Facts about Charter Schools

Watch Your Language! How We Can Use Our Words to Reinforce Facts About Charter Schools.

By Melanie Horton, Senior Marketing Manager

August 8, 2019

With so many myths out there about charter schools, it’s important that we as advocates use language that encourages the spread of accurate information about our schools. This is just as important when communicating with others in our own school communities, from parents to teachers to local leaders, so that we continue to cement the very concepts that drew us to charter schools in the first place.

Charter schools are public schools. We often hear people – inside and outside the movement – referring to local district schools as “public schools” and our schools as “charter schools”. Since charter schools are public schools, we should not reserve the label of “public” for district schools, and we should instead refer to district schools as just that – district schools. Both charter schools and district schools fall under the umbrella of public schools. You may also want to consider referring to charter schools as “public charter schools” to further drive home the message.

Open Enrollment. One myth that exists about charter schools is that we’re allowed to “cherry pick” our students by administering admissions exams. Let’s make sure we always use the term “Open Enrollment” and not “Admissions”, as some may associate “admissions” with the private school or college admissions process, which involves determination based on academic record and other factors.

When open enrollment rolls around, we need to collect prospective students’ personal information so that we may enter them into a lottery for the available spaces at the school, and we do this by asking their families to fill out paperwork.  Instead of referring to this paperwork as an application, which implies a selection process (or at the very last, a formal review and determination by a greater authority), let’s aim to use another term such as “form”. While it’s true that the form must be reviewed to ensure compliance with a charter school’s lottery guidelines, we do not want to imply that students are being evaluated or judged in any way. This might seem like a small detail, but the words we use can have powerful implications that either support or detract from the truth about charter schools.

To reinforce that all students are eligible for enrollment in charter schools so long as they meet the requirements outlined in the lottery guidelines approved by the schools’ authorizer, we can post these guidelines at the school and remind stakeholders that students are randomly selected during the lottery.

Accountability. We often hear from critics that charter schools aren’t accountable and don’t have to abide by the same rules as district schools; that charters can “do whatever they want”. While charter schools have some regulatory freedoms relative to district schools, which allow charter schools to meet the unique needs of their communities, we accept this flexibility in exchange for increased accountability for student and operational results. New charter schools are required to submit a robust charter application that outlines the school’s proposed educational program, governance structure, budget, and additional details specific to each authorizer, and must renew their application every few years in order to continue existing (how often depends on the authorizer).

Renewing a charter school involves submitting a charter renewal application in which the school must show tangible progress toward the goals laid out in the original petition.  Schools may be denied renewal for poor academic performance or financial mismanagement, so this is serious business.

Let the members of your community know how charter schools are held fully accountable in a multitude of areas throughout the year as well as how they are required to prove – every few years – whether they’ve earned the privilege of continuing to serve their students and families. We can communicate our accountability by keeping our stakeholders in the loop when we’re going through the renewal process or fulfilling another local compliance requirement. This can be as simple as briefly sharing these milestones and achievements in the employee and parent newsletters.

Let’s remind the people of our communities – across the spectrum of advocates, critics, and the uninformed – that charter schools are about choice, accountability, and innovation.

What other positive language suggestions do you have for charter school advocates? We’d love to hear from you and build out our recommendations. Leave us a note in the comments section!

Engaging Parents as a Powerful Marketing Tool

By Melanie Horton, Senior Marketing Manager

April 29, 2019

When thinking about how to spread the word about our charter schools and create an enrollment pipeline for future years, we often target parents of prospective students. We organize school tours, hang up flyers at community events, and advertise upcoming open enrollment dates on the school marquee. These are all smart, important marketing actions, but we also need to remember to pay attention to our largest group of built-in ambassadors: parents of current students! When parents are happy, good news about our schools will spread among their networks through word-of-mouth – a powerful marketing tool that can also do much damage if this important stakeholder group is unhappy or ignored.

Assess the Current Situation

Before you can attract new families to your school, you want to make sure the current school community is satisfied with your performance, so you’re not caught off guard when parents of prospective students ask you to explain something they’ve heard. Parents of current students are a great resource when you want an honest review of what is going well and what isn’t. Here are a few easy, helpful ways to solicit parent feedback.

