Tempe Union High School District officials are embarking on a multi-pronged advertising campaign in the hope that messages on billboards, social media sites and other channels will turn around — or at least slow down — a decline in enrollment.
The school board last week was briefed on the campaign by Jennifer Liewer, district director of community relations, in a follow-up to a detailed demographic report on enrollment by Rick Brammer and Don Graves of the research firm Applied Economics.
Though the cost of the campaign was not disclosed, Superintendent Kevin Mendivil suggested that the cost of doing nothing likely would be far greater.
Because of the loss of about 300 students in the last school year, he said, “We had to adjust our budget by $2.5 million.”
“We’re facing that same kind of challenge this year,” he said. “And while I think it might be around 250, 300 …it’s better than what we were looking like even as early as three weeks ago.”
Enrollment is critical to any Arizona public school district’s revenue stream because state subsidies are directly tied to the number of students who attend their schools.
Mendivil said the time had come for Tempe Union to get the word out about its schools, noting that up until now “the district has not had any deliberate action around recruitment and really touting who we are as a district.’
“We’ve not had to do that, quite frankly,” he said. “We have a great reputation. We have a great brand. We have wonderful students. We have excellent teachers. Our schools are top quality. We have wonderful programming.”
The number of students living within district boundaries hit a peak of about 12,500 in the 2005-2006 school year, according to Applied Economics, and “then trended downward by 1,000 students through 2009-10 due to the recession.”
“Following a small increase in 2010-11,” the study stated, “it has continued to decline, falling by another 850 students due to aging and increased competition from charter schools.”
Following a slight bump in 2013-14, it added, in-district student enrollment “has declined by 500 students since then” to about 11,000.
Further exacerbating the in-district enrollment picture is a surprising decline in the birthrate.
“We were actually expecting, as the economy recovered… that we would see people having a few more kids again. And that really isn’t what we’ve seen,” Brammer told the board, adding:
“So even though we’re having population growth because we’re having people moving into the Phoenix area, this is still going to hold us back in terms of what school enrollment growth is going to be, particularly at the elementary level in this district.”
For a good bit of the past decade, the study indicated, Tempe Union could depend on its total enrollment being bolstered by students who live outside its boundaries.
Out-of-district enrollment peaked at about 2,800 in 2017-18.
But this year, the study said, “out-of-district enrollment declined significantly…fueled by 134 fewer students from Phoenix Union and 47 fewer students from Maricopa Unified.
As of last April, total Tempe Union enrollment was just under 13,664 students with about 2,800 — or 20 percent of the total — coming from outside district boundaries.
Desert Vista’s 2,669 students last April made that school the largest of Tempe Union’s seven campuses, with Mountain Pointe and Corona tied for second place at 1,888 students.
Brammer said that for a while, Maricopa parents sent their children to Tempe union — as well as Kyrene — because their school district was relatively new and had fewer programs.
But in recent years, he added, “people are getting more adapted to those schools” and enrollment from that city has declined.
One factor that cushions the impact of the decline in Maricopa residents’ enrollment, he added, is that there are not many good-paying jobs in that Maricopa area. Consequently, many parents work in Phoenix and find it easier to drop their kids off at a Tempe Union school.
More concerning, Brammer said, is the current housing market. Together with an aging population, the lack of affordable housing has slowed the influx of young families with school-aged children.
During the recession, he said “nobody wanted to sell their house because it wasn’t worth what they thought it was.”
“Now we’re living longer and staying in their homes longer,” Brammer explained. “And the values have gone up to such extent that a lot of people can’t get a better house. So, it’s slowing down that rate of turnover.”
Added to that is the trend toward multifamily development in the district.
Most newer apartment complexes are aimed at higher-income renters, discouraging families. “Most multifamily projects in the district are not targeted to — or affordable for — families with children,” the study said.
New developments that do tilt toward more affordable rents and even mortgages, meanwhile, are relatively small and limited to infill projects, Brammer said.
“Most of the multifamily we see in the district is not oriented towards children, but we’ve seen after the recession is the multifamily market really changed,” Graves said.
He said that in the immediate future, “the preponderance of the units will be multifamily, which will also cause the school age population per household to decline. The addition of multifamily units typically does that anyway.”
“There isn’t enough new housing units being added of the type that are going to generate school-age people to offset that continued aging — at least over the next five or six years or so,” Graves said.
Charter and private schools also have exacted a toll, according to Applied Economics.
It counted 13 charters within district boundaries that have a total population of more than 3,700 students in ninth through 12th grade.
“Charter school enrollment in the district has increased by about 1,500 students over the last five years,” the study said, “with large increases in the two years prior to this year.”
Brammer said that while “historic low birth rates” and increased competition from charter and private schools are concerns, “we’re not looking for anything catastrophic.”
“Total enrollment is like to decline slightly but steadily over the next 10 years — dependent upon out-of-district students,” the study said. “Attraction and retention of students from feeder elementary districts will be key to in-district enrollment levels.”
In outlining the district’s push to attract students, Liewer said Tempe Union confronts “an extensive marketing campaign by a multitude of different types of schools, from online schools to charter schools.”
“District schools, quite honestly, have had to put a priority in order to be able to tell their story,” she explained.
She outlined an extensive campaign that will use real students’ photos — with their parents’ permission — on billboards and various targeted online efforts using a range of social media sites such as YouTube.
“We’re really excited,” she said. “It will be a year-round campaign and we are going to have targeted buys in various certain parts of the year so that we can capitalize on an enrollment message.
“The goal of the campaign is definitely to enroll students, but it’s also to keep the students that we have, it’s to retain those students and to help them feel connected,” she said.
She said the push will be particularly aggressive prior to the spring semester, “when families are starting to look at ‘OK, where am I going to send my student next year?’”
She said there will be increase billboard advertising along the major area freeway segments as well as online advertising aimed at particular ZIP codes where more families with younger kids are living.
“The ‘enroll now’ message is one that we are putting everywhere,” Liewer said. “We’re putting it on our buses, we are putting it on our website. We are giving a call to action to people.
“That call to action was not a primary focus of the old website, which frankly was 4 years old — which, it’s like dog years,” she continued, noting that, as in dog years, the district’s site “was like at least 80, so it needed to retire.”
Liewer said the district also has hired an advertising agency to help get that message across.
“Obviously with advertising you can spend a lot of money doing it and so we need to find out what our needs are and what is the best bang for our buck,” she said. “And that’s what our advertising has been able to provide for us.”