School board Chairman Mike Lee wants DPS to do a better job marketing schools

School board Chairman Mike Lee says the Durham Public Schools has to do a better job of marketing its programs to compete with the county’s growing number of charter schools.

Speaking at a Durham Board of Education work session last week, Lee said DPS can no longer afford to concede enrollment losses to the county’s 13 charter schools.

“What are we doing to get those kids back?” Lee asked. “Are we counter-advertising?”

Lee noted that he frequently sees advertising on social media for Discovery Charter School, a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.)-themed middle school planned for Northern Durham that’s expected to open in September with 350 sixth-and seventh-graders.

“I don’t see an ad for our S.T.E.M. [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] middle school programs -- Lowe’s Grove, Neal, Lucas or the great things at Carrington or Little River,” Lee said.

He said DPS must begin to aggressively use social media, web advertisements, web videos and other strategies to reach families.

“We need to do anything we can do to reach those families thinking about sending their children to charter schools,” Lee said in an interview Tuesday.

The renewed push to better sell DPS to families started a week or so ago.

It has been a topic of conversation for about three years, but talks stalled after DPS was forced to layoff key personnel in its public relations department last year,

So over a recent lunch, Lee and board colleague Xavier Cason agreed to revive the discussion about the development of a marketing strategy to get more families through the doors of DPS schools.

Both believe that if parents visit schools, meet principals and teachers they will feel comfortable sending their children to DPS schools.

“I want to make sure parents are aware of the great things we have to offer in spite of what they otherwise hear,” Cason said. “If citizens were informed about what’s really happening in Durham Public Schools, we wouldn’t be talking so much about declining enrollment.”

In addition to last year’s Reduction in Force (RIF) that forced the district to layoff public relations staff, Cason said the district’s budget struggles the past few years have been all-consuming, leaving little time for anything else.

Cason said the board was going to discuss the matter at a retreat planned this week but the retreat was canceled because not all board members could attend.

He said marketing the schools will be among the subjects at the “top of the list” when the board reschedules the retreat.

Charters expected to grow

If projections are correct, charter school enrollment in Durham County will grow by 700 next school year, potentially pushing enrollment in the county’s soon-to-be 14 traditional charter schools to around 7,000 students.

Much of the enrollment growth for charters is being fueled by Discovery Charter School, which will be the county’s 14th charter, and the 350 students it expects to enroll in September.

DPS has postponed the opening of its own S.T.E.A.M-themed school, Eagle Academy, planned for the campus of N.C. Central University, due to budgetary constraints.

Also, KIPP-Durham, a charter school that opened this year on Holloway Street with grades 5-6 is expected to add a seventh-grade class to increase its enrollment by a projected 90 students in the fall.

KIPP leaders were very aggressive in recruitment of Durham students, going door-to-door to recruit students in the neighborhood in which it is located.

“Why can’t we recruit as aggressively as KIPP?” Lee asked.

Meanwhile, DPS expects its enrollment to decrease by 500 students next school year.

It would become the third consecutive year the school district’s enrollment decreased in three years if the projection is accurate.

That’s a troubling trend for DPS leaders because fewer students translates into fewer state dollars for teachers and programs.

“Every time that we decrease around 21 students, we lose a teacher position because the state allots teacher positions,” Superintendent Bert L’Homme said last week.

So, keeping more students in DPS classrooms is quickly becoming a fiscal necessity for a district facing an $8.5 million budget shortfall.

A 700-student increase in charter school enrollment, at about $3,100 per student, would mean DPS has to pass through about $2.2 million in local funding to the 14 charters.

Add to that a projected $800,000 in new money for charters, and DPS will be obligated to increase its pass-through to more than $23 million compared to the $20.5 million it transferred this year.

Charter school enrollment next year is projected to represent about 18 percent of all students enrolled in the county’s publicly funded schools, which include charters.

So, under state law, DPS is required to hand over 18 percent of any new funding it receives from the county, which accounts for the $800,000.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645