Recognizing the correlation between participation in a preschool program and improved academic performance later on, The Hartford School Readiness Council initiated the Hartford School Readiness Project to increase enrollment levels in light of the fact that less than half of the children in Hartford attend preschool programs. First Experience Communications (FEC), Glastonbury, CT, was contracted to work with Hartford Children First Initiative (HCFI) to:

  • conduct research and facilitate focus groups and interviews with key audiences (Early Childhood Leadership, Community Leadership, and Parents) in order to develop and precisely target key communications themes and messages;
  • create a sustainable integrated marketing, advertising and public relations program to raise awareness of the opportunities in preschool programs and build trust about the quality of care and instruction that children will receive while attending the programs. Tactics included: articles, billboards, bus ads, bus shelters, print ads, scripts, brochures, and staff training.


  • To inform the community of the importance and availability of school readiness opportunities, creating an integrated marketing/communications strategy that will reach the various audiences, e.g., young parents, referral community agencies, community groups, etc., in order to enroll as many 3 and 4 year olds as possible in a 1999 marketing campaign.
  • To increase enrollment from 590 children to at least 1000 children for the school year 1999-2000.

Project Objectives

  • Create an environment of trust between parents and programs.
  • Create a referral alliance among civic, cultural, religious, parent and community groups who would be willing to share information with parents and families and be willing to share information about potential participants with school readiness programs.
  • Produce specific promotion and marketing materials, such as brochures, advertising, etc., that promotes and encourages families enrolling their children in school readiness programs, offer services and technical assistance to school readiness programs that need to increase enrollment in their programs.
  • Create a sustainable plan for encouraging families to enroll their children every year.

Challenges and Assumptions

Early childhood programs are often perceived by parents and families as a baby-sitting service with low-paid, non-professional staff. HCFI believes that most of the new school readiness programs have been filled by families who already understand the value of such programs and had been waiting for new opportunities to arise. We now need to reach parents and families who are not traditionally connected to early childhood services. This is a very difficult task and requires good research and the use of creative methods to reach them.


In February 1999, there were 592 children using School Readiness funded slots. We knew that by the summer there would be an additional 360 openings and that they would need to be filled quickly in order to receive continued local and state funding. We were also hoping to demonstrate that there was a need for additional funding. One of the most valuable pieces of this project was the focus group research we did with parents. We found out that parents want these services and that they understood how important it was for their children to be in quality programs. However, we also discovered that parents found it very difficult to get information about the programs, where there were openings and how to register their children. Not only did the focus groups help us design the campaign, we also used the research to show the Hartford School Readiness Council for the need of creating a coordinated system of pre-K for the city. They have adopted this goal and are currently working to create a consumer-friendly system. Through a media campaign and community outreach and public relations efforts, we were able to place 1,320 children in school readiness classrooms, an increase of enrollment of 728 children a 123% improvement over 1999. Even though there was confusion the first few weeks, the public awareness campaign not only quickly filled classrooms, but also created the catalyst for the community-based providers and the school system to work closer together and begin creating a better coordinated system.

Phase I Primary Research — Focus Group Findings

Highlights from a focus group made-up from the City of Hartford’s Early Childhood Leadership

  • Expectations —Fill every available slot; maintain quality; assist parents in the many ways to provide quality care; change public perception of baby sitting service; Hartford children are more needy than other kids
  • Criteria that must be met — The program must be cost-effective, conveniently located, and safe.
  • What parents expect— A nurturing environment, continuity among caregivers (reduced staff turnover), a happy experience for their child, and knowing that their child is learning
  • The attraction for parents — Their child will do better in school, low or no cost, life is made easier (freedom to work or do errands) while their child is at the program, single point of entry for school enrollment and early childhood resources. Parent advocates and liaisons are accessible representatives for the preschool program.
  • Ideas for marketing messages — Guarantees child’s first steps are quality steps, grows your child’s brain, maximizes your child’s potential, children at the program are with a second family parents can trust

Highlights from a focus group of the City of Hartford’s Community Leadership

  • Issues / Perceptions — Positive feedback, hard-to-reach parents are suspicious of government; social / family problems prevent people from participating, parents are made to feel inferior, and provide information to parents in a friendly and customer service approach
  • Criteria that must be met — Affordability, convenient location, transportation, and safety
  • Ideas for marketing messages — Provide positive experience for child, prepare your child for school, social interaction best for growing your child, more positive messages about Hartford School System
  • Communications delivery systems — Door to door, appeal to children directly, parent presentations via various government and community groups, video of program (interview of providers, parents and children), billboards, bus ads, bus stop shelters, brochures in English and Spanish for referral network (health, social service, one-stop shopping for registration (school, center, or community orgs.), educate social workers about programs, and city-wide events and festivals.

