Region's high schools hustling to attract students

Walter Canova, right, the auto shop teacher at Waterford High School, shows a group of eighth-graders from Clark Lane Middle School the car lift in his shop during a tour of the high school.
Walter Canova, right, the auto shop teacher at Waterford High School, shows a group of eighth-graders from Clark Lane Middle School the car lift in his shop during a tour of the high school.

Choosing a high school in the region has become a walk through the buffet line, children and their parents studying the options with a chess champion's concentration. Magnet school? Private school? Agri-Science? Marine sciences? Regular old high school?

What's a family to do?

No longer is a student, for example, in Montville bound to attend the town's high school. He or she has a dozen other choices: New London Science and Technology Magnet School, the Marine Science High School of Southeastern Connecticut in Groton, Grasso Tech, Ledyard High School's Agri-Science program, Norwich Free Academy, Norwich Tech, St. Bernard, the Williams School, Academy of the Holy Family, St. Thomas More, Arts at the Capitol Theater Magnet School in Willimantic, and Three Rivers Middle College High School.

Many school systems have responded with marketing campaigns to convince students and their parents that their "product" is superior.

Television advertising. Print media advertising. Radio. Internet ads. YouTube. Social media. Promotional videos. Fairs. Open houses.

Open season.

"With so many choices out there now for families, you're going to be left out if you are not selling your product,"
Ledyard High School athletic director and football coach Jim Buonocore said last week. "This isn't 10 or 20 years ago."

Some school officials cringe at the "sell your product" tune, believing that a child's education bears more significance than something that sits on a shelf at Wal-Mart. But Buonocore and others say that schools that don't get the word out take the chance of getting left behind.

"With choice comes competition," said Geoff Serra, the director of communications at NFA. "If you're going to be in the school choice market, you have to accept that marketing is important."

Several schools throughout the region are using visual mediums to promote themselves, including promotional videos seen on school websites, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

"There's something about video that captures kids where they are," Ledyard principal Amanda Fagan said.

Waterford, despite opening a $67 million high school last year that has all the latest technology, has lost an average of 125 students in the last four years to schools of choice, according to the school system's recent study. In response, school officials surveyed eighth-graders at Clark Lane Middle School about their potential plans, likes and dislikes, later asking popular social studies teacher and boys' high school basketball coach Greg Gwudz to coordinate the first "Lancer Fair."

The eighth-graders walked the halls of the new high school, met many of the high school students and saw all the offerings for the first time.

"We want to create a tradition of doing this," Clark Lane Principal Jim Sachs said. "We called it a 'fun walk.' The kids got out of school. They loved it. They were received by the kids at the high school. It looked like a wedding ceremony."

Gwudz said the high school kids led the tours and happily "bragged" about all things Waterford High. There was an activity fair, question-and-answer panel and an eight-minute promotional video trumpeting every cranny of the high school: its educational opportunities, sports teams, "Lancer Nation," the clever, clamorous student section and even a shout-out to Mike O'Connor, a marine biology teacher who was recently named Teacher of the Year in his field.

Gwudz's rapport with the students comes in large part because of his success as a coach. And sports have become a tool - some would say a weapon - in courting prospective students.

General idea: Come to our school, play for our coach, get a scholarship and your parents don't have to pay for college.

Ledyard, for example, has been accused publicly and privately of using its agri-science program for athletic gain, which school officials deny.

Fagan said that 230 of the school's 897 students participate in the Agri-Science program. Of the 230 students, 166 of them are not from Ledyard, Gales Ferry or Mashantucket. Buonocore said that 15 kids in the Agri-Science program are participating in athletics among the nine sports offered this fall. Thirty-four participated throughout last school year.

"That certainly doesn't reflect the perception of what Agri-Science does for athletics," Buonocore said. "We shouldn't have to apologize for what we offer. For years, we were the only show (among schools of choice) in southeastern Connecticut. Now, NFA has really stepped up its game. New London has the magnet school. There are many others. We need to make people aware of what we have."

NFA ups its marketing

Even NFA, the region's largest high school, believes its message must be told.

"The result of enrollment projections indicated we would face a decline over the next five years," said Serra, the director of communications. "Our projections included birthrates and mobility factors. But one thing they didn't include was the effect of marketing. So we jumped into the game. In a competitive market, your reputation will only carry you so far."

NFA, which draws its student body of about 2,300 from 10 towns, has sponsored sporting events on theday.com with video ads as a way to reach parents and prospective students, among many other marketing methods.

"I'm no marketing expert, but to reach all channels, you must saturate the market on all levels," Serra said. "Some are inexpensive, like social media."

NFA also uses radio and print ads and events on campus as part of its marketing campaign.

"If you get people to campus, we believe they're more likely to choose NFA," Serra said. "It's hustling."

It's about to get more competitive, too, expanding beyond high school when New London goes to an all-magnet district. Soon, parents of elementary school students will have a choice.

New London officials advertised their "product" on WFSB (channel 3) and www.theday.com, among other places, last winter and spring during the lottery application period for elementary schools.

"It's the best way of trying to reach parents outside New London," said Julianne Hanckel, the communications manager for New London Public Schools, a position that didn't exist just a few years ago. "We want to stand out among the rest as the best."

m.dimauro@theday.com

Twitter: @BCgenius

Waterford High School jazz band members, from left, Andrew Impellitteri, 16, Dakota Payette, 16, Matthew Milukas, 17, and Natalie Bush, 17, play as a tour group of eighth-graders from Clark Lane Middle School return to the field house foyer after a tour of the school.
Waterford High School jazz band members, from left, Andrew Impellitteri, 16, Dakota Payette, 16, Matthew Milukas, 17, and Natalie Bush, 17, play as a tour group of eighth-graders from Clark Lane Middle School return to the field house foyer after a tour of the school.

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