Marketing Public Schools: Strategies for Community Engagement 

How to Engage a Divided Community to invest $112.3 million for a Community Education Center that includes the high school, early childhood & administrative offices (2017)

November 8 2017 Willimantic Chronicle Headline: “…voters said “yes” to the $112.3 million Windham High School renovation project that will upgrade the high school like new. The vote tally was 1,418-1,292. The building project will allow the Windham School System to move central offices to WHS in addition to the Windham Early Childhood Center.”

Criteria and Limitations: A PAC group had to be reconstituted and raise $5,000 due to the election law limitations that restricted the school district from using tax monies and other school resources. All of this had to be done in 8 weeks that usually ends with a low voter turnout rejecting school budgets and capital funding. The Windham/Willimantic is divided along cultural and economic lines with most decisions made by a small group of older white males (elected and appointed) who do not have children in school, and did not want to use town funds to support the mostly Latino (Puerto Rican) community.

Goal Achieved: The PAC group recruited than 500+ new voters who came out to win the high school renovation project. The winning margin was by 124 votes with a 25% turnout. This is the largest turnout since 2006. Usual turnout is no higher than 11% with budgets and referendums being defeated by 300 to 400 votes. It takes 3 to 4 times to get these passed with school budgets taking the brunt of the cuts. This was all due to a concerted effort to recruiting almost 100 volunteers that included: teachers, parents, high school and college students, senior citizens, other community and religious groups.

How was this done?

Organize the PAC group as the primary voice for engaging the community, create a compelling message, and recruit or register voters. The PAC group will recruit other groups that present to the community why renovate as new the high school as part of a Community Education Center that will serve as a primary place for our children to prepare for their future with the best facilities, technology and education tools possible for their success.

  • Investing in the high school and the Early Childhood program within this single facility directly helps to optimize opportunity for 880+ children, many of who will continue to live and work in Windham.
  • The high school serves as a community center, an asset with a 660-seat auditorium, two gyms and a pool, and hosts many civic and cultural groups, town events and regional sports competitions.
  • Up-to-date, quality school buildings provide students academic tools they need to succeed in today’s globally competitive world, and help attract qualified teachers.

Messaging ideas to major target audience:

  • The H.S. referendum outcome will determine how we proceed to educate our students to be successful in their future endeavors or leave to forces beyond our control where and how our students will receive their education.
  • Getting more parents (elementary mothers are key) engaged and out to vote. You are the key for getting the referendum passed. It will affect your children in a few years.


  • Campaign Milestones (Action Dates):
    • Brochure, media, community TV, recruiting volunteers to go door to door, etc.
  • Website and Social Media:
  • Budget:
    • Brochures, ads, banners, boards, etc.
  • Committees and Chairs
    • Finance, Outreach/canvassing, Recruiting Volunteers, Community Presentations,

Define targeted audiences in Windham/Willimantic and third party supporters (businesses, aging adults, ECSU, etc.) and review voter list to see who voted last time.

Communication Phases for Community-based Building/Budget Referendums

The school district leadership must decide on goals and plan of action regarding how to present budget or capital projects by addressing the important educational/cultural/economic issues, and the benefits and impact these projects will have on the community.


  • Goals
    • Build a High School as part of a Community Education Center that will serve as a primary place for our children to prepare for their future with the best physical and education tool possible for their success.
    • Investing in the High School as part of the Community Education Center and Early Childhood program directly helps to educate our children who will live and work in our community. Schools fill a number of service roles in the community; civic and cultural groups, adult education, and facilities for sporting events are just a few. Our community is better off when individuals take part in deciding the direction of one of our most valuable community assets. Up to date quality school buildings attract qualified teachers and provide students with tools they need to succeed in today’s competitive world. These qualities in our schools make Windham an attractive place to live, work and raise a family; directly affecting the overall value of your property.
  • Messaging
    • The H.S. referendum outcome will determine how we proceed to educate our students to be successful in their future endeavors or leave to forces beyond our control where and how our students will receive a quality education.
    • Windham’s largest employers are our education facilities that include: our public schools, university and community college, and private and religious schools. The community’s future is dependent of supporting our public schools from which graduates will be working and attending these institutions (need statistics). They support our businesses and housing needs.
  • Targeted audiences (Windham/Willimantic).
    • Parents (Elementary Moms)
    • Community/Civic Groups
    • Businesses
    • Churches
    • Seniors
    • Colleges
    • Staff/Teachers
    • Sports
    • Alumni

The Day – Voters got it right in backing NL schools (2014)

Getting the Word Out about New London Bond Referendum )2014)

Rocky Hill High School Referendum Wins Overwhelming (2013


For more than 30 years, Rocky Hill High School weathered the dynamics of educational programming and student needs. But an accreditation review in 2011 by the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC) brought sobering news: the high school was placed on “warning” status after site visits uncovered shortcomings in the areas of Standards on Community Resources as well as Curriculum. To remove the warning status, Rocky Hill had to demonstrate that it had satisfactorily addressed the areas of concern cited by NEASC. This included developing and implementing a plan to address space limitations and all identified facilities concerns. Two previous referendums had been held over the prior 3 years to fund school renovation projects. Both had failed by two to one margins.

