The PEJE Challenge Award, and all the great school-generated content that followed (such as this great video from Lander~Grinspoon Academy), reminded us of the following: Do not underestimate the positive impact generated when a school is publically recognized for its excellence.
For instance, the most instructive moment in this video, from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, occurs at the 8:16 mark: Former teacher Eileen Samuels remembers back to the 1980s, when the TV show Chronicle featured SSDS in a piece about outstanding secondary schools. “And after that program, it was no longer a hunt for warm bodies for the school,” she adds. “The line was around the block!”
The idea that a television newsmagazine could transform a school’s admissions success is worth our consideration. Let’s call this The Chronicle Effect. The formula is fairly straightforward:
Academic Recognition + Publicity = Increased Admissions + Tuition Revenue
We should note that back in the 1980s, media was much less fragmented, and so a local show such as Boston’s Chronicle probably held much more sway than it does now. Still, there are significant lessons to be gleaned from The Chronicle Effect.
The connection between high-quality education and financial sustainability is undeniable; the trick is proving how excellent you truly are.
Get your school ranked as “excellent” by a reputable source, and you’ll be doing your admissions office a big favor. (Touting your academic rep on your own website is necessary nowadays… but such promotions ultimately lack objectivity. A web visitor will naturally think, Of course you think your school is excellent! Approval from without is what you seek here.) If you can snag a coveted educational Blue Ribbon—the Scheck Hillel Community Day School/Ben Lipson Hillel Community High School won this in 2011 and was written up in the JTA—or if you can take home a teaching prize from Good Magazine, it can be quite beneficial to your school.
So: When you have a great teacher or an innovative program at your school, it’s your job to actively seek some recognition. The key is identifying a program that the people in your world respect and admire.
It’s worth considering both generic excellence awards and Judaic ones (for instance, the Covenant Awards and the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education). If your school truly holds to a dual curriculum you should be worthy of both—though as we’ll later see, it may be that recognized excellence in general studies may give you greater exposure to untapped populations, and thus greater chances for increasing enrollment—and thus, tuition revenue.
Sometimes, as in the case of the Chronicle profile, the recognition and the publicity happen simultaneously… but not always.
If an educator at your school snags, say, a Covenant Award, you can surely link to it from you Facebook and Twitter feeds and maybe even get the story into your local Jewish newspaper. Which is good … but not likely to get ‘em lined up around the block.
To reach a wider audience, you should investigate how your community reports about academic excellence. For instance, is there a “Best Schools” issue of your regional magazine? If so, contact the editors and give them good reason to include you in this list. Similarly, if your local TV news program has a regular feature on superlative schools, find the name of the producer in charge and make the case for your school. (Note: Watch the segments religiously—and take notes. After viewing five or six segments, you should be able to detect the common denominators of excellence and this should inform your pitch.)
One of the best contemporary versions of The Chronicle Effect was when American Hebrew Academy, of Greensboro, North Carolina, recently appeared on their public TV news show.
“The truth is, this segment was done by a parent who used to send her child to my daughter’s Jewish day school,” says Alina Spaulding, AHA’s Director of Communications. “She asked a few years back if she could see the Academy, and I have been inviting her ever since, not knowing she was in the media world. When she finally made it to campus, she told me what she did, and asked if we would be willing to do a story with her for our 10th anniversary. We gladly agreed.”
The moral: always be ready to sell your story. “I am a talker, so if I hear of anyone in the media biz, I am always on point about the work we do at AHA. These days, if there is a story that needs a Jewish bend, these folks will often call on me.”
Persistence and Payoff
I should add that it’s not always easy, getting recognition and getting publicity. In fact, it can require a lot of work. For instance, Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School was recently selected by Chicago Magazine as a top school.
How did this happen?
Derek Gale, Director of Communications at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School (BZAEDS), knew that the magazine had run a piece about excellent private schools previously (about five years before), and didn’t mention his school. He, and his board of trustees, wanted to be included in the next iteration.
Gale, as a former journalist, had some contacts from his grad school days at Chicago. He got in touch with Chicago Magazine and asked if they were going to reprise the feature—and when he did, he made sure he knew the name and email of the editor in charge.
Then he went on to contact the editor regularly, about once a month, each time supplying helpful information that showed the BZAEDS was worthy of inclusion. For instance, when the school won a big grant, he mentioned it; when their students had work shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, he mentioned that. At one point he told the editor, “Let me help you become an expert on independent schools,” which is an excellent thing to say to a journalist who has suddenly been handed a story about independent schools.
Getting the Message to the Media
Here are three strategies that you can apply when brining your school’s excellence to the attention of the media.
- Have a compelling pitch. Every time Gale wrote to Chicago, he had something substantial to say (i.e., another bit of proof that showed that BZAEDS belonged in top independent schools article). Learn what the media outlet is looking for and provide that, and only that.
- Stay on their case. Don’t be a pain, but don’t let them forget you. It is reasonable to send periodic follow-ups to a media person, if you do so a careful, respectful manner.
- Help them out. At one point Gale told the Chicago Magazine editor, “Let me help you become an expert on independent schools,” which is an excellent thing to say to a journalist who has suddenly been handed a story about independent schools. AHA’s Spaulding similarly asked the TV people what their take was and “I just fed them everything they needed from written information on the geothermal wells, to quotes from teachers, parents, and alumni. I tried to ‘help’ them write the story.”
The Power! The Reach!
There’s great power in The Chronicle Effect, and a smart day school professional will do what she can to tap it. And once you do start spreading word of your educational excellence, be sure to monitor, as closely as possible, what the effects of this are.
It would be most useful if you could point to a Chronicle-like profile and/or award and take note—not just how much of an increase in tuition you saw after that, but compared it to, say, a baseline taken a year or two before. (You would do well to pay attention to increased inquires, schools tours, even Facebook friendships that were caused by the public display of academic excellence.) Data matters here.
We believe The Chronicle Effect can make a substantial difference in the financial life of your school. As Eileen Samuels reminds us: in Schechter’s pots-Chronicle Era: “The funny thing is that these weren’t necessarily Jewish parents looking for a good Jewish education for their children … they were looking for simply a good education.”