From the west, approaching J.A. Rogers Elementary School on 23rd Street in Kansas City, the signs appear one after another. They read: “I ♥ Kansas City Public Schools, Enroll Now.”
The same blue, yellow and red signs poke up from the lawn in front of the new Kansas City Public Schools central office building at 2901 Troost Ave.
They represent a new push the district started this summer to tell a positive story about its schools and to increase enrollment, which stood at about 14,700 students when this past school year ended.
“We have seen an uptick,” said Tonia Gilbert, executive director of student support and community services. “We want to make sure people understand that this is a new Kansas City Public Schools, a new district.”
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The headquarters certainly look new, with board offices that haven’t even been fully furnished yet, following a move this summer from the longtime downtown Kansas City offices at 1211 McGee St. Five fresh members have just taken seats on the nine-member school board, and a new superintendent started July 1.
Kansas City residents should expect to see advertisements for Kansas City Public Schools throughout the city — on billboards, on buses, on banners plastered on fences throughout district neighborhoods.
The school district will even take to the airwaves with radio and television promos, much like charter schools in Kansas City have done.
“We have really had to rethink the way we communicate with parents,” Gilbert said.
It used to be that district schools were the only public school option. “We could sit back, and the families came to us,” Gilbert said.
With charter schools, families have a variety of public school choices. For the 2016-2017 school year, 32 charters will be open in Kansas City. Three of them are new: Quality Hill Academy, Kansas City Neighborhood Academy and Citizens of the World Kansas City.
If the public school district wants to compete, it must improve academic outcomes and let families know what schools have to offer, Gilbert said.
It’s a challenge facing public districts across the country.
“You pretty much have to advertise to survive,” said Janet Walsh, director of public affairs for Cincinnati Public Schools, which this year spent $123,784 on an advertising campaign and plans to spend as much as $345,000 on an advertising-marketing plan next year.
“We’re no longer a monopoly,” Walsh said. “Advertising is part of the cost of doing business.”
The Kansas City district has spent more than $1.6 million over the last two years in marketing and public information, including staff salaries for that department.
In Kansas City — a district that in the last few years has struggled to regain full state accreditation — the challenge is more difficult.
Even before losing accreditation in 2011, the district had developed a reputation for low-achieving schools with shrinking enrollment. Families left the urban district in droves for private schools, charter schools or public schools in surrounding suburbs.
From the 1998-1999 academic year to the 1999-2000 year when charter schools opened, enrollment dropped by 4,385 students, to a total of 31,327.
Enrollment dropped in the range of 1,113 to 2,083 per year over the next three years. Then in 2003, enrollment saw a slight uptick of about 20 students. The following year, it jumped by 390 students, but then it began to slide an average of 1,707 students a year for the next seven years.
The biggest drop came with the recession in 2008. Enrollment plunged 4,802 students that year, to 17,677.
Facing a drastically declining student population and a shrinking budget, the district shuttered nearly 30 schools in 2010, reducing the number of district buildings by more than 40 percent. Board members begged parents not to pull their children out of the district.
Now school officials are seeing enrollment slowly creep higher, and they want to keep the upward trajectory.
Enrollment climbed by nearly 100 students for the 2014-2015 school year. Then last year, it jumped by 379 students. Gilbert predicts it will continue to grow.
Ceairra Yeakey, who is a product of Kansas City Public Schools, pulled her children out of the district’s schools about four years ago and moved to Independence. She says she wasn’t happy with Kansas City schools at the time.
She’s moved back to Kansas City and on Friday was enrolling her four children — a kindergartner, a first-grader, a third-grader and a fifth-grader.
“I have heard some good things about Kansas City,” Yeakey said. “I hope the teachers here are going to take time to teach. I’ve heard J.A. Rogers is one of their best schools, so I’m hoping my children can go there.”
Superintendent Mark Bedell won over the community and school board, preaching that in addition to gaining full accreditation, the district’s next step is to “tell our own story.”
“We are doing that,” said Gilbert.
This summer, the district sent mailers to the families of all students who were enrolled in district summer school programs, even if they hadn’t been enrolled in a district school the previous year. They also sent fliers to all the families with students who had withdrawn from the district, hoping to lure them back.
And in addition to the district’s online magazine, this year officials are publishing a hard-copy periodical that will be mailed to families’ homes. The district is also putting out fliers in Spanish and has hired a mobile billboard truck to better spread the “I ♥ Kansas City Public Schools” message to communities.
Just before school starts back Aug. 15, the district is hosting its annual Summerfest where parents will be able to register students for school; get free school uniforms, backpacks and supplies; and get health screenings and immunizations. It’s everything students will need to walk into school ready on the first day, Gilbert said.
This Saturday’s Summerfest is being held on the field adjacent to the new school board offices. “It’s another way for us to introduce the community to our new location,” Gilbert said. The district also has plans for mobile enrollment units, enrollment fairs and using social media throughout the year to let parents know what’s going on in the district.
“We want families to take another look a Kansas City school district schools,” Gilbert said.
Kansas City Public Schools Summerfest
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: 2901 Troost Ave.
What: Free food, live music, immunizations tent, backpack and uniform giveaway, language services and more.