Education and a sense of urgency needed to be conveyed to the community to build support for the referendum that could ultimately determine the accreditation of the town’s high school. Rocky Hill’s Board of Education retained First Experience Communications (FEC) to support the project. The project became more complicated when Jeffrey Villar, Superintendent of Schools, left to become superintendent in Windsor. An interim superintendent was retained to continue this effort that was in progress for over 2 years. The transition went more smoothly because he had been through this type of effort and FEC worked with him before.


FEC developed a multi-pronged communication and community education campaign to promote the passage of a referendum that would authorize the funding of a $45 million high school renovation project. FEC developed mailers, newsletters and school messenger communication initiatives (through phone calls and e-mails).

FEC also recommended and helped plan a community meeting held at the end of January, which approximately 750 people attended. Following detailed presentations by school officials, tours of the school were offered so attendees could see first hand the deficiencies that had been described. A dedicated website, called was developed to direct the public to additional information about NEASC and the high school in order to further educate the community. Citizens were encouraged to respond to the site and many did, providing the board a “barometer” of the community.

To remain within the State’s election law, rules of promotion that limit a town or school board’s ability to proactively communicate support for a referendum initiative prior to voting, FEC recommended establishing a Political Action Committee (PAC) group in March to be the public voice of support for the referendum initiative. The group was named “Stay Accredited.” A grassroots community campaign was launched with a special Facebook website ( Blogs were written in support of the referendum. Media outreach provided information and updates to new (i.e. Patch) and traditional print and broadcast media, including Hartford Courant & Channels 3 & 30, to help spread the message to get involved.


In a critical referendum on June 5, 2012, Rocky Hill voters overwhelmingly (by a three to one margin) approved the $45 million referendum to renovate the town’s high school “as-new” and add 11,700 square-feet of space. Nearly 37% of the town’s 11,149 registered voters cast ballots.  Town officials and news reports credited the high turnout and support to the marketing and campaign efforts. The Hartford Courant said the results were “a reflection of the energetic, multipronged campaign waged by referendum proponents to mobilize community support and get out the vote among parents and younger voters.” More than 400 Facebook users had acted as proactive ambassadors in reaching voters in Rocky Hill households.

 West Hartford Magnet School Parent Engagement Recruitment Campaign (2012)


The West Hartford School District wanted to create an effective marketing campaign to educate parents who have the option of sending their child to the town’s magnet schools: Charter Oak International Academy (Charter Oak) and Florence E. Smith School of Science, Math & Technology (Smith). Their goal was to increase West Hartford student enrollment for the 2012-13 school year in these programs from approximately 3% to 5% (30 students) between both schools.


To understand what prevents West Hartford families from enrolling their children in the town’s magnet schools, and to learn about the value and benefits from parents who have their child in one of town’s magnet school programs, an electronic survey was sent to 2,900 West Hartford elementary parents in January 2012. The survey realized a 12% response rate, with 359 individuals responding, placing the margin of error at less than 5%. Qualitative comments were analyzed for frequency of mention by topic and culled to cite specific examples of perceptions as well as potential future testimonials.

The survey vetted general knowledge of the West Hartford magnet schools. Of the 359 respondents, 226 (63%) said they knew West Hartford Public Schools offered two unique options to their local elementary school with Charter Oak International Academy and the Florence E. Smith School of Science, Math & Technology. However, 93 respondents (26%) said they had heard of one or both of the schools, but they did not know their child could attend as a magnet student. Only 40 respondents (11%) said they had not heard of the schools.

Approximately 320 respondents familiar with the magnet schools rated their level of knowledge on the schools’ themes. Of the total, only 35 people (11%) felt they could explain it to their friends and neighbors. The largest cluster of write-in comments could be classified as “Information/ Communication/ Questions” on magnet schools, underscoring the need for Q&A sharing with the community. The majority response to the question: If you were invited to take a tour of the programs, would you go? was favorable: 209 people (58%) said “yes.”

It was important to learn how Parents would want to get and share information with the district and with other Parents. Parents indicated their preferences for receiving information on West Hartford magnet schools:

  • Email (59%),
  • Mail – i.e. brochure (48%),
  • Through neighborhood elementary school, i.e. presentation, (43%)
  • Web site (38%)
  •  Other communication options, such as local newspaper and social media received below 10% preference ratings.

Eighty-five respondents indicated they would be willing to participate in a focus group on the Magnet School programs. Drawing on the “yes” responses, two focus groups (one at each magnet school) were conducted. Facilitation explored perceptions of the magnet schools, areas of confusion, important messaging to include on website and in other communications. Focus group input and reactions during the magnet school tour that followed, underscored the power of visual images and firsthand knowledge would have in building understanding and interest in the magnet schools. Getting people to sign up for a tour would be paramount to success. Again, parents showed little interest in using social media tools to communicate among themselves.

Professional photography of each school in session was shot. Images were used in a redesigned website and new brochure. Content for website, brochure and other communications addressed key messaging (Q&A) people identified as needing to better understand the West Hartford magnet school options and make a decision. Copy was kept to a minimum… images took priority. 


At the end of March, West Hartford Public Schools superintendent’s office reported that interest was much higher at both magnet school open houses. Attendance results follow:

  • Charter Oak international Academy: 23 in attendance versus 8 attendees in 2011
  • Florence E. Smith School of Science, Math & Technology: 70 in attendance versus 20 attendees in 2011

Note: As of today, the final enrollment is not complete, but West Hartford believes an increase will occur.