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August 23 2012

Milwaukee Schools Get Creative because of Competition for Students

Vicki E. Alger

The school year is kicking off, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

The last-minute enrollment thrust before the start of the traditional academic year is under way in Milwaukee, and as more public and private institutions jostle for attention, school leaders are being forced to get savvier about how to attract parents and kids.

Few like to acknowledge the outright competition in Milwaukee for students, but it's the result of an educational marketplace with many options and a limited number of young people to be educated.

Milwaukee Public Schools has trimmed its marketing budget in recent years, but has had a presence at summer ethnic festivals for three years. This month it kicked off weekend block parties at school sites, complete with inflatable bouncy castles, hot dogs and welcoming school staff to lead tours. The parties are being held at three more schools this month that are under-enrolled and/or showing test-score gains.

"This is new for us," MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton said at the party for Browning School, 5440 N. 64th St., last weekend. "We were taking the schools to the festivals; now we're bringing the festivals to the schools and the neighborhoods."

Browning, one of the district's newer buildings, is three stories, with central air and a greenhouse. It's in the middle of the state's largest public housing project, Westlawn, and could easily accommodate 500 students. Hundreds of families live within walking distance. But enrollment last year at the K-8 school was only about 230. …

Enrollment is critical for schools because each student brings state aid, whether it's to MPS, independent charter schools, or private schools that participate in the voucher program. That aid buys teachers, staff and other resources necessary to run quality programs. …

Legislation passed in 2011 expanded the voucher program to allow more middle-income students to participate, and also to allow private schools outside the city of Milwaukee to accept city students on a publicly funded subsidy worth $6,442 annually. So new voucher schools are also likely to market themselves to city families.

Denise Callaway, spokeswoman for MPS, said the district has focused more on telling its own story, and less on reacting to what other area schools are doing. That means being more vocal about schools that are improving. "We know parents are increasingly astute shoppers," Callaway said. "Whether it's close to your house may be a piece for some parents. The school's curriculum is a piece for some parents. But more often, parents want to know: What are the outcomes?"

Absent competition for students, schools would not feel pressure to improve, innovate, or advertise their success. Parents want and need accurate, actionable information about their children’s education options. This is a welcome development for Milwaukee, and should be more prevalent nationwide.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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