Making the Grade
Presenting Minnesota Monthly’s guide to metro-area high schools—a comprehensive, statistical look at 77 public and 34 private schools. How does your kid’s school compare?
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Consider Minnetonka’s experience. Historically, people moved to the western suburb expressly for the schools, which were safe, consistently posted high test scores, and offered a menu of extracurricular activities. That was before school choice trained parents to comparison shop—a task made dramatically simpler by the Internet.
Even with its strong track record, however, Minnetonka found itself scrambling to adjust to heightened parental expectations. Seven years ago, with the availability of open enrollment, a drop in the birth rate, and lure of private schools, the district was losing 200 kids a year.
That’s small potatoes compared to the exoduses from Minnesota’s three biggest districts, Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul, and Minneapolis, but the decline wasn’t expected to stop until the district had lost 1,000 students—one-seventh of its total enrollment. “It would have required us to close one or two schools,” says Janet Swiecichowski, Minnetonka’s communications director.
The district needed to demonstrate that it understood parents’ expectations. In an affluent community, that means being prepared to lay out a student’s expected trajectory from cradle to career, a process that starts long before a child is old enough to recite the alphabet. “We get families in all the time that say, ‘We’re going to look for a school before we look for a house,’” says Swiecichowski. “Research on the Internet, looking at test scores—they’ve already done that by the time they get to us.”
When parents step inside a school, principals and teachers are equipped to talk about the district as a whole. “If families are coming to look at kindergarten, we’re going to be talking to them about the whole system,” explains Swiecichowski. “We talk to them about ACT scores; we have that data available, and principals hand it out.”
The district even went so far as to hire secret shoppers who call and act as if they were interested in enrolling their child. Add to that some tightly focused advertising, and over the last five years, the declining enrollment began to reverse and the district gained 700 students from open enrollment to boost their student body to 7,900. Today, about
10 percent of the class attends under open enrollment from other districts.
Not long ago, Minnesota educators might have frowned upon such marketing efforts; trying to poach students from neighboring districts was seen as dirty pool. Not any more. Recently, Swiecichowski was driving her car when she heard a radio spot for a private school touting the fact that it taught the Constitution. It made her laugh: What high school doesn’t teach the basics of American government?
“The reality is that private schools have been doing this the whole time,” Swiecichowski says of Minnetonka’s marketing efforts. “We leave a void that gets filled in when we let our competition define us.”
None of this is news to Colin Sokolowski, public-relations director for Mounds View Public Schools, another district with the kind of enviable reputation that attracts students from neighboring communities. (The district serves Mounds View, New Brighton, Arden Hills, Shoreview, North Oaks, and parts of Vadnais Heights and Roseville.) His annual marketing costs are covered by the state dollars brought in by just two open-enrollment students. “Talk about your break-even points,” he says.
Like Minnetonka, Mounds View’s principal competition is private schools, something the district tackles head-on. “We’re pretty bold in saying we can match the performance of private schools—because we can measure that,” says Sokolowski. “We go through our test scores and say we are one of the top 10 school districts in the state in terms of achievement.”
The message isn’t just aimed at prospective families. With state funding shrinking and enrollment contingent on quality programming, Minnesota school districts are more dependent than ever on local residents’ willingness to pay extra taxes. Voters, however, are increasingly likely to reject referendum requests.
Here again, the declining birth rate comes into play. In most metro districts, only about 20 percent of residents have kids. So schools need to market to non-parents. Mounds View mails a newsletter to every household in the district, and periodically sends more detailed, two-page letters on specific issues to a list of 150 “community opinion leaders”—Realtors, youth sports organizers, and others. The result: Mounds View’s last two levies have passed—one in a year when similar levies in neighboring districts failed.
Peter Leatherman is the research director of Decision Resources, a consulting firm that helps school districts and other agencies with strategic planning and public-opinion research. In particular, he says two different grapevines are crucial to selling levies to the broader community. The first is senior citizens, who value education and vote in large numbers on local issues. Their buy-in is so important, he says, “In some districts, we know the coffee shops where they sit and meet and talk about the district.”
The other network is parents of preschoolers and elementary-age kids. Predisposed to favor spending on schools, they’re also on the alert for problems. “That’s the grapevine where the viral can really eat the school district alive,” says Leatherman. “Rumors can really run amok.”
During the eight years Sokolowski has worked for the district, he’s acquired a national reputation for his creative marketing. His goal is to own the conversation: “If the buzz is going to happen anyhow,” he says, “we would just as soon facilitate the conversation.”
To that end, Mounds View creates online chat rooms and invites discussion when there are changes, issues, or rumors. Comments must be signed and a few other civilities observed, but, for the most part, the critics get their say. The approach is 180 degrees from administrators’ more typical reaction to controversy, which is to quash discussion. “I think you build credibility with the community when you allow someone to say something negative,” he says. “When it’s unfair or untrue, that can be hard. But I’d rather that they come clean about it and get it out there than let it become that negative discourse at the grocery store. If they get it out there, we can address it.”
It’s clear why school leaders need to bone up on marketing, but do parents need to understand the fine print behind the claims? The answer, according to veteran educators, is a reassuring no. Parents need only be experts on their kids.
Return for a moment to St. Louis Park’s experience. Newsweek’s survey didn’t track family satisfaction or high grades, or even the number of kids going on to college. It tallied the number taking exams showing they mastered very specific curriculum.
At the moment, parents equate International Baccalaureate classes with a school’s overall quality. IB, for example, is the reason Minneapolis’s Southwest is perennially atop the Newsweek rankings—and a significant reason why it’s the lone Minneapolis high school that attracts a surplus of applicants. Yet most kids who go to Southwest only dip a toe in IB. Of the 387 students who graduated from the school last year, 170 took IB coursework, but only 43 received IB diplomas (though another 30 received an IB medallion, or commendation of merit from the school).
More crucial is whether a school is a good fit for a particular kid, says Laura Bloomberg, associate director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center for School Change. Parents, she says, need to ask themselves, “Is my 360-degree kid, all of my kid, going to be served here?”
To that end, there are some basics to keep in mind. It is reasonable for parents to want to know how a school prepares kids for the next level, whatever that level is, Bloomberg says. It’s too late to wait until high school to think about the very first steps toward equipping a student for college, even if that first step is making sure a kindergartner is excited to be in school.
Research shows students at small schools often perform better, which is particularly true in the case of high schools. Some kids thrive given the menu of choices a big school can offer, but it’s easy for teens, often hard to reach under the best of circumstances, to get lost in a large student body. It’s also easier for safety issues to go unnoticed.
If a small school seems right for your teen but isn’t available, education policymakers suggest helping the student brainstorm ways to find—or create—a niche. High schools are full of subcultures; many will help as few as three
students to form an official club or organize their own extracurricular activity. In any case, encourage your child to form a relationship with a teacher who really seems to understand them.
College recruiters are attracted to well-rounded applicants. Beyond sports and clubs, parents should ask what opportunities a high school offers for service-learning and community involvement.
Finally, keep in mind that external reputation matters to a high school’s toughest customers: the students and staff who must apply themselves every day. Making the Newsweek list may mean enrollment and money for St. Louis Park, but no school reaches great academic heights without motivated teachers and kids. “It creates positive energy to try to accomplish more next year,” says Metz. “At our school, the smartest, most successful students are recognized. They’re popular, they’re admired.” And they’re likely to find their alma mater atop the list for some time to come.
Beth Hawkins is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.