Charter schools excel – at PR

UPDATE: Matt Shafer Powell, chief content officer of WFYI Public Media, provided the following statement regarding this post and its reference to a letter supporting the Rooted School charter application:

As a journalistic enterprise, WFYI Public Media does not endorse nor support any particular argument or set of opinions within the charter school debate.  It’s important to us that the public recognizes WFYI as an independent voice, without editorial bias or influence. The letter in question is not representative of WFYI’s viewpoint.  It was written by a non-news employee who was unaware that the inclusion of WFYI’s name on the letter was an objectionable practice.

WFYI recently developed an ethics guide for each of its employees and will soon embark on an organization-wide training program to make sure everyone understands their role in our journalistic mission. Our hope is that such incidents as this are rare or non-existent in the future.

Kudos to WFYI for this thoughtful, ethical response.

Research has found that charter schools, overall, are no more effective than public schools at raising student achievement. But there’s one area where they seem to run circles around public schools:

Marketing and public relations.

How else can you explain the way individual charter schools generate so many favorable stories in the news media? It’s an impressive skill, one that public-school leaders might want to study.

Here’s an example: Rooted School, a charter school that will “replicate” its model next year on the east side of Indianapolis. Its Indy launch was announced last week as part of a larger education effort by Eastern Star Church in partnership with The Mind Trust, a charter support organization.

Rooted School, which was awarded a charter to operate in Indiana by the Indianapolis mayor’s office, has a compelling backstory and a timely model: its focus is on preparing students for high-paying tech jobs. But its track record is thin. Its only school, in New Orleans, opened in 2017. The charter school has 163 students in grades 9-11, and it won’t have its first graduates until 2021.

So it’s remarkable that Rooted School has received positive coverage from national outlets like NPR, The 74, the Hechinger Report and Forbes, plus a gushing Forbes column written by one of the school’s board members and local stories from The Indianapolis school launch was covered by Chalkbeat Indiana, WFYI and the Indianapolis Recorder.

We sometimes think of public relations as manipulative and even slightly dishonest, but the most important part of PR is being responsive to the public and the press. While writing this post, I reached out via email for clarification about the Rooted School in New Orleans. Rooted School founder and CEO Jonathan Johnson responded promptly, answered my questions and replied right away to a follow-up. Maybe that attention to detail helps explain some of the school’s PR success.

Charter schools have also shown impressive skill at connecting with influential people, not just philanthropists but community leaders. The Indy launch of Rooted School featured not only Eastern Star Church and Mind Trust leaders but Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson. The school’s Indiana charter application included endorsements from officials with Central Indiana Community Foundation, WFYI public broadcasting, several local nonprofits and – appropriate to a school focused on tech jobs – leaders of technology companies.

Less positive is the fact that the owner of one Indy tech company and the CEO of another provided the same letter of support. “Over my career, I’ve seen our country and world change while our schools have not,” they wrote, in testimonials that went on for almost 400 nearly identical words.

Suggestion to tech leaders: If you’re going to put your name on someone else’s work, avoid the clichés.

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