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Districts considering 'headhunting' service to retain and recruit students

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Posted at 12:12 PM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 19:46:25-05

You have probably heard of "headhunters" in business, but what about for schools?

The state of education is only upping the struggle Arizona's public schools are facing to retain and recruit students and now some districts are turning to outside help, to showcase what they can offer their communities.

"It's always challenging to navigate any new, what I call new norm," said Dr. Arleen Kennedy, superintendent of the Balsz District.

Like so many Phoenix-area superintendents, Dr. Kennedy has spent the last year navigating the ins and outs of educating students remotely during a pandemic. Now, with Balsz students set to return to in-person learning on March 15, concerns over declining enrollment are increasing.

"We've had about a 10-13% drop every year, even prior to COVID-19," said Kennedy.

The challenge is now heightened by the pandemic.

"You're talking about parents who are concerned about their children's health and they want to make sure these kids are coming back to a healthy environment," Kennedy said.

It is an issue facing public schools across the state.

The latest numbers from the Arizona Department of Education show 38,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools this year, compared to last.

Traditional districts saw a six percent drop in enrollment statewide, while charter schools saw a nine percent increase.

The trend has the Balsz District considering outside help.

"'Headhunting' is the term that I use because it's the idea of individuals who come in and support the system and trying to figure out ways to help students realize all the things that are available in the community schools," said Kennedy.

Those individuals could be coming from Caissa K-12, a Tennessee-based strategic communications firm that bills itself as "the nation's #1 leader in student recruitment."

The company's Director of Community Engagement, Adrian Bond, says demand for their services has skyrocketed during the pandemic.

"This year I think districts really saw when those numbers came out, they are in a world of trouble," said Bond.

Their strategy for Balsz would focus on recruitment, retainment, employee training and research.

"Phone calls, robocalls, door-to-door campaigns, going to events," said Bond.

Their goal is to engage current and new families. That connection is getting harder to foster with the rise in private, charter and now, virtual or homeschooling options.

"They've got to address that, that's their primary factor is the educational aspect to parents at a grassroots level," Bond said. "There are a lot of choices, but some of the other choices are spending an immense amount of money trying to talk to the traditional public school parents."

The Cartwright district has also used Caissa K-12 in the past and now even the state is looking to launch a $150,000 marketing campaign with help from a similar service.

"We plan to use our data to determine which parts of our state have seen the significant declines in enrollment and make a targeted effort around messaging, on the importance of enrolling in the public schools," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.

Of course, more students mean more funding.

The proposed cost to Balsz for Caissa K-12's recruitment efforts is more than $134,000, a figure based on attracting 150 students at $895 each.

Right now, the state's most basic funding level for districts is around $5,000 per pupil.

Still, Dr. Kennedy says this goes beyond the numbers.

"For me, it's kind of two-fold. Yes, we look at cost-benefit analysis on what we're getting when we recruit and retain those students," she said, "But it's also another opportunity for us in the district to effect the positive growth and change of another student."