Marketing Your Schools Effectively

Success Stories:


Rocky Hill High School Referendum Wins Overwhelming (2012)


For more than 30 years, Rocky Hill High School weathered the dynamics of educational programming and student needs. But an accreditation review in 2011 by the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC) brought sobering news: the high school was placed on “warning” status after site visits uncovered shortcomings in the areas of Standards on Community Resources as well as Curriculum. To remove the warning status, Rocky Hill had to demonstrate that it had satisfactorily addressed the areas of concern cited by NEASC. This included developing and implementing a plan to address space limitations and all identified facilities concerns. Two previous referendums had been held over the prior 3 years to fund school renovation projects. Both had failed by two to one margins.

Education and a sense of urgency needed to be conveyed to the community to build support for the referendum that could ultimately determine the accreditation of the town’s high school. Rocky Hill’s Board of Education retained First Experience Communications (FEC) to support the project. The project became more complicated when Jeffrey Villar, Superintendent of Schools, left to become superintendent in Windsor. An interim superintendent was retained to continue this effort that was in progress for over 2 years. The transition went more smoothly because he had been through this type of effort and FEC worked with him before.


FEC developed a multi-pronged communication and community education campaign to promote the passage of a referendum that would authorize the funding of a $45 million high school renovation project. FEC developed mailers, newsletters and school messenger communication initiatives (through phone calls and e-mails).

FEC also recommended and helped plan a community meeting held at the end of January, which approximately 750 people attended. Following detailed presentations by school officials, tours of the school were offered so attendees could see first hand the deficiencies that had been described. A dedicated website, called was developed to direct the public to additional information about NEASC and the high school in order to further educate the community. Citizens were encouraged to respond to the site and many did, providing the board a “barometer” of the community.

To remain within the State’s election law, rules of promotion that limit a town or school board’s ability to proactively communicate support for a referendum initiative prior to voting, FEC recommended establishing a Political Action Committee (PAC) group in March to be the public voice of support for the referendum initiative. The group was named “Stay Accredited.” A grassroots community campaign was launched with a special Facebook website ( Blogs were written in support of the referendum. Media outreach provided information and updates to new (i.e. Patch) and traditional print and broadcast media, including Hartford Courant & Channels 3 & 30, to help spread the message to get involved.


In a critical referendum on June 5, 2012, Rocky Hill voters overwhelmingly (by a three to one margin) approved the $45 million referendum to renovate the town’s high school “as-new” and add 11,700 square-feet of space. Nearly 37% of the town’s 11,149 registered voters cast ballots.  Town officials and news reports credited the high turnout and support to the marketing and campaign efforts. The Hartford Courant said the results were “a reflection of the energetic, multipronged campaign waged by referendum proponents to mobilize community support and get out the vote among parents and younger voters.” More than 400 Facebook users had acted as proactive ambassadors in reaching voters in Rocky Hill households.


West Hartford Magnet School Parent Engagement Recruitment Campaign (2012)


The West Hartford School District wanted to create an effective marketing campaign to educate parents who have the option of sending their child to the town’s magnet schools: Charter Oak International Academy (Charter Oak) and Florence E. Smith School of Science, Math & Technology (Smith). Their goal was to increase West Hartford student enrollment for the 2012-13 school year in these programs from approximately 3% to 5% (30 students) between both schools.


To understand what prevents West Hartford families from enrolling their children in the town’s magnet schools, and to learn about the value and benefits from parents who have their child in one of town’s magnet school programs, an electronic survey was sent to 2,900 West Hartford elementary parents in January 2012. The survey realized a 12% response rate, with 359 individuals responding, placing the margin of error at less than 5%. Qualitative comments were analyzed for frequency of mention by topic and culled to cite specific examples of perceptions as well as potential future testimonials.

The survey vetted general knowledge of the West Hartford magnet schools. Of the 359 respondents, 226 (63%) said they knew West Hartford Public Schools offered two unique options to their local elementary school with Charter Oak International Academy and the Florence E. Smith School of Science, Math & Technology. However, 93 respondents (26%) said they had heard of one or both of the schools, but they did not know their child could attend as a magnet student. Only 40 respondents (11%) said they had not heard of the schools.

Approximately 320 respondents familiar with the magnet schools rated their level of knowledge on the schools’ themes. Of the total, only 35 people (11%) felt they could explain it to their friends and neighbors. The largest cluster of write-in comments could be classified as “Information/ Communication/ Questions” on magnet schools, underscoring the need for Q&A sharing with the community. The majority response to the question: If you were invited to take a tour of the programs, would you go? was favorable: 209 people (58%) said “yes.”

It was important to learn how Parents would want to get and share information with the district and with other Parents. Parents indicated their preferences for receiving information on West Hartford magnet schools:

  • Email (59%),
  • Mail – i.e. brochure (48%),
  • Through neighborhood elementary school, i.e. presentation, (43%)
  • Web site (38%)
  •  Other communication options, such as local newspaper and social media received below 10% preference ratings.

Eighty-five respondents indicated they would be willing to participate in a focus group on the Magnet School programs. Drawing on the “yes” responses, two focus groups (one at each magnet school) were conducted. Facilitation explored perceptions of the magnet schools, areas of confusion, important messaging to include on website and in other communications. Focus group input and reactions during the magnet school tour that followed, underscored the power of visual images and firsthand knowledge would have in building understanding and interest in the magnet schools. Getting people to sign up for a tour would be paramount to success. Again, parents showed little interest in using social media tools to communicate among themselves.

Professional photography of each school in session was shot. Images were used in a redesigned website and new brochure. Content for website, brochure and other communications addressed key messaging (Q&A) people identified as needing to better understand the West Hartford magnet school options and make a decision. Copy was kept to a minimum… images took priority. 


At the end of March, West Hartford Public Schools superintendent’s office reported that interest was much higher at both magnet school open houses. Attendance results follow:

  • Charter Oak international Academy: 23 in attendance versus 8 attendees in 2011
  • Florence E. Smith School of Science, Math & Technology: 70 in attendance versus 20 attendees in 2011

Note: As of today, the final enrollment is not complete, but West Hartford believes an increase will occur.