of all middle school students, inviting them to choose the single-sex schools. Responses are due March 7.
When the idea of single-sex schools was first proposed by district leaders, public meetings drew negative feedback and a 2012 survey of the middle school students found that 81 percent weren’t interested in attending.
But the principals of the two new schools have been meeting with students and the community at least twice a week for months. While some concerns about the single-sex campus plans have dissipated, the principals acknowledged they will need to make a more concerted effort to win over the sixth- and seventh-grade students who already have been attending the traditional co-ed campuses. At those schools, the principals will meet with students in smaller breakout groups.
But so far, the campaign appears to be taking hold.
Fifth-grader Zayan Culberson ran up to his parents after the presentation at Overton. “I think it’s a really good choice for me,” he said. “It seems like a good school to go to because of the academics and extracurriculars.”
His father, Jason Culberson, was skeptical at first, but he now believes his son will benefit from an all-boys school.
“It’s a good opportunity, especially for this community,” Culberson said. “I like how they connected to the boys and have different things to make them excited about learning.”