HISD marketing plan aims to stop enrollment losses
Faced with dwindling enrollment and fast-growing competition from charter schools, Houston ISD has launched a more aggressive marketing and research campaign this year to attract and retain students in the state’s largest district.
In the coming months, HISD will increase its advertising reach and partner with local universities to identify reasons why more parents are enrolling their children in charter schools, HISD Chief Communications Officer Rebecca Suárez recently told district board members. The campaign comes as HISD grapples with an enrollment decline of 4,300 students, or roughly 2 percent, this academic year, and braces for a projected loss of 1,500 students next year.
“There’s a lot of different factors contributing to this loss, so we’re trying to figure out what are those factors so we can make sure we’re more strategic in that targeting,” Suárez said.
Any enrollment losses further exacerbate the district’s budget woes through an increased payment for “recapture,” the state’s method of redistributing funds from property-wealthy districts to poorer ones. HISD’s school board closed $210 million in shortfalls over the past two years by cutting spending and using reserves. District officials have projected another shortfall of tens of millions of dollars in 2019-2020, though the exact total largely will depend on changes in property values and decisions made during the ongoing Texas legislative session.
In recent months, HISD officials have offered several possible reasons for the district’s enrollment decline. They include movement of families following Hurricane Harvey, charter school growth within district boundaries, waning parental confidence in HISD and changes in housing patterns.
District officials also have surveyed principals leading schools with declining enrollment, asking why families in their neighborhoods are leaving HISD. Suárez said the most common answers were extended school hours in charters, availability of K-through-8 and K-through-12 campuses, prevalence of after-school programs, and HISD’s early school start times.
Now, HISD plans to take a more scientific approach by partnering with the University of Houston’s Institute for Educational Policy Research and Evaluation, as well as the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University. The trio will analyze enrollment patterns, demographic data and community feedback to help guide HISD’s decision-making.
HISD Trustee Sergio Lira, who has pushed for more proactive marketing efforts in recent months, applauded the district’s plans.
“I want to be ahead of the curve,” Lira said. “We don’t want to lose students and all of the sudden we’re being reactive and (doing) all this marketing to bring them them back.”
HISD enrolled about 209,800 students this year, but it also lost roughly 41,600 children who live within its boundaries to charter schools and neighboring districts. HISD continues to lose more students each year to charter schools, largely due to the incremental growth of KIPP Texas and YES Prep public schools, as well as the recent arrival of International Leadership of Texas. District officials also are bracing for future losses to the state’s largest charter network, IDEA Public Schools, which plans to open its first Houston campuses in 2020.
HISD staffers already have identified four geographic sections of the district — northeast, east, south and southwest — where larger numbers of families opt for charter schools. All four areas are home to predominantly lower-income students, HISD campuses with lower-than-average ratings under the state’s academic accountability system, and schools established by the region’s largest charter networks.
As HISD awaits the results from university researchers later this summer, district officials are coordinating an early round of advertising aimed at a wider audience. The district plans to advertise on local radio and network television stations — in English and Spanish — after primarily using billboards and commercials at movie theaters last year.
The district also will feature graduates from its EMERGE program, which helps high school students planning to attend prestigious colleges and universities, on billboards located near the graduates’ home schools. The ads will prominently highlight the names of the graduates’ high schools, their university destinations and the tagline “Attend a Top College on a Full Scholarship.”
“We want them to resonate with the students that are currently going to those high schools, so they know that I, too, can go to a top university if I work hard with the help of HISD,” Suárez said.
The district spent roughly $150,000 on advertising last year with funds provided by the HISD Foundation, its nonprofit fundraising arm. This year’s advertising budget and sources of funding have not been finalized. Trustee Sue Deigaard, who has advocated for a study on reasons why families leave HISD, said she wants district officials to show bang-for-the-buck on advertising.
“My feeling is that it should pay for itself,” Deigaard said. “Otherwise, if we’re not attracting additional students because of it, we’re actually spending money in the wrong place.”