About 5,000 fliers were mailed in Mesa, 4,500 DVDs distributed in Tempe and dozens of open houses were organized across the East Valley during the last few months — all in an effort to let families know it’s time to choose a kindergarten.
And that’s just the beginning of the marketing efforts of East Valley schools vying for the attention of parents facing more choices than ever on where to have their children begin school.
“Arizona really is one of the most, if not the most, competitive states when it comes to education,” Tempe Elementary School District spokesman Gary Aungst said. “There’s one side of the argument that says that will make us stronger. The other side of the argument says, ‘Is that what education is really all about?’”
Schools in Arizona receive an average of $4,700 per elementary student enrolled, so the stakes are high.
It’s a common idea among people in the education business that if you can enroll kindergarten students, and they have a positive experience in the district, they will likely stay in it.
“Parents aren’t just looking at kindergarten when they’re sending their child to school,” said Scottsdale kindergarten and first-grade teacher Kelly Strayer. “They’re looking at what the school is and the opportunities their child will have as they grow up in the school.”
Scottsdale schools are planning to spend $9,500 on banners, advertisements and brochures this year to attract kindergarten students. That’s about $5,000 less than last year, but the district is cutting back and encouraging other methods of promotion as budgets get tighter.
These methods include keeping school Web sites active and distributing community newsletters.
STILL IN ‘LIMBO LAND’
Arizona is an open-enrollment state, meaning parents can send their students to any charter or district school they want that has room for them. This means schools that have open seats are always looking for opportunities to fill them.
Angie Obert of Mesa said she’s still in “limbo land” about where to send her son, Patrick, for kindergarten next year.
She’s leaning toward the charter school where he now attends preschool, but in the meantime she’s received a handful of fliers about her other options, including Montessori programs in the Mesa Unified School District.
“I just want to do what’s right for Patrick,” she said. “I look at everything that comes in the mail, but some only get a glance before ending up in the recycling.”
Mesa district spokeswoman Kathy Bareiss said getting information to parents about the choices available within the district is the focus of its informational marketing campaigns this year. The district’s mass mailings and advertising are a large part of its marketing efforts to attract new students from outside the district and capture students from within its own boundaries.
How aggressive a district is when it comes to recruiting new students has to do with its current enrollment — whether it is growing, remaining flat or declining.
In Tempe, where enrollment is declining and not likely to pick up for several years, recruiting new students is important, Aungst said. Much of that is accomplished through marketing.
Tempe started the school year with $47,000 set aside for advertising, $23,000 of that marked for kindergarten campaigns.
Aungst said he has to think about ways to maximize allocated advertising dollars because he’s competing with everyone else trying to market to school-aged children.
He said districts seek charter, private and home-schooled children within their boundaries, as well as children in other school districts.
That means going door-to-door distributing fliers is not a good choice, but mailing 4,500 DVDs to parents with children about to enter kindergarten explaining the attributes of Tempe’s programs makes sense, he said.
Aungst has run more than a dozen marketing campaigns in Tempe and said only one of them has not been profitable. He knows this because Tempe puts money and time into making sure it’s seeing a return on investment based on the number of students enrolled.
While Tempe has seen an enrollment drop in recent years, it has seen increased out-of-district enrollment during the last eight years.
BLESSED BY GROWTH
In districts such as Chandler and Gilbert, recruitment is a different story.
“We’re a growing district,” Chandler Unified spokesman Terry Locke said. “We don’t need to go outside of our own district to find kids.”
Locke said the marketing department in Chandler has $20,000 to spend on advertising, but that is not all used for kindergarten programs.
Chandler does spend money on messages letting families know that the start of school is just around the corner. These messages appear at movie theaters and in local publications, including back-to-school newspaper sections.
Gilbert Unified assistant superintendent Barbara VeNard said Gilbert schools send out reminders about registration in coupon mailers to all Gilbert residents, but the district doesn’t spend any money, specifically, on kindergarten recruitment because their classrooms are full.
That’s why parents in those school districts are more likely to seek out information than to have it sent to them.
Debe Moreno of Chandler has four children, three who are in school and one who just started preschool this year.
The Morenos live in the southeast part of Chandler, and she said the boundaries for whom should attend what school sometimes change as the community grows. So she wasn’t sure where her children were supposed to go when it was time to register.
“We had to completely seek out our own information,” she said. “Nothing was automatically presented to us or sent to us.”
BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES
Many school districts rely on word of mouth to keep parents informed, said Nancy Dudenhoefer, a spokeswoman for the Kyrene Elementary School District, which serves parts of Chandler, Tempe and Ahwatukee Foothills.
She said Kyrene will spend about $38,000 this year on marketing — all of it generated by the success of its community education programs — but not all of that is directed specifically at kindergarten advertising.
Like several East Valley school districts, Kyrene experienced a drop in enrollment since 2000. But the district has grown its out-of-district enrollment, reaching 3,200 students this year — nearly 20 percent of its total students.
Of those, 833 come from the city of Maricopa, where Dudenhoefer said the district works hard to develop a reputation of being a good choice.
She said the district advertises in the media and uses announcements on school marquees and in school newsletters. But she said the district is also exploring parenting blogs as a way to get the word out.
Kindergarten roundups are also a staple of recruiting efforts in Kyrene and other districts.
In the Scottsdale Unified School District, each of its 20 elementary schools has at least one roundup scheduled before May.
“I really think people like to shop around and look at the different schools and the different districts,” Strayer said. “We would like people to come from different districts.”
When to register
Kindergarten registration begins on the following dates in East Valley school districts:
Apache Junction Unified: March 17. Visit www.ajusd.org or call (480) 982-1110 for more information.
Chandler Unified: Feb. 19-29. Visit http://ww2.chandler.k12.az.us/2008-2009_Approved_Elementary_Boundaries.pdf or call (480) 812-7610 for more information.
Gilbert Unified: Registration has started. Visit www.gilbert.k12.az.us for more information.
Higley Unified: Feb. 4. Call (480) 279-7064 for information.
Kyrene Elementary: Registration has started. Visit www.kyrene.org or call (480) 783-4175 for information.
Mesa Unified: Jan. 28. Visit www.mpsaz.org or call (480) 472-0374 for information.
Paradise Valley Unified: March 10. Visit www.pvschools.net for information.
Scottsdale Unified: Registration has started. Visit www.susd.org for information.
Tempe Elementary: Jan. 29 at all schools except Ward Traditional Academy. Visit www.tempe3.k12.az.us or call (480) 491-8871 for information.
Charter school options
To find information about charter schools and other tuition-free alternative schools, visit the following Web sites:
Arizona State Board of Charter Schools: www.asbcs.state.az.us
Arizona Charter School Association: www.azcharters.org
Arizona Department of Education: www.ade.az.gov
Tribune writer Amanda Keim contributed to this report.