Annual Surveys

Most schools already administer an annual parent survey as a state requirement. Take advantage of this opportunity to understand how happy parents are with current school operations, including areas such as extracurricular activities and course offerings. Make sure the survey is comprehensive but not too long, as we want to encourage high response and completion rates. It’s also important to include optional, open-ended questions that do not limit answer choices. This way, you’re making it easy for busy parents to provide quick feedback, while also giving those with more to say an opportunity to share their thoughts.

Consider sharing the survey results in a parent newsletter or other medium; the more transparent you are with the results; the more parents will feel you recognize and care about what they have to say. It doesn’t stop there, though – to show parents that we value them as critical members of our school communities, we must show a commitment to progress toward improvement. For example, if most parents reveal they are less than satisfied with the availability of extracurricular activities, open this up for discussion at committee and board meetings and invite parents to join a task force to explore options. If we’re all talk and no action, parents will eventually catch on and assume the school has no interest in their opinions.

Focus Groups

While surveys are a great way to get high-level feedback about broad categories of school operations, it’s also important to be able to take a deeper dive into more specific topics. We can accomplish this by organizing parent focus . Keep the groups on the small side – no more than ten participants – so that all parents have the chance to speak up and don’t feel overwhelmed by a large group. Make sure to offer participants the chance to provide written feedback as well in case there is something they don’t feel comfortable sharing in a group setting. While you can still structure the discussion around more broad categories to make sure you touch on various topics, be sure to invite parents to comment on anything that is on their mind.

During the focus groups, make sure to encourage participants to share thoughts about what they are happy with as well as what they think needs improvement, so we know where we should continue to focus resources and where we might need to make changes. For example, if parents share that they are dissatisfied with the current library hours, school leadership can open this up for discussion at committee and board meetings to decide if it is financially and operationally feasible to extend library hours. If parents express excitement at the new STEM-focused programs, we know this is a valuable investment we should continue to explore.

The focus group initiative can be led by a school site council, on its own or in collaboration with a parent advisory group. It’s important to advertise the focus groups in multiple places to encourage participation of diverse groups. For example, schools can include a call for focus group participants in the parent newsletter, in materials for various parents’ group meetings, or by making an announcement at a parent event such as a regular “Coffee with the Principal” or information night. While continuity among participants is important and helps us to stay accountable, we should open the groups to new participants every now and then to make sure we’re receiving feedback that is representative of our audience. If the group gets too big, it can be split into multiple groups. In terms of meeting frequency, because these are more intimate conversations that we want to be able to build on, try to meet two or three times per year.

Create A Culture of Feedback

If we make the feedback process a regular part of school operations, parents will get used to sharing their thoughts and the quality of feedback will continue to improve. This will also train school leaders to become comfortable with both positive and negative feedback and consider it an integral part of school site planning, as well as alert school leaders to potential areas of improvement to be considered when putting together the school budget or setting the class schedule or activities calendar for the upcoming school year. Most importantly, it will signal to parents that your school values their feedback and wants them to be happy with the choice they made for their child. Happy parents translate into positive word of mouth marketing and a stronger pipeline of future students!

Moreover, this culture of feedback will lead to stronger relationships with parents and encourage them to get involved with school initiatives. This increased engagement will allow you to build a critical support network of volunteers and advocates with a genuine interest in helping the school to meet its goals and strengthen its presence in the community.

Use Feedback to Inform Marketing

In addition to promoting positive relations with parents of current students, feedback can be used to inform marketing efforts that aim to attract new parents. For example, if several parents of current students mentioned in a focus group that they are impressed by the school’s robotics program, school leaders can plan to include a stop by the robotics room during the next school tour to show it off to families considering the school as an option for their child.  Similarly, if survey results have shown that access to Advanced Placement courses is of high importance to parents of current students, school leaders will know to highlight this on the school website and in marketing materials distributed to parents of prospective students.

Conclusion

While it is important to be thinking of how to attract parents of prospective students and secure enrollment for future school years, it is also important to remember not to lose sight of our most important stakeholders – the families we currently serve. This group is our most helpful window into what we are doing well and how we can improve.  After all, we can only provide new families with a quality public school option if we’re successful in our current endeavors!

Five Minutes of Practical Fundraising Advice for Charter Schools

By Melanie Horton, Senior Marketing Manager

October 24, 2017

All charter schools can use a few extra dollars to fund projects and programs that support the success of their students. Wherever your school is with its fundraising strategy, there’s always room for evaluation and improvement. We’ve put together a list of four simple actions schools can take to increase donations, as well as a few quick tips to help strengthen the connection to potential and existing donors.

