CUSD trying to win back students it lost - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

CUSD trying to win back students it lost

May 24th, 2021 development
CUSD trying to win back students it lost

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Chandler Unified School District is hoping a new marketing strategy will help attract enough new students to replace the 2,000 pupils that left the district during the pandemic.

Since schools started closing down last spring, CUSD and most other school districts have been gradually seeing their enrollment decline as parents sought alternative learning environments for their children.

Even as schools started to reopen in October, district officials worried enough students had already left to make a major impact on Chandler Unified’s revenue and budget.

CUSD is now promoting a message aimed at better positioning the district to compete against charter schools or homeschooling options.

“We’re hoping to attract those students back to Chandler by focusing on the marketing of (CUSD) and what makes Chandler a district of choice,” said Larry Rother, district’s executive director of educational services.

CUSD has recently begun partnering with First Strategic, a Phoenix-based public relations firm, to launch a campaign aimed at local families with young children.

Rother said CUSD has identified 3,200 families with preschool-aged children who could potentially enroll in the district.

If the district can attract these younger students in the early years of their education, Rother said they’ll be more likely to stay in CUSD all the way through high school.

In addition to sending these families mailers with information about CUSD, the district is executing some strategies to get their attention online and through social media.

“We’re looking at ways to really hone in and target our families and provide them information,” Rother said.

One of those strategies includes using geographical data to find out when parents are physically passing by a CUSD campus and then sending them alerts, reminding them about the district’s programs.   

“When families are around our buildings geographically, (they’ll) see one of those pop-up ads or targeted advertisements,” Rother said.

CUSD has been attempting to spread a message that communicates its mission to educate the “whole child,” meaning a focus that values social-emotional intelligence as much as academics.

Whether or not that messaging rings true will probably vary depending on the audience who hears it.

The district has often been regularly criticized this past year for making decisions during the pandemic that some parents viewed as not being in the best interest of students.

Many parents have repeatedly urged district officials to “put students first” above all other stakeholders regarding controversial subjects involving mask mandates or school closures.

Interim Superintendent Frank Narducci has recently said that moving forward, the district’s mission and strategic plans will attempt to reflect and reiterate a student-focused message.

Online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are where CUSD has been directing its “whole-child” messaging by publishing plenty of positive, uplifting news items about the district.

The district’s Facebook page currently racks up about 10,000 impressions on a weekly basis. CUSD is hoping its partnership with First Strategic will generate up to 10 million impressions throughout the community.

On a daily basis, CUSD is posting pictures of notable students and celebrating their academic achievements — in the hopes that it might garner the attention of some families considering enrolling in the district.

“We certainly need to get the good word out about what we’re doing in our schools,” Rother added.

Districts all over Arizona are having to be more creative with its marketing efforts as they attempt to return to the pre-pandemic enrollment numbers they had been operating under.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, more than 38,500 students have disappeared from the state’s classrooms during the pandemic.

Preschoolers and kindergartners have accounted for nearly 42 percent of the enrollment loss throughout Arizona.

CUSD Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said student enrollment has become one of the Chandler Unified’s biggest priorities because it is the district’s biggest revenue generator.

“If they don’t come, the money doesn’t flow in,” she noted.

The enrollment issue will likely remain a dominant topic even after the pandemic ends, Berry added, since national birth rates have been declining in recent years and Chandler is getting closer to running out of land to develop into new housing.

Not only is CUSD concerned about attracting enough new students, but it’s worried about preventing the pupils it already has from dropping out.

Recent data suggests absenteeism rates have increased throughout CUSD during the pandemic and students are completing fewer credits than in previous years.

In a normal year, CUSD may have about 8 percent of its students categorized as experiencing “chronic absenteeism,” meaning they have missed at least 10 percent of their total instructional time.

But the ongoing pandemic has caused Chandler’s absenteeism rate to jump to 15.6 percent, according to Amber Stouard, the district’s research director. 

It’s important to keep absenteeism rates low, she explained, because chronic absenteeism is often an early indicator of students on the verge of dropping out.

“We don’t want students to drop out,” Stouard said. “We know if they’re engaged in school, we’ll continue to have them come to class and we can lower our dropout rate.”

The district is blaming the pandemic for a declining rate in the number of credits students are finishing in a semester.

According to CUSD data, about 84 percent of the district’s ninth graders earned at least 5.5 credits during the current school year. In 2020, the district’s completion rate was 92 percent.

CUSD is hoping students who fell behind academically during the pandemic may be able to catch up during summer school and get back on track by the next school year.