To reverse declining attendance, WNC districts divert time and money toward self-promotion

By , Asheville Citizen Times

This school year will be David Proffitt’s 31st at Jackson County Public Schools, but his first on Instagram.

Admitting he is not a “digital native,” Proffitt, the district’s new Chief Communications Officer, recently dove into social media out of necessity. Jackson County Public Schools is losing students to other options: private schools, charter schools, and increasingly, home schools. Each exodus brings a loss of funding and according to data from the Public Schools of North Carolina, the district's enrollment declined 4% over the past two years, a recent dip, leaving the rural district pinched. 

“We don’t want to put a price tag on students, Proffitt said. “But you can’t help but feel the difference when those funds aren’t coming in.”

Catching up

In response to competition from educational choice, Jackson County is following districts across Western North Carolina by diverting resources toward marketing. Many have built up low-budget communication departments that lean on free social media to promote their schools to parents and students. Many urge teachers to add picture-taking and social media posting to their weekly duties. Others have allocated money to lift their district brands with billboards, promoted ads and podcasts.

In Jackson County, the charters and private schools in the area market themselves. As different schools compete for enrollments, they are also keeping their eyes out for any promotional edges.

“When I started, the public schools were the most common option and there was really no need for marketing,” said Proffitt, the district’s long-time Director of Technology who took on the communications role last June. “Now we’re just catching up.”

On Monday, as three Jackson County Public Schools welcomed students back to their classrooms, Proffitt put up three posts on Instagram with the hashtag #jcpsday1. Like the district’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, the Instagram account received sporadic attention until this school year. That began to change at the beginning of August. “We just haven’t done a good job telling our story before now,” Proffitt said.

Proffitt tracks account analytics through a social media marketing tool called Hootsuite, noting which demographics interact with which platform. Facebook, he says, reaches mothers age 24-45 and Instagram trumps Twitter as the source for student engagement. The comments on his posts - hardly controversial information updates and photos of students and staff - garner predominantly positive reviews, an encouraging sign for a district intent on retaining and even returning back some of the parents who sought out other schools.

Proffitt asked all Jackson County teachers to maintain their own classroom social media accounts throughout the year, publicizing any positive messages with a JCPS hashtag. Next, he plans to start a district-wide podcast on leadership. “Our engagement has gone up steadily,” he said. “But there are a lot of things I still have to learn.”         

To get up to speed, he emulated the more established marketing efforts of surrounding districts: Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania and Asheville.

“I’ve seen a significant priority placed on marketing over the past five years,” said Tony Baldwin, superintendent of Buncombe County Schools. “Traditionally, that’s quite a change for us. But the message we are trying to get across to all our employees is that you are key to any marketing success for our district.”

In 2016, Baldwin partnered with Biltmore Estate to have every principal and school office staff member go through customer service training. 

BCS requests each school have an active social media account, but their marketing efforts go beyond. A few years ago, it partnered with Champion Credit Union to place billboard advertisements alongside highways around the county and began publishing a magazine called Advantage. The district’s three-person communications staff has since shifted to the more modern initiative of buying promoted adds on social media.

“I say to people, if we don’t tell our our story, someone else will,” said Stacia Harris, director of communications and public information.

Competitive marketing

Still, in the five years since BCS’s marketing efforts began, the district’s enrollment has also declined around 4%, while home schools and charter enrollment have risen. Today, North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program allows low-income parents to use public money to send their students to private schools. And when it comes to marketing, charters and private schools already have a historical advantage.      

“Public charters and private schools across our state are very used to marketing efforts,” said Brian Jodice, executive vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. With no automatic enrollments based on geography, these schools are predicated on the success of their promotion. “If your school exists or fails on its ability to bring in families without saying it's because you live in an assigned ZIP code, I think naturally you become more equipped to let families know about who they are,” Jodice said.

In 2012, Parents for Education Freedom in North Carolina started the North Carolina School Accelerator, a program which helps new charter schools open and improve their curriculum. A third component of the accelerator, according to Jodice, is helping new charters market themselves to their communities.

The only charter school in Jackson County, Summit Charter School, habitually posts on social media. Summit’s Instagram account has 300 more posts than the district. As the school year progresses, Proffitt knows he must keep pace.