Four Fundraising Actions Your School Can Take Today

1. Participate in #GivingTuesday: Celebrated the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, #GivingTuesday was started in 2012 as a way to harness “the potential of social media and the generosity of people around the world to bring about real change in their communities” (www.givingtuesday.org). The movement provides an opportunity for charitable organizations to rally their communities and encourage donations to their causes, and has grown rapidly over the last few years. For #GivingTuesday 2015, 700,000 donors contributed nearly $117 million, and the hashtag earned 1.3 million mentions on social media and 114 billion Twitter impressions! You can find several resources to help plan for #GivingTuesday 2017 at givingtuesday.org, including a social media toolkit and ideas and case studies specific to schools. Don’t worry about implementing all the recommendations the first time you participate; you can start by incorporating #GivingTuesday into your existing social media plan, and set aside time well in advance next year to develop a more comprehensive strategy.

2. Register on Amazon Smile. Amazon Smile donates 0.5% of the price of eligible purchases to the charitable organization of your choice. There is a simple registration process, so you will need access to the school’s EIN and bank account information. Once you are registered, remind parents, teachers, staff, and other stakeholders to bookmark amazon.com, where they can select your school as their charitable organization of choice; they only need to do this once, and all future eligible purchases made at smile.amazon.com will result in a 0.5% donation to your school. Once an individual makes a purchase that results in a donation, they’ll be able to view and keep track of the total amount donated to the school across time; this is a fun, useful feature that allows donors to see the collective impact of several small donations made by members of the school community across time.

3. Remember to ask donors if their employer participates in a matching gift program. Most people are not aware their employer offers a matching gift program, leaving potential fundraising dollars on the table! Make sure to include this reminder on your website’s donation page, as well as in any direct mail fundraising campaigns. While there is technology available for purchase that can be linked to your school’s website, which allows donors to check their employer’s matching gift policy and guidelines on the spot, this is easy to do without the help of extra tools. Just include a simple, noticeable message that prompts donors to ask if their employer, or their spouse’s employer, participates in a matching gift program. You can also prompt donors to check a box if they already know they have access to a matching gift program, and remind them to proceed with the necessary paperwork. Asking donors to check a box makes it easy for you to follow-up about matching gifts.

What happens next? The donor will then need to request the proper paperwork from their employer (as well as verify that the school is eligible for a matching donation) and submit a matching gift form to your school. Upon receipt of the form, a school employee will need to confirm donation from the individual, and submit the form to the employer.

4. Register with local supermarkets and other retail stores. Several retailers offer programs that allow customers to donate a percentage of their purchase to the charitable organization of their choice. For example, Ralphs’ has a Community Contribution Program that allows rewards card users to select a community organization to donate to. The process varies with each retailer, so it’s best to pay a visit to your local retailers and ask if they have similar programs.

5. Don’t leave grant money on the table! There are hundreds of grant opportunities available to charter schools, some of which require no more than a simple application form It can be difficult to make time to focus on grant writing when there are so many other things to get done, which is why EdTec offers flexible grant research and writing services for busy school leaders.  Set up a call with us for more information and sign up to receive our monthly grants email.

Two Ways to Strengthen Your School’s Fundraising Program

1. Make your case. The stronger your story, the more compelled your stakeholders will feel to give. Is your per-student funding rate less than the state average? Less than the neighborhood school district? Share these facts with your audience, and include numbers when you have them. You’ll also want to include a list of things you aim to accomplish through fundraising, be it reducing class size, purchasing new musical instruments, enhancing facilities, or starting an after-school STEM program, as well as a tally of funds raised to date (if any) and what you’ve been able to accomplish as a result. Give your potential donors proof that their money will be put to good use!

2. Be thankful! Always send timely thank you notes, preferably within two weeks of receiving a donation (and sooner if you can). While it is a nice gesture to send hand-written notes, this is not always feasible, especially for larger schools. Have a template thank you note ready to go, personalize the letter with the donor’s name and donation details, and ask the school’s principal or executive director to sign it. You might also consider putting together an annual publication that recognizes donors for their contributions, and includes information about the projects and improvements that were made possible by their generosity. Donors will enjoy being recognized, and be more compelled to give in the future.