Highlights of the focus groups from the parents of 3 and 4 year olds
Note: Four focus groups (10 to 15 each) in which the composition reflected the demographics of the City of Hartford (45% Hispanic, 45% African-American, and 10% mixed)

  • Preconceptions — Preschool should prepare my child for school; give attention to my child; it’s important that my child is learning something and socializing with her/his peers; learning, knowledge and socialization
  • Expectations — Care, safety, attention, affection, love and dedication for the children, children will develop skills for the future, learn to respect others, learn reading and math. The program should also offer parenting help
  • Criteria that must be met— Cost-effectiveness, cleanliness, convenience of location, safety, and an all-day program
  • How parents learned about the program — Capitol Region Work Force, teacher, relative, neighbor, CT Labor Department, banner on building, AHOP, West Middle School, and friend
  • Issues / Challenges — Parents want more reading and learning exercise to make the program more challenging for 5 year olds, suspicion of large controlling institutions, fear of looking dumb and stupid, and the need for more publicity
  • Ideas for marketing messages — Great experience, helps your child, important for your child to succeed, you can trust program, the people taking care of my child truly care.
  • Communications delivery systems — Banners, billboards, bus displays, word of mouth, workshops, city groups, Infoline, clinics, public access TV, radio, weekly newspapers, flyers in neighborhoods, civic and religious leaders

Phase II — Findings

The consensus among the focus group participants (Parents and Community Contacts) and Early Childhood leadership was to create more of an awareness of the value of early childhood school readiness, and communicate what a parent should know about Hartford’s programs.

Along with the fundamental goal of recruiting three and four year olds for enrollment, there are other purposes for marketing and communicating the school readiness program. This includes: creating trust between schools and parents, presenting the success of the program and illustrating the fun the child and parent will have by participating in the program.

After meeting with the Superintendent of Schools, it became clear that he is committed to assigning many classrooms to the school readiness program for the next school year, so there will be plenty of open spaces for preschool candidates. By focusing upon the instructional / developmental value of the experience a young child will have in this program, as well as other opportunities for enrichment, it will be possible to both increase awareness and build trust.

Components of the Campaign:

1. Internal Communication and Marketing

  • Targeted Groups: School Readiness and Early Childhood Providers, Referral agencies (health, social service, education, etc.), Parent facilitators (public school advocates), Parent advocate groups, and Educators
  • Goal: Be proactive by providing information to parents and guardians in a friendly and thoughtful way in order to enroll 3 and 4 year olds in the program
  • Tactics: Training, training materials, and information literature

2. External Communication and Marketing

  • Targeted Groups: Parents, Educators, Referral agencies, Public Policy Officials
  • Goal: Reassure and encourage the parents and the guardians of 3 and 4 year-olds of the importance of enrolling their child in a school readiness program
  • Tactics: Banners at school readiness sites, brochure, bus display, bus shelter display, billboards, weekly neighborhood newspapers, State of Connecticut Infoline

3. Public Relations

  • Goal: Create a script and talking points to all professionals and support groups to talk about school readiness in a single voice using bona fide information provided by authorized officials.
  • Tactics: Presentations and guest appearances with local radio shows, churches, civic groups and other officials

Phase III — Recommendations & Campaign Messages

Ultimately, parents and caregivers constitute the primary audience for communications intended to educate them about the preschool program and persuade them to enroll their children. A strong, proactive creative concept will have enough energy and substance not only to communicate to secondary and tertiary audiences, but also give them the information and confidence they need to help them promote and use the program. The increased awareness generated by this campaign will strengthen subsequent enrollment efforts and validate funding for more program centers. The three principal creative ideas focus on the themes of Neighborhood/Community, Education and Love/Responsibility.

1. Neighborhood / Community Focus
Opportunities for your young child are right here in your neighborhood.
You want a better education for your child — Well so do we.

  • Theme centers on parent / teacher / caregiver testimonials and emphasizes family and teacher relationships. This solution would make the point that children are products of their environments, and the future of our community.
  • Images include a Mom/Dad/Guardian, toddler and teacher together.

2. Education
Description: All day Pre-Kindergarten education and care center that prepares your child for school.
Tagline: Where every child is at the top of the class.

  • This theme focuses on children currently in the program, highlighting kids’ day-to-day achievements and successes (e.g., motor skills, the arts, socialization, etc.). The emphasis: exploring personal interests in a friendly, non-competitive environment.
  • Images include a picture of a happy toddler with blocks.
  • Headline: Carlos Rodrieguez, top of his class in building.

3. Love/Responsibility
Prepare your kids for a brighter future.
You want a better education for your child—and you have the perfect answer, right here where you live and work.
Now, there’s no excuse for not providing a pre-school/pre-K experience for your child.

  • This idea hinges on intimate visuals of parents and their children. The preschool program represents a great opportunity that some parents may never have had. Parents always want the best for their children. With the proper education they will be better prepared for tomorrow, both academically and socially.
  • Images include parent and child looking at one another.