06/13/2014 07:07 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

The Next Challenge for Public Schools: The Skills to Market Themselves to Attract Students

For years public schools have evolved in how they deliver their services to children and recalibrate those services due to changing expectations from governmental guidelines at the state and federal level. Now districts have a new challenge: how to market themselves to attract students to attend their schools.

While schools have always pointed with pride to their accomplishments and felt a bit of competition with neighboring districts in academics as well as in non-academic comparisons, things are different now. Thanks to education reform and technology, K-12 students and their families now have many more options for how/where/when they receive their education. From online schools, to charter schools, to private schools, and even home schools: many students are leaving traditional public schools for perceived greener pastures.

So, what information are these families using to make these important decisions? Is it possible that often the public school is actually the greenest pasture for the K-12 student, but they and their parents just don't know it? Probably so.

Historically public schools have known that they were the only game in town, and in earlier decades would have been considered frivolous to spend precious resources telling their community all the great things they might offer prospective students. But those days are gone now. That line of thinking must change. There are financial and non monetary costs to losing students to other schools.

Understanding these changes and responding with action, some public schools are initiating marketing programs to retain their students. Superintendent Rick Hanes of Piqua (Ohio) City Schools says the thinking goes like this: "We have at least a half a million dollars in student revenue being used on alternatives to us. However, we offer far more opportunities than our competitors. Why would we not market to bring them back? We offer more and do a better job. The cost of marketing to them gets paid back with just a few new students coming back."

Superintendent Hanes and others are beginning to feel empowered to do this for two reasons: First, as he said, the rate of return is high versus the cost if you are even partially successful. Second, their competitors are marketing themselves using methods that one would typically expect to see from a private sector company. Public charter schools in Ohio flood the local airwaves telling people how great they are. Online schools in Ohio swamp mailboxes with professional mailers encouraging students to take a look at their school.

Public schools must realize that they must enter the arena to compete for students. In most cases, they have a very compelling case to make. It is a new way of thinking and for some it may be difficult, but true leaders acknowledge what needs to be done, make the case for the cost vs. benefit of acting and enter the fray.