Grow Your Enrollment Applications With School Tours 

Use tours as a marketing tool to reach prospective families and tell your school’s story.

by Melanie Horton, Senior Marketing Manager

July 10, 2017

You’ve gone through all the hard work of starting a charter school.  Your programs are successful and your students are doing well. But you’re still struggling to meet your target enrollment numbers each year.  Success on its own will not automatically generate a waiting list; you must arm prospective parents with information about why your school is a strong educational option for their children.  Because while school choice provides the opportunity for your school to exist in the first place, it also creates competition.

Tweet: Most charter schools don’t have a large marketing budget, but there’s a lot you can do that doesn’t cost much at all. Start by offering tours of your school. Advertise these tours on social media and at local community events. Get in touch with the local homeowners’ association or chamber of commerce, and ask if you can speak for a few minutes at the next meeting. Talk about your school’s mission and how you serve local families, highlight recent achievements, and invite community members to take a tour of the school and/or pass along the message to those with school-aged children.  Reach out to local churches, community centers, and businesses, and ask if you can post flyers on their bulletin boards.  Make sure to include the tour schedule along with your school’s website, phone number, and social media information so that those who wish to contact you about tours are able to do so.

It’s important to get the tour logistics right. Aim to schedule tours at times that are convenient for working parents, such as early in the morning or during lunch hours.  Make sure to keep the tours under an hour (you can always assign staff to stay later and talk to families who aren’t in a rush). If you’re not sure when to schedule the tours, ask a few parents of current students for their input. Maybe evenings and/or weekends work best for your community.  In that case, you might not be able to implement all of the suggestions below, but at least you’ll have a captive audience.

It’s helpful to capture visitors’ contact information so you can stay in touch and monitor interest in your school across time. Create a simple sign-in sheet – the data gathering is easier if this is done on a tablet or computer – that includes the  parent’s name and email address, and the prospective student’s current school (if applicable), and ask visitors to sign in when they arrive for the tour. Knowing where prospective students are coming from will help you to target future communications efforts, and having a database of email addresses of interested families makes it easier to keep telling your school’s story after the tour. If your school sends  newsletters to current parents, include your new contacts in future newsletters to keep them informed of all the great things happening at your school.

Start a cohort of student ambassadors who, along with school staff, will participate in the tours and talk about their experiences. This is especially valuable at the high school level, as parents tend to bring their children on the tours, and they often have questions that only current students can answer.  Inviting parent volunteers to participate in the tours is also beneficial, as they can speak to why your school is a good fit for their families.

It is helpful for the tours to be led by an administrator and a teacher, as both offer valuable perspectives and can answer different questions about the school, its programs, and policies and procedures.  If possible, divide the visit into a school overview (complete with a short question and answer session), and a walking tour. During the presentation, remember to highlight what makes your school unique, including interesting programs and classes, innovative learning methods, and awards and achievements. Invite the student ambassadors to give a quick presentation about something they’re involved in at the school, and invite parent volunteers to speak about parental involvement.

Parents like to know what their child’s day-to-day will look like. On the tour, make sure to visit at least one classroom in action; you can create a rotating sign-up schedule in advance so there isn’t any last minute planning on the day of the tour. Guests don’t need to sit down and observe the class, but they will appreciate being able to pop in and note the setup and size. If possible, visit both a core subject classroom (e.g. math or science) as well as a music or arts classroom. Also plan to stop by areas that are unique to your school, such as a school garden or robotics lab. For larger schools,  parents might be interested in seeing key facilities such as the gymnasium and theatre.

Make sure to provide visiting families with something they can take with them that will aide in their decision-making process. Create a simple one-pager that includes key statistics about the school, such as enrollment, average class size, special programs and classes available, graduation and college statistics (if applicable), contact information, and enrollment/lottery dates and details (there will likely be a lot of questions about this last one, and you want to make sure everyone has the information they need – after all, this is the point of the tour!).  You don’t need to be a graphic design expert to create an effective document, and free online tools like Canva and HubSpot can help with layout and design.

If anyone on the tour has a question you can’t answer, note their contact information so you can follow up with them when you find the answer. And make sure your main office staff is knowledgeable of the school and trained to answer questions, or direct inquires to the appropriate people, when they receive follow-up phone calls.

When guests leave the tour, they should have a clear understanding of what your school is all about. This is a valuable opportunity to connect with prospective families and brag about your school; make the most of it!