Opinion: If DeKalb wants community to love schools, invest in students, not billboards

The press release from DeKalb County Schools today on its new $50,000 “I love DeKalb Schools” billboards and branding campaign describes the advertising effort as the “brainchild of the Division of Communications and Community Relations.” The release touts the plan as “revolutionary marketing.”

The laudatory descriptions are not surprising considering the Division of Communications and Community Relations responsible for the campaign also issued the press release about it. However, I am not sure DeKalb taxpayers or teachers will be as smitten with the plan as the communications department seems to be.

A website about the effort announces:

IT TAKES A VILLAGE FOR A COMMUNITY TO THRIVE! THAT’S WHY WE’RE CELEBRATING THE HEARTBEAT OF DEKALB COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT (DCSD) – OUR STAFF, STUDENTS, FAMILIES, AND ALUMNI BECAUSE WE’RE PROUD, DCSD PROUD. OUR CULTURE IS RICH, AUTHENTIC, STRONG, AND WE’RE ON THE RISE!

Here is the problem with this sort of “feel good” campaign: People don’t love their local schools because of pretty billboards or cool logos; they love them because the schools deliver a great education to their kids.

And DeKalb schools are not great. Yes, there are some strong schools, but performance remains uneven.

It is worrisome DeKalb leadership seems to be embracing gimmicks, including the controversial $100,000 Aug. 4 convocation that will entail busing teachers to a Gwinnett County arena where DeKalb superintendent Steve Green promises a moving experience that will erase all teacher misgivings.

Unless Beyoncé struts out on that Infinite Energy Center stage, I doubt DeKalb County teachers are going to be mollified they were forced to spend the final hours before students return sitting in an arena in Duluth.

As a teacher wrote me this weekend about losing a half day or more to convocation:

“How has Dr. Green compensated for this missed planning time? He described this convocation as professional development, so does that mean that teachers won’t be attending the mandatory professional development we traditionally have for one day during pre-planning? Will the school buildings have additional support staff during the week to help with photocopying copies of syllabi, arranging classrooms? Will school administrators be required to have schedules completed when we teachers return to work on Monday? Every pre-planning week I’ve ever worked has involved multiple schedule changes, classroom relocations, and even newly hired teachers arriving that Friday. DeKalb is hosting a Region 4 job fair soon and is advertising at least 156 elementary and high school teaching jobs on PATS today, July 9. I think we teachers would feel more excited about the school year if we knew we wouldn’t have to cover the classes not yet filled.”

I’m sure that Dr. Green means well, but I hope he’ll do as any of us classroom teachers would do and revise this plan. We can’t tell our students we care about them; we have to show them. In the previous two years,  Dr. Green has spent a lot of time listening to parents and DeKalb educators removed from the classroom. I wish that he would now listen to us teachers.

“DeKalb has a history of style over substance,” said school board member and frequent board dissident Stan Jester. “This convocation demonstrates a lack of respect for teachers’ time…In our new budget, we are expecting to spend more than we take in and now we are going to spend money on a big-ticket event that will not improve academic achievement for students in a school district that has the most failing schools in Georgia.”

Neither Dr. Green nor his communications staff has been in DeKalb long, but they still ought to recognize that DeKalb parents are a tough audience to impress. They are among the most vocal and discerning parents in the state and not easily swayed. They bring a deep skepticism — legitimate in view of the Crawford Lewis years — of district priorities.

I am not sure parents are going to be thrilled with this news:

Here is the official release:

The DeKalb County School District (DCSD) today unveiled the first pieces of a revolutionary marketing effort designed to highlight the community’s investment in the success of its schools.

In this first phase of a three-phase campaign, a series of seven billboards have been posted at strategic locations across DeKalb County. In addition, a new webpage has been launched simultaneously, with messaging that reflects the unity, spirit and diversity of the school district. Phase one of the campaign will also include print ads, television commercials, an original jingle performed by DCSD students, promotional materials and social media.

The goal of the effort, according to Superintendent/CEO Dr. R. Stephen Green, is to remind all stakeholders of the value of DeKalb County schools, and to counter mainstream perceptions and attitudes that don’t accurately reflect the work of students and staff.

“In two years, DCSD has made dramatic progress in student achievement and delivering deep teaching and learning,” Green said. “Now is the time for us to make it crystal clear what we’re about – a community that values education, its schools and its stakeholders. This new marketing program allows us to better control our narrative and tell our own story.”

Through media impressions, social engagement and increased website traffic, the campaign will create a strong presence in the Metro Atlanta K-12 landscape and will be used as a promotional tool to recruit new students and families to the DeKalb County School District.

The marketing effort is the brainchild of the district’s Division of Communications and Community Relations, and is the first wave of a push to reestablish the district’s links with its community. Other division efforts, such as an external newsletter, a district news magazine, a new flyer management system, the district’s co-branding efforts and a re-dedication to social media are projects currently underway. Locations for the marketing billboards include:

•    I-285 N/O Covington Highway
•    I-285 W/O New Peachtree Road
•    I-20 E Wesley  Chapel
•   Memorial Drive –Hairston Road
•    I-20 E Klondike Road
•    811 Peachtree Industrial Blvd
•    556 Buford Hwy/Clairmont Road

Reader Comments 0

41 comments
Rickster_
Rickster_

Someone needs to start a change.org petition asking the convocation be cancelled.

