Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Partnerships and RPS (Part #4: Marketing)

If you haven't checked out Partnership #1: NeighborhoodsPart #2:Business, or Part #3: Technology, then be sure to do so. If you have, then you're awesome and continue to read on.

Key Partnership #4

Marketing and Promotion: How to change perception (and reality) in RPS.

Beds, baths, and schools.

This past June at VCU I listened to Jeanne Jehl, senior consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, list these items as the most important factors that families ask for when purchasing a home. The day-long symposium hosted by Housing Virginia, focused on examining the close, yet many times unexplored, connection between housing and education.
The direct economic impact of schools on housing was a fact I first discovered in conducting a market analysis for the City of Hopewell. As seen in the chart below, this regional consumer preference survey found that quality of schools was rated just behind safety as the top factors in neighborhood importance.
Neighborhood Importance
Safety and Security
Quality of Schools
Cost of Living
Neighborhood Appearance
Church and Social Groups
Recreation and Entertainment
Ease to Get Around Town
Access to Green and Open Space
Distance to Work
Small Town Atmosphere
*Scale: 1 (least) - 4 (most)
I reference this fact to say that although neighborhood safety or school quality can be backed by measurables (e.g. crime data and test scores), they are factors that are highly affected by perception.
For RPS, and the city as a whole, changing the current negative perception of schools should be central to any reform effort, as its has wide-ranging economic implications and is essential to change reality.
How else does negative school perception hurt Richmond?
Negative perception pushes families of choice out of the schools. Since these families never engage with the school, perception continues and new solutions to the current problems are not explored. This is not implying that current RPS families, with a high number of working class and lower income parents, are not pushing for positive change, but in reality, they could use a hand.   
When families of choice choose to send their children to other schools, they may also move out of the city, taking with them the prized tax dollars in property investment and disposable income that Richmond’s economic development is focused on attracting. If school perception were flipped, more middle and upper income households would be retained, thus increasing revenue to address systemic problems and creating a local market to spur continued business growth. This is why education in Richmond is the linchpin to sustainable neighborhoods.   
True change is necessary to improve RPS, but where do we start? Changing perception can be a starting point that will create momentum and further current reform efforts. To create an authentic and engaging campaign, school-neighborhood level teams would develop content, hold local events, and begin to develop relationships within the community. The role for RPS or City administration would be to facilitate this system by offering coordinated fundraising drives and marketing of locally derived initiatives or events.
How can this happen?  
RPS, through school action teams, should start by identifying existing resources, successes, and assets of the schools. In the best case scenario this would be conducted as part of a larger strategic planning process for each school (as I have advocated before). This assessment process would help engage local partners in developing teams to meet schools needs, as is developing with Area 10 Faith Community’s work alongside John B. Cary Elementary.
"Your existing assets equal your best opportunities" 
- Della Rucker
Once these community assets are identified, the school should have a local branding and logo competition. Bryce Lytle’s Curious about Westover group has a terrific “Eager Beaver” tagline and logo created by members of the group.
A next step might be to compile a list of key community contacts and information to develop a marketing packet for the school. Examples of this can be seen in the Greater Richmond Partnership’s education recruitment packet or VEDP Community Profile. These recruitment packets could be used to hand out to new families in the neighborhood, but could also aid in attracting new teachers and administrators.
Eager Beaver
Locally created mascot for
Westover Hills Elementary 
External promotion of the schools is important, but essential to this effort will be to celebrate internal successes, and those administration, teachers, staff, parents, and students who have been working to make RPS schools a better place.
A project to encapsulate a love for the current system would be to have a celebration around welcome back week to school. The school could reach out to past attendees, parents, and local community groups to hold an opening day celebration competition. The superintendent of schools would have a prize for the best celebration (e.g. 3 prizes for $1,000) to be awarded at the end of the day. City-wide the mayor and members of council would authorize all of the city personnel and resources to support this day. An all-in effort would truly give backbone to statements made that education improvement is a top priority.
Examples of collaboration to hold fundraising/neighborhood-school celebrations are already happening in multiple places. While living in the Fan, it was always great to see yard signs posted for the upcoming Fox Elementary Strawberry Street Festival.
As for events throughout the year, activities where students, teachers, administration, and staff are recognized should be promoted further. Fundraising efforts from RPS, city administration, or pooling efforts from private resources, should create a fund to creatively recognize individuals from within. For example, Communities in Schools awards their top students a free summer camp of their choice.
Key to these celebration programs will be to ask the recipients what they value as a reward. Too many times we have adults designing reward systems for students that don’t meet or incentivize as expected. Remember, $40 for a class pizza day could go a long way.
Also, we need to better embrace the history and stories associated with these schools. By looking to our communities for local residents to share their story about the school, we can better display the historic beauty of Richmond’s neighborhoods and education system. Websites like StoryCorps and Neighborland make it easy for one to collect information, conduct interviews, and post it to a website for community engagement. Having a local schools page for each neighborhood in Richmond would be a great place to start.
As stated previously, the central emphasis of an improved marketing campaign should be at the school-neighborhood level with help from central administration to facilitate the process. An example of a locally driven, centrally facilitated model, can be seen in Boston’s Main Street Foundation. In this system, the central organization supports locally run main street organization centers through common marketing and fundraising campaigns.
To see how this would work specifically in Richmond, read Ryan Rinn’s 2012 thesis which examines the main street model in Boston, and how it might apply to Richmond.
Richmond Forward: The Next Steps
RVA Forward is a movement of change in Richmond through focusing on issues of faith, education and neighborhoods.  In this 4-part series on education reform, I detailed my thoughts on how private-public partnerships can address key gaps through the following goals:

  1. Develop key workforce skills to fill market gaps and non-cognitive or coping skills, necessary to develop resiliency.
  2. Engage students with their local community to give them a sense of place and perspective.
  3. Instill a life-long love for learning and seeking out diverse experiences and opinions.

Future articles on AGiRVA will detail thoughts on faith and neighborhoods:

Neighborhood: Asset based planning to build local capacity (social, fiscal and environmental).

Faith: Any movement of change must start from within. Defining your values and the search for faith is the most important process in your life.  

“Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions.Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. And watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.” 
- Margaret Thatcher

In the end, my articulation of ideas for reform are meant to spur discussion around solutions and action. What I want most is for you to join in on the conversation with your thoughts on faith, education and neighborhoods in RVA. 

Sign up to follow this blog on the homepage, email me at, or follow @garetprior or #RVAForward. 

This fall I am hoping to have an interested peoples’ gathering to talk about actions that can be taken. Initial thoughts could be to advocate for increased education spending in the upcoming budget, supporting regional bus rapid transit (BRT), or capturing stories in historic Richmond neighborhoods.   

The ball is now in your court, what do you think should happen next…