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With School Choice, How Do Struggling JCPS Schools Attract Students?

Gay Adelmann moved to Louisville in summer 2013 with her son, who was preparing to enter his freshman year of high school.  They immediately began looking for schools. That wasn't new to the family—they'd moved around the country several times before.

But Louisville would be different.

"Everywhere we had moved, we would pick out a school then choose a house," she said.

"Here it is a little bit different—you can pick your house then choose a school,which made it a little bit more difficult."

Jefferson County Public School offers 91 academic programs at 21 different high schools to more than 26,000  students. Students from anywhere in the district can apply to attend those schools, regardless of where they live.

This can create some challenges for families and school administrators.

For students and their families, this range of choices can be daunting. For JCPS administrators, attracting high-performing students can prove difficult—especially for schools the state has classified as low-performing.

Katy Zeitz is the principal at Waggener High School, which was classified a priority, or low-performing school, in 2010.

She said the classification doesn't stop her from showing off Waggener. She works to get the word out about her school's progress toward turning around its academic standing.  Any opportunity she gets to tell someone about Waggener's students success, she takes.

"It's much more about not trying to cram your school down people's throats, because I think people can see that a mile away. I don't want to do that," she said.  "What I want is people to come to Waggener for the right reasons because they're going to be happy and stay."

She said she invites city and business leaders to the schools to meet students, to see the building and get a picture of success. Her goal is to convert those community members into ambassadors for the school.

The most important step, she said, is touting the success of her current students.  Those successes are essentially evidence-based marketing. Word about the schools' Governor's Scholars and other successes can trickle through Louisville to other high-performing students and their families. In turn, the word of mouth can dispel concerns about the school's priority school status.

"I want kids and parents to see the value in what I and my staff are doing," she said.

A Parent Chooses

 Adelmann and her son chose the Academy at Shawnee. The decision was based on the school's programs—they thought it was the best fit for his interests, she said. Shawnee is also considered a struggling school, and some people in the community Adelmann spoke with were surprised by the family's choice.

"People actually tried to talk us out of going here," she said.

Adelmann said she believes Shawnee's critics weren't basing their opinions on the data—but she said the information she needed to form her own opinion about the school wasn't easily available.

JCPS keeps an array of data on each of the district's schools.  Through the district's online data portal, families or potential students  access data on school demographics, academic proficiency and available programs.

Despite this, Adelmann said Shawnee lacked a school website at the time she began researching schools. That was off-putting.  She has since helped developed a website for Shawnee, she said, but she added that the district needs to step up and provide marketing assistance to schools. That's especially true for priority schools.

"Schools don't have the resources or the staff with the background in marketing to identify that brand and hone in on that brand, and they don't have the budget to market that message out into the community," she said.

A JCPS spokesman said the district is limited in its ability as a central agency to provide marketing assistance.

It would be a financial strain—and it could also become an issue for the district's many schools, said Ben Jackey, a JCPS spokesman.

"We don't seek out schools," he said.  "We can't get into a, 'You're helping one school more than another."

Still, some assistance is available from the JCPS central office. If a school comes to the district's communication department with questions, they will help out if they have the answers and the time, Jackey said.

Related: Superintendent Donna Hargens Discusses The Challenges For the New JCPS School Year

School board member David Jones Jr. said providing marketing strategies to district schools does not have a "one size fits all" solution.

He said telling the story of a school's success should start on a school level— principals telling the community about a school's strengths and its weakness.

But he said school administrators can only do so much to educate the community and potential students and their families on a school's programs.

"Parents need to know what their kids want—what type of student they are."

Adelmann echoed that.

She said researching a school and examining the programs is primarily the responsibility of the family.

Adelmann is also convinced that her family chose well.

Her son is a straight-A student who has taken multiple AP classes and is involved in the ROTC.  He aspires to be accepted into the Naval Academy.

'I Never Try to Be a Salesman'

Zeitz said she has an open door for parents who want to see Waggener.

"What I want to do is grow authentic engagement back from parents and kids," she said.

Growing that engagement is what Zeitz hopes will grow enrollment—which can be a struggle for Waggener.

The St. Matthews school has about 750 students—with room for nearly 500 more.

In JCPS, high school students are assigned to a "reside" school area based on where they live. For example: If an incoming freshman lives in Fern Creek High School's reside area and don't seek out another school, the student should expect to end up at Fern Creek.

But students have the option of applying to other schools. In the 2013-14 school year, 39 percent of the students in Waggener's reside area ended up at Waggener, according to JCPS data.In contrast, 70 percent of the students in Ballard High School's reside area ended up attending Ballard.

And 319 students in Waggener's reside area ended up at Ballard High School, too.

Zeitz said she is not all too worried about a quick fix to boost enrollment.

"I do not want to beg, plead or take away from others to grow mine," she said.  "I never try to be a salesman. That's not what I am, I am a principal."

Her school's online and social media presence may be of some importance, she said, but she is more concerned with helping kids find the right program that will allow them to maintain their interest in school and succeed.

The best marketing Waggener can get, she said, is for students to choose the school and succeed there.

But for families and schools, the most important factor is finding a program where the student is engaged and allowed to thrive, she said.

The student should be able to "walk in the door and feel comfortable. That's where they need to go," she said.

“If it’s Waggener it’s Waggener, if it’s J-town it’s J-town, if it’s Seneca it’s Seneca.”

This story was part of WFPL's education news special on the eve of the 2014-15 JCPS school year. You can hear the full show here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated school attendance data. 

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.