Babycat
Babycat

The picture doesn't reflect the diversity of the system!

One hit wonder
One hit wonder

@Babycat I agree!!!  Where is the picture of the single parent working two jobs and raising children?  Where is the picture of the homeless family living in an extended stay hotel?  Where is the picture of the immigrant family who just arrived to this country?  Where is the picture of the grandmother who is raising her grand children?  This shows a total disconnect between the Superintendent/Board and the District as a whole.

Lynn Mcdonald
Lynn Mcdonald

Tweeting sound bites (in my old district) is such a PR facade placating the few parents who actually follow.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

“For example using a sports example, can you even imagine what would happen if a football player for the Atlanta Falcons complained to the media about having to have a meeting with the Coach or owner or if they were spending their time complaining to the media about being too busy to attend?  …  . And, again, using a sports analogy, every school district can use additional teacher leaders who will "rally" the "troops" to come together as a unit, just as they do on successful sports teams.”  -- Johnny E Brown

Augh!  If it’s not a business-world analogy, it’s a sports-world analogy.

How is it certain folk just keep on horribly conflating sports and sports management and education and education leadership? 

It seems to me an aspect of sports and managing a sports team is that of suppressing and perhaps oppressing the individual team member’s idiosyncrasy.

And it seems to me an aspect of education and education leadership is that of liberating and sustaining the individual’s idiosyncrasy.

After all, doesn’t the essence of education – authentic education – aim to “to draw out” rather than “to push in?”

So, implicit in what Brown has here offered is insight into a peculiar and disturbing command-and-control way of thinking known to put obstacles in the way of learning to improve social systems, including especially public education systems as the social systems they are in reality.

Shannon Howrey
Shannon Howrey

What else could that $100,000 buy? 12,500 children's books, 285 i-pads, lab supplies for 200 classrooms, field trips for 5000 students, professional conference attendance for 500 teachers, and 

the list goes on.  

Johnny E Brown
Johnny E Brown

Hello Maureen and I am commenting since you mentioned by name for a couple of days on the topic. Of course the faculty and staff should all meet with the Chief Executive of the school district to review the mission, goals, objectives, strategies and expectations. The meeting should not be optional any more than that would be the case for any other organization. For example using a sports example, can you even imagine what would happen if a football player for the Atlanta Falcons complained to the media about having to have a meeting with the Coach or owner or if they were spending their time complaining to the media about being too busy to attend? The same is true for any other successful organizations. I have long admired many of your public stances on challenging issues over the years, but in this case I believe you are "missing the boat". DeKalb County has some excellent teachers, veteran and new. Those who are really passionate about being well prepared for the first day do not wait until the Friday before school to be ready for school to start. And, again, using a sports analogy, every school district can use additional teacher leaders who will "rally" the "troops" to come together as a unit, just as they do on successful sports teams.  The program in 2002 was fun and productive according to your newspaper report and many, many others who attended.  Unsure who your mystery complainants are--suggest your being careful to include a cross-section of people before making such wide assumptions as you made on several points. The dress code implementation, for example, went well in most schools and most people were fine with it. Those few who complained included some influential people in one part of the county, as you may recall. No doubt we could have done a better job in understanding the politics and timing on some issues. True the departure was on mutual terms, more to do with the aftermath of having to cut over $50 million dollars and favorite programs than anything else, due to fiscal mismanagement and over-spending for years prior to my tenure. Note, neither I nor the administrative staff confiscated newspapers. We did, however, meet with students and school staff about procedures on assuring accuracy in publications. Also, note, we were proud of the accomplishments of double digit gains in academics, building new schools and more. Now, I do question as are others about the cost of holding the staff meeting; hope they can reduce that to little to nothing through business partnerships. 


Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Good afternoon parents.  Here is your school shopping list.  By the way, could you donate a few reams of copier paper when you're making your purchases?  We seem to be running a little short of funds right now.  

@WhiteTrashAmerican
@WhiteTrashAmerican

Take a look at DCPS and GCPS P card receipts for Starbucks. Our principal charged $35/day to the county taxpayers for *coffee* while working at a Title 1 school.  Imagine the Starbucks tailgate going on pre-convocation for the communications dept. $$$

redweather
redweather

If the DeKalb County School System is ever going to regain some of the luster it had 25 or 30 years ago, it won't be as a result of billboards. Student achievement drives a school system's reputation, plain and simple. This is one dog and pony show that won't hunt.

eliza
eliza

We were at the hospital due to the surgery of a family member. I was worried about the family member. I was also concerned about getting some work done for school. 

My daughter, who is an educator in another school system, pulled out her county issued lap top to do some work for the start of school. 

I don't have a county issued lap top. 

At our school our air conditioner breaks. Our building leaks. We have to be careful not to use too much paper.

I know that $ 150,000 dollars would not solve all our problems. 

Since  there are so many other needs, it is hard for school based people to be excited about seeing that money going to signs and a convocation.

Often people not working in a school, seem to think that they know what is best for us. If we are not excited about their recommendations, then those same people begin to criticize us.

How about using some of that money, to survey the needs of the schools? 

What has happened to our school system?



Starik
Starik

What's revolutionary and depressing is the system's tilt toward racial segregation. This is a good thing?

Rickster_
Rickster_

@Starik That tilt has been going on for decades. DCSