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Recruiting is on, whether you call it that or not

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published July 10. 2014 4:00AM

It began with Groton Superintendent of Schools Michael Graner: "Groton schools, in an era of school choice, need to be sure they're viewed as a desirable option," he said.

Frank Todisco, the chairman of the Stonington Board of Education, followed: "(We want) to make sure that we're as competitive as we can be," alluding to how programs at the middle and high school levels must remain "engaging, challenging and relevant."

Their words appeared in The Day last week in Deb Straszheim's eye-opening story.

Loosely translated, do you know what we can infer from their comments?

"Let the free-for-all begin."

That's right. If you think recruiting has been rampant, particularly for athletes, start humming Bachman-Turner Overdrive: You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet.

It's on. Everywhere. As one athletic director in the Eastern Connecticut Conference said this week: "It's almost like if you're not out there trying to get kids, you are falling behind."

It is, very likely, to the everlasting distaste of public school advocates that they must now try to sell their school systems in their respective towns. Hey there, Montville kid, have you ever considered perhaps attending Montville High?

Don't laugh. This is the residual effect of school choice. And we have plenty in this corner of the world, most notably at New London and Ledyard, home of marquee athletic programs in feature sports.

Ledyard attracts prospective students from surrounding towns through its Agri-Science Program, which offers programs in Animal Science, Aquaculture, Natural Resources, Agricultural Mechanics/Technology and Plant Science. (And have we mentioned football and boys' basketball are really good?)

New London attracts prospective high school students from surrounding towns through its Science & Technology School. (It'll soon be an all-magnet district. And have we mentioned football and boys' basketball are really good?)

Notez bien: The Agri-Science program and the magnet school at New London are lauded, deservedly so, for their educational value. This isn't to accuse either school of recruiting. And I've had accusations up to my scalp anyway. Either give me names, dates, places and other specifics about the alleged recruitment or keep it moving.

Besides, the definition of "recruiting" is murky. It's permissible, remember, for representatives from schools of choice to enter middle schools now and sing hosannas about all their programs. Athletics among them.

The larger point here is the acknowledgement from leaders like Graner and Todisco, who see kids leaving their school systems for schools of choice. Hence, we encounter another new era in education. Public school systems need to explore marketing strategies. Hire a marketing director, perhaps? The geezers who vote down school budgets out of reflex will love that one.

Marketing is happening already. Norwich Free Academy, for instance, marketed itself last year through visual mediums, including video ads during The Day's webcasts of high school games. New London schools also used The Day's webcasts as well as state television outlets to promote itself. It's very likely Ledyard will promote its Agri-Science program to the entire region as never before in the fall.

This, of course, doesn't adhere strictly to athletics. It's just that recruiting for athletic purposes happens more frequently, than, say, for the fabulous math department. File that under sad but true.

It's getting harder to compete as a you-get-what-you-get public school with no mechanism to attract kids from other towns. Maybe it's time the Waterfords, Montvilles and Stoningtons flexed their muscles a little.

Waterford: Come here and play before "Lancer Nation," the best student section ever.

Montville: Come play baseball for Phil Orbe, who has won three more state titles than virtually anybody else around here in the last 10 years.

Stonington: We won two state titles in girls' sports last year. Can any of you other bowsers say that?

This is a very touchy subject, surely. Where a family decides to educate its child is nobody else's business. If Family A has a kid who happens to be a good football player, I have no issue with him going to play for a good coach. Same as Family B, whose kid is a science wizard, finding the best program at the best school he or she can.

But it's getting more competitive than ever. No longer can you assume any kid is going anywhere. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, the state's governing body for high school athletics, has neither the time nor the means to investigate the potentially exponential number of allegations. And on their best day, the rules are ambiguous.

Hence, the free-for-all is on. Market yourself or get trampled.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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