Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools operate under a different set of rules and regulations, granting them the power to shape their curriculum design, teaching methods, and hiring practices.
With their distinctive approach to learning, charter schools have been steadily gaining popularity for the past few decades. By one account, between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, charter school enrollment increased by 7 percent or nearly 240,000 students nationwide.
That’s good news for schools looking to increase their enrollment, however, charter schools face a unique set of challenges in public perception, marketing, and connecting with underserved communities.
As a result, a charter school's marketing strategy will be different from traditional public schools or independent schools, and that means a different plan with the right messaging is needed to connect with the right families.
Let’s explore how you can overcome these challenges.
A different game with a different set of rules
Charter schools and independent private schools may seem similar on the surface, but they cater to different markets and operate under different structures. Charter schools are publicly funded and often serve a more diverse student population, while private schools are independently funded and can be more selective in their admissions process.
Charter schools, unlike district schools, do not have a guaranteed enrollment from the local community; you need to actively recruit — and retain— students. When it comes to recruiting, unlike private schools, you don’t have the advantage of being able to focus your marketing efforts on specific demographics, like families with a certain income level or religious affiliation.
Instead, your charter school needs to focus on creating a strong brand identity that sets you apart. This means clearly defining the mission and values of the school, as well as its unique selling points.
For example, your charter school may offer a specific academic focus, such as STEM education or arts-based programming, smaller class sizes, more personalized attention for students, or more flexible scheduling options. Once you have established your brand identity, it's important to communicate that identity effectively to prospective parents and students.
Clayton Valley dives head-first into what sets them apart — differentiators are beautifully branded on its homepage, calling out dedicated counseling staff, its 2,300+ students, multiple AP courses, and its high graduate rate.
Align your charter school’s marketing plan & communications with your target audience
Your prospective families are already searching for something different, so your audience wants to know what sets your school apart. Make sure you're highlighting your unique educational approach, values, and the benefits of attending your school.
Lean into your differentiators — unlike traditional public schools, which often have large class sizes and limited teacher interaction, charter schools can offer a more personalized educational experience. Showcase the diversity and inclusiveness of your community, and share success stories and accomplishments to demonstrate the positive impact your school has on your students.
This approach will also help with another big challenge charter schools face, which is attracting students and parents higher in the research phase — those who may not be familiar with the concept of charter schools, or may even have a negative perception of them.
Legacy Early College features the stories and people of its community, each detailing what their experience has meant to them. With a range of testimonials on its homepage, it’s a great way to show the impact of your charter school and the opportunities it provides, right off the bat.
Transparent marketing efforts
Even though charter schools have been around for over 30 years, many parents still don’t understand the free school choice options they have. This means it is up to you to not only showcase and market your charter school but educate the community on what charter schools are and why the laws for choice schools exist in the first place.
Keep Reading: 9 Questions Your Charter School Website Needs to Answer (and Ace)
For families looking for more information about charter schools, The Academy provides background on their history and their impact — and how The Academy is at the forefront of education. It’s a great piece of inbound marketing content for families interested in The Academy, as well as for families conducting online searches about charter schools.
Critics of charter schools argue that they take resources away from traditional public schools, that they’re not held to the same standards as traditional public schools, and that they’re not as accountable as traditional public schools. These criticisms can make it difficult for charter schools to attract students and parents who are skeptical of their effectiveness.
You should emphasize your commitment to high-quality education and your track record of success and should be willing to answer tough questions about your operations and finances. Making this information available and accessible online is a great way to get ahead of this potentially negative perception.
Make no mistake, University Prep is proud to be among the top-performing schools in the Bronx. A results page outlines students’ proficiencies across multiple areas, erasing any doubts that charter schools lack academic excellence or high standards.
Keep Reading: 5 Ways to Build Awareness About Your Charter School
Reaching your unique audience
Another marketing challenge facing charter schools is engaging harder-to-reach families. Many charter schools are located in low-income areas, which can make it difficult to attract families who may not have access to transportation or know about school options outside of their immediate location.
This challenge is compounded by the fact that many low-income families do not have access to steady and reliable computers or internet access, which makes them more reliant on mobile devices and cellular networks to find information about school choices or complete enrollment paperwork online.
To address this challenge, charter schools need to be proactive in reaching out to families in their communities. Charter schools need to focus on building strong relationships with community organizations and advocacy groups that work with these populations. Consider accommodating the needs of these students, such as providing bilingual staff or a specialized curriculum.
Providing resources for your school community is a great place to start building better relationships. Launch, an NYC Outward Bound School, has several partnerships with community and academic organizations and cultural institutions, all intended to build opportunities for its students and families.
Similarly, Birmingham Community Charter High School promotes its assistance to families who may be experiencing homelessness and is able to provide services and support.
Both are examples of how your charter school can demonstrate its support of the extended community and embody the ideas of service and community engagement.
Choosing the right marketing channels
The right marketing channels are essential for reaching your target audience and effectively sharing your message. Leverage the digital space to enhance your marketing efforts and make sure to provide all digital content in a mobile-first approach. This includes creating a virtual campus through your website and using social media and other digital marketing tools to reach a wider audience.
Mobile-friendly user experience
By using mobile-first technology to create a more engaging and interactive experience for students and parents, charter schools can not only differentiate themselves from traditional public schools and private schools but make it easier for parents and students to access information and complete the enrollment process.
Chester Community Charter School starts its relationships with families off on the right foot. After a great introduction, Finalsite’s enrollment management system's mobile-friendly inquiry form is available for families ready to inquire or learn more about its school.
Granada Hills Charter School keeps its school community connected with the latest updates, news, and important announcements with its mobile app. A communication tool like this is great for easy admin updates, and providing parents, students, and faculty members with all the information they need in one place while they’re on the go.
Social media platforms can be a powerful tool for engaging with families and sharing news about your school, especially with families having better access to mobile devices, as opposed to desktops.
Fenton Charter Public Schools knows this strategy well. To boost student enrollment at its schools, they're taking out ads across Facebook to educate and engage a captive, prospective audience on mobile devices.
Your charter schools need a distinct marketing approach to attract students and parents. The best charter school websites establish a strong brand identity, communicate their identity effectively, and engage with parents and students on a personal level.
With a well-executed strategy and some clever marketing ideas, charter schools can build a loyal base of supporters who will help them succeed. Embrace your uniqueness and stand out among the traditional public schools and private schools.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phil directs the charter school market at Finalsite and spends every day consulting with some of the most forward-thinking and successful charter school leaders in the country about effective awareness, engagement and communications strategies. Being lucky enough to marry an assistant director of marketing and communications at a local choice school, Phil also gets to talk school marketing strategy during morning walks with the dogs, kayak rides on the local lake, and while fast-forwarding through commercial breaks of his favorite recorded shows.