Environmental factors

Fort Worth schools’ problem isn’t marketing, its academics

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It’s a general rule that if a product or service is good, it will sell itself.

A solid reputation — usually built on a product doing what its purveyor says it will and doing it well — goes a lot farther than any marketing campaign ever could. Moreover, it renders the latter superfluous, even unnecessary.

What does Fort Worth ISD’s decision to spend $1.2 million on a campaign to draw students say about its schools, then?

Nothing good, I’m afraid.

School board trustees recently approved, 7-2, a contract with a Dallas-based marketing firm as part of a PR effort to stem the significant enrollment decline the district has experienced in recent years.

In each of the last two academic years (2020-21 and 2021-22), Fort Worth ISD has lost roughly 16,000 students to other districts or charter schools — this at a time when the DFW population is increasing by leaps and bounds.

Some of that attrition has been to traditional public schools in neighboring districts, outside of the city.

But according to data from the Texas Education Agency, most students “transfer out” now attend area charter schools, which seem to have exploded in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of ​​late.

That isn’t surprising.

Fort Worth ISD has struggled for years with academic achievement, bringing up the rear on math and reading proficiency levels when compared to similar districts throughout the state.

Where it leads the pack is with its preponderance of poorly rated schools.

District leadership’s proclivity to commit unforced errors — from bathroom policy controversy and arguments over critical race theory to curriculum concerns and pandemic-related drama — has siphoned away attention and resources that should have been focused on improving student performance. Fort Worth has ceded a lot of land to alternative educational institutions. It’s even made the environment ripe for them to thrive — and many are.

To be fair, area charter schools are not universally academic powerhouses. Like more traditional public schools, some excel where others flounder. And Fort Worth ISD is showing signs of modest improvement, earning a “B” grade in the latest state ratings.

The latest testing data from the state shows that a handful of local charters performed worse than Fort Worth ISD in math and reading — a circumstance some of those school representatives attribute to more rigorous coursework and recent curriculum changes.

But many charters performed at least as well or significantly better than Fort Worth ISD.

And for many of the parents I’ve talked with, academics and curriculum are only part of the appeal of charter schools.

For one thing, many charter schools remained open during the pandemic, when Fort Worth ISD offered only virtual learning.

There are environmental factors, too, such as more discipline, more accountability, better communication and better support. That often keeps kids — and parents — more engaged.

What’s more is that in Texas, if a charter school’s performance is consistently low, its contract with the state may be revoked.

The same cannot be said for public schools with poor academic accountability ratings; if that were true, many Fort Worth ISD schools would have ceased to exist long ago.

Some good news for the district is that it did see some improvement in its STAAR testing results this year (it actually surpassed the district’s own lackluster projections). But it remains woefully behind other large Texas districts, including Dallas ISD which has similar demographics and challenges.

But back to the marketing campaign.

David Saenz, Fort Worth ISD’s chief of innovation, who addressed details of the contract with Fort Worth ISD’s board of trustees at its June meeting, said that it was necessary for the district to get a better understanding of its market and stay on par with its competitors.

That may be true. Thankfully, there are a lot of educational options available in Fort Worth.

And in the grand scheme of Fort Worth ISD’s expansive budget, $1.2 million is a drop in the bucket.

But as trustee Michael Ryan (who is, notably, a former Fort Worth ISD administrator) plainly asked, “Will we be better off getting that money to the people we have now to have better results in the classroom?”

Almost certainly.

“You could hire tutors — a lot of tutors — with this,” he added.

I’m sure I’m not the only taxpayer who agrees.

When Fort Worth ISD has a good product to sell, it won’t need a marketing campaign to attract students.

Until then, every dollar should be spent on improving student academic outcomes.

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Cynthia Allen joined the Star-Telegram Editorial Board in 2014 after a decade of working in government and public affairs in Washington, DC She is a member of the Editorial Board and writes a weekly opinion column on a wide array of topics, including politics, faith and motherhood.

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