Charter schools must market themselves to survive

Ads use fear of bullying, promise of better education

Published in The Akron Beacon Journal on May 28, 2014 (Link)

By ASHLEY MORRIS

and BRITTANY LANDSBERGER

TheNewsOutlet.org

With profits on the line, private charter school companies are advertising on television, radio, billboards, handbills and even automated telephone messages to entice students away from public schools.

And with words such as free, flexible, one-on-one and find your future – and taking opportunities to play on fear – the privately run, publicly funded schools are being quite successful.

Enrollment in Ohio charter schools now stands at more than 120,000 in nearly 400 schools, with seven more schools expected to open next year. These quasi-public schools enroll less than 7 percent of Ohio’s students and receive $912 million in state tax dollars, about 11 percent of all state funds set aside for primary and secondary education.

State audits suggest that some Ohio charter schools spend more than $400 in public money per student to attract them away from public schools, and now public school districts are retaliating by spending their own money in an effort to keep the kids.

Previous stories by National Public Radio and USA Today reported that the schools use the internet to place advertising in front of people who search on the term “bullied at school” and children coping with depression.

The News Outlet, a student journalism lab based at Youngstown State University working with the Akron Beacon Journal, asked marketing experts to view some of the advertisements and offer their impressions.

The biggest charter school in the state is the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, an online school enrolling 14,486 students statewide.

Rob Palowitz, president of the advertising agency Palo Creative of Youngstown, said some of the charter school advertising he reviewed successfully used emotion to connect with the audience of parents and potential students. Brittany Landsberger/TheNewsOutlet.org

Rob Palowitz, president of the advertising agency Palo Creative of Youngstown, said some of the charter school advertising he reviewed successfully used emotion to connect with the audience of parents and potential students. Brittany Landsberger/TheNewsOutlet.org

Rob Palowitz, president of Palo Creative of Youngstown, watched a YouTube video produced by the Columbus-based ECOT. He said the ad worked because it triggers a parent’s fear and emotion about issues such as bullying.

“A part of marketing is (creating) an emotional tie – an emotional tie of fear, fear of exposure, fear of other people,” Palowitz said. “The emotional tie to fear of a kid, or kids, being exposed to bullying or feeling that they want to protect their child from those scenarios.”

ECOT has posted several videotaped testimonials at ECOTtv.com. Not all deal with bullying. Some target single mothers. Others target students with health issues.

Sydney DeBerry promotes the Electronic Classroom of Tommorrow in two YouTube videos as well as on ECOTtv.com. Marketing experts say the videos appeal to someone who wants to be unique. Image captured from a YouTube video.

Sydney DeBerry promotes the Electronic Classroom of Tommorrow in two YouTube videos as well as on ECOTtv.com. Marketing experts say the videos appeal to someone who wants to be unique. Image captured from a YouTube video.

One student identified as Sydney DeBerry is featured in two ECOT videos. In a 30-second clip posted in March, she talks about being verbally abused in traditional public schools. Within seconds, the mood changes, the lighting brightens and DeBerry is shown laughing with another student. In the end, DeBerry looks at the camera and says, “ECOT changed my life.”

A second, minute-long YouTube video posted in November shows her holding and dropping cue cards that tell a story:

I did well in school.

Teachers liked me.

But the other kids made fun of me.

I was stuck.

I saw a TV commercial for ECOT.

When I came to ECOT, I was broken.

But it didn’t take long before I found ME.

My teachers were fun … classmates cool.

Gained a best friend.

I started experimenting with my own style.

I learned self-expression is very important.

Being yourself is one of the key things you need to be happy.

And I am happy.

At one point, DeBerry’s mouth is covered by yellow duct tape with the words “Ugly,” “Fat” and “Weird” written in black marker.

“It appeals to someone who might be unique,” said Palowitz, “Maybe someone who wants some one-on-one attention.”

Suicide inspired ad

Nick Wilson, vice president of marketing and communications at ECOT, said the DeBerry advertisement was inspired by a conversation with a parent whose son committed suicide after years of bullying.

“He told me he didn’t know about ECOT and (was) there anything that we can do to get the word out, about ECOT, that would be beneficial to people who might have been in the same case as his son,” said Wilson.

Wilson said ECOT has a very close connection with DeBerry, who is scheduled to graduate June 7.

Gretchen Carle, 19, a former student at Howland High School near Warren also went to ECOT to escape bullying. Her experience with the online school, however, was different, she said in an interview.

“There wasn’t a lot of interaction with the teachers like they said there would be,” Carle said. “You were on your own with everything. It was very hard for me until I got a tutor.”

Carle’s parents, not the school, paid for the private tutor. She never graduated and declined to talk about what she is doing currently.

Life Skills offers comfort

In this online video, a student named “Tanya” says she can attend Life Skills High School or she can work at home “in my comfy PJs.” Image captured from YouTube video.

In this online video, a student named “Tanya” says she can attend Life Skills High School or she can work at home “in my comfy PJs.” Image captured from YouTube video.

A video, “I Choose Life Skills,” posted in October, features a testimonial by a student identified as Tanya. In it, she says she can work at her own pace, with a highly qualified teacher or, if she chooses, from home “in my comfy PJs.” At that point, she is shown relaxing in a recliner, with a computer on her lap, while eating grapes. She also promotes the flexible class schedule that allows her to keep an outside job to take care of her family while earning a diploma.

The 30-second advertisement ends with the student saying, “I choose free tuition. I choose to take control of my life. I choose Life Skills high school. What do you choose?”

“From watching this ad, it suggests an alternative way for those wanting to get their high school education,” said Michael Pontokos, a marketing professor at Youngstown State University.

He was troubled by the leisurely approach.

“Working at home should be at a kitchen table,” he said. “That was too relaxed.”

However, Pontikos said the video fulfills its purpose.

“I believe the ad is effective since it states that you can get your diploma whether you are working full-time, or trying to take care of a family, and to show that in a 30-second commercial is no small task.”

Most of the videos and ads were professionally done, and that costs money.

The USA Today study, published in 2012, said that the 10 largest online schools alone spent about $94 million in the previous five years, with K12 Inc. spending the most.

Palowitz said ads can be done for as low as $500, but quality work can cost $20,000.

In order for an ad to be effective, the people promoting the product have to drive their point home.

“Consistency is key. A one-and-done commercial will not have an effect on any target audience. You have to keep the message in front of them at all times,” Pontikos said.

News Outlet reporters Nicolette Pizzuto and Brittany Wenner contributed to this report.

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Akron Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).

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