Fort Worth ISD plans to play hardball to stop losing students to charters and other traditional public schools.

The school board signed off on a $1.2 million contract with Dallas-based Alpha Business Images to set up a marketing campaign to draw students to the district. Administrators think this tactic could help stem the district’s enrollment decline and put it on a level playing field with its main competitors, charter schools. Trustees approved it in a 7-2 vote in late July.

“It’s important to make sure our parents understand all their choices,” David Saenz, Fort Worth ISD’s chief of innovation, said. “This is not who’s better than the other. It’s (the district saying,) ‘Hey, if we’re going to offer choice to our families, our parents need to have all the information they need to make an informed choice.”

Charter schools have slowly chipped away at Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment. In the 2021-22 school year, more than 13,647 students transferred into a charter from the district, according to Texas Education Agency data. An additional 2,289 students transferred into a traditional public school.

Alpha Business Images is expected to study Fort Worth ISD’s surrounding competitors, traditional public schools and charters, to see what it can do to keep and attract students. The Dallas firm also will research how district employees interact with families, develop campaigns and create ads for online, print and social media. The contract runs through March 30, 2024, according to district documents.

Saenz laid out the situation to the school board: All schools are stepping up their game to recruit students.

“This would allow us to at least figure out what we need to do just to stay on par with them,” he told trustees.

Two school board members were not convinced. Trustees Michael Ryan and CJ Evans voted against the contract.

Ryan, a former Fort Worth ISD administrator and educator, understood why the district wanted to do this. However, he thought the money could be better spent to help students and improve their performance.

“If we’re doing better, we’re going to attract people,” he said.

Since 2015, Fort Worth ISD has consistently lagged behind state averages on the reading and math portions of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Those numbers took a significant hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Results from this year’s test show students making some gains. The number of third-grade students who passed the reading and math tests increased 12 percentage points; 38% of those students passed the reading test and 27% passed the math test. Another 45% of third-graders failed the math test and 34% failed reading.

Most of the $1.2 million is expected to fund paid advertising. Alpha Business Images has planned a media blitz during the next 18 months to push Fort Worth ISD on social media, radio, television, mail and digital ads, according to a campaign budget.

The budget also calls for $15,000 for public and media relations to tell district stories and “build brand equity.” Fort Worth ISD’s communication’s department also does that, and has a budget of nearly $2.5 million for the 2022-23 school year.

Every few months, the district plans to focus on a different marketing campaign. For example, for the remainder of July and August, Fort Worth ISD will be pushing for parents to enroll students in its schools for the new school year. 

Next year, the district plans to have a five-month campaign to enroll more students in its schools for the 2023-24 academic year. The campaigns also will focus on a general awareness of the district as well as its Gold Seal programs, including schools of choice, such as the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, and selective programs, such as Pathways in Technology Early College High School.

Alpha Business Images has worked with other local governments in Fort Worth and North Texas. The company has a $1.5 million contract with Tarrant County College to bring more awareness to the institution. The city of Fort Worth, Dallas ISD and Dallas County are among the entities that have contracted marketing services to the firm.

Hiring a marketing firm is about one major thing for Saenz: Telling Fort Worth ISD’s story. Some programs, such as the district’s career-readiness classes that offer associate degrees and certifications, are opportunities that only Fort Worth ISD can offer. Saenz wants more parents and students to be aware of those options.

“We are in a choice environment. Every single one of our schools is a choice school, and in order for families to be able to see that, we definitely want to market right,” Saenz said.

The timing is key for Saenz, too. Fort Worth ISD will soon have a new superintendent. The marketing services will examine what parents know, how they want to learn more and what their perceptions of the district are, he said.

“That’ll enable us to improve what we’re doing as a school district, and then be able to show them in some areas you didn’t know (about this) and in some areas we have to fix,” the innovation chief said.

As Fort Worth ISD steps up its marketing efforts, charter schools continue to set up here. In June, the State Board of Education allowed a new charter school to open in Fort Worth — the only application it approved across the state. In August, Rocketship Public Schools will open its Fort Worth campus, 3520 E. Berry St., for its first ever day of classes.

Ryan, the school board member, wants Fort Worth ISD to focus on turning around student outcomes. Doing that, he said, could boost enrollment.

“We all know that if our schools do better then it certainly gives us a reason for them wanting to stay as opposed to going to a charter school,” he said.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.