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Two Districts’ Strategies to Improve Public School Enrollment & Attendance
Connor Gleason

Against the backdrop of decreasing birth rates, shifting demographic patterns, school choice, and the lingering impacts of the pandemic, administrators across the country are facing the issue of declining district enrollment and attendance at public schools.

In recent years, these challenges have made it harder for public schools to consistently fill their classrooms with reliable student populations. How much harder?

Well, between 2013 and 2023, public school enrollment in the US decreased by two percent from 49.9 million to 48.8 million, with the largest declines in New York, Illinois, and California. Long-term projections have placed public and charter schools losing another 2.4 million students (4.9%) by 2031.

enrollment data

However, in Michigan, Birmingham Public Schools and Virginia’s Norfolk Public Schools have each implemented creative enrollment and attendance strategies to stay competitive and proactively attract, engage, and retain families (and maybe even have some fun while doing it.)

With effective marketing campaigns that embrace digital tools and encourage collaboration, these forward-thinking districts are launching strategies to increase student enrollment and reduce chronic absenteeism, one step at a time.

Improving District Enrollment

At Birmingham Public Schools, a top-performing public school district in Michigan serving more than 7,500 students across 16 different locations, marketing and communications manager Cortez Strickland understands that the stakes are high and the need for a solution is urgent. 

"The decline in student numbers during COVID-19 reaffirmed the importance of adjusting the enrollment process to sync with private schools,” said Strickland.

“During our strategic planning process, one of our pillars was that we wanted to go out and boldly market the district. Considering the competition with private schools, it was essential to revamp our district's website to make it more engaging and user-friendly." 

A school's online presence, according to Strickland, isn’t merely a selling tool but also a customer service platform that should offer solutions to prospective families navigating the enrollment process.

“We received feedback from families that our enrollment process was just a little bit too intense,” explained Strickland. “We wanted to make sure that we had those conversations with our admissions team and ask how we can help these families have a more user-friendly experience while enrolling in our district.”

screenshot of be part of this

But having just a functional website wasn't enough. Recognizing the competition, Strickland saw an opportunity to revamp the district's online presence with a redesigned website and start improving enrollment numbers.

“We examined our website to try to figure out what were the boundaries or holdbacks for families coming to the district. We realized we were not marketing the district effectively through our website, so we spent a lot of time with Finalsite Advantage to make sure that when families became interested in the district, they had a very engaging web experience.”

“We focused on early access points for enrollment,” said Strickland. “We wanted to ensure that our families and communities, even those who don't live within the district but wanted to be a part of it, have those early access points, become students, have a great experience, and stay with us all the way through graduation.”

screenshot of enrollment services

A discussion with top leadership identified bottlenecks in the enrollment process and ensured that every aspect of enrollment was optimized. For example, the number of required documents was reduced, early-entry points to the district were highlighted, and the enrollment period was adjusted back to December to compete with the private schools, which accept tuition payments as early as January 1st.

district marketing 101 ebook

With the motto "Be Bold, Be Brilliant, Be Birmingham,” BPS’s new site allows users to explore various enrollment paths and discover more about joining the district, whether as a younger child, an older student, or through the lottery system. The revamped enrollment page provides detailed information and resources for prospective families, including mobile-friendly forms for school tours and an interactive boundary map.

“It was a great success, but it was a total collaboration of every department’s ideas and making sure everyone was involved, from marketing and communications to our deputy superintendent and our IT department.”

An inclusive process that listens to feedback and makes adjustments accordingly can make all the difference. This transformation was a vital step in making Birmingham Public Schools more accessible and appealing to families, ensuring that they wouldn't lose potential students because of an underwhelming user experience.

Collaborative Attendance Campaigns and Community Involvement

Norfolk Public Schools, a public school division that serves more than 27,000 students in 51 schools and centers on the southeastern coast of Virginia, faced a different challenge. In the 2021-2022 school year, the division had a chronic absenteeism rate of 24.3%.

To support Norfolk Public Schools’ efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism, Norfolk Public Schools’ Department of Communications and Community Engagement developed a fun, appealing social media campaign during the 2022-2023 school year to bring awareness to the issue.

The School-to-School Attendance Challenge allowed students and staff to participate in activities aimed at improving attendance through friendly competition with other schools. Communications staff worked with each participating school to coordinate "tapping" the next school accepting the challenge, and documented each challenge on social media, inviting families and the community to follow along. As a result of Norfolk Public Schools’ efforts, its chronic absenteeism rate decreased to 20.2% in the 2022-2023 school year.

The division just wrapped up its second year of the attendance challenge the overall response to the 2023-2024 school year campaign was infectious. This year’s efforts blended social media engagement with recognition for schools with the best and most improved attendance rates each month and a symbolic attendance flag that went to every school taking on the attendance challenge.

“Each week was met with enthusiastic participation from students, staff, families, community partners, and even alumni in some cases,” said Madeline Curott, Norfolk Public Schools’ communications, marketing, and media relations coordinator. “The all-in approach was very impressive to see unfold, especially witnessing all of the creative ways students encouraged each other to show up to school on time, every day, ready to learn, and how each school tapped the next with the coveted attendance flag.”

Superintendent Dr. Sharon I. Byrdsong was presented with the attendance flag by the last school to participate in this year’s challenge.

While the School-to-School Attendance Challenge social media campaign represents one aspect of the division’s focus on attendance, it helps to shift the conversation from the negative of chronic absenteeism to the positive of school attendance. 
“This challenge illustrates to our students and staff that if you miss school, you miss out,” Curott said. “We saw a principal spend the day with the class that had the best attendance for her school’s challenge week, another principal braved a dunk tank for her students, there were parades, fire trucks, police cars, pink stretch Hummers, a custom-made attendance rap song by a local artist, and so much more.”

Curott shared that the excitement around the campaign and its success was a testament to the power of complete support from division leadership and departments, clear and strategic communication, total buy-in at the school level, consistent social media engagement, and community involvement.

Norfolk Public Schools’ work to improve attendance continues when the division kicks off its third School-to-School Attendance Challenge in the fall.

Key Takeaway

Birmingham and Norfolk's stories offer valuable lessons for divisions facing similar enrollment and attendance challenges. Whether it’s a larger project like revamping an online presence or a community-focused social media campaign, embracing creativity, collaboration, and meeting the needs of your community can help turn the tide on declining enrollments and chronic absenteeism.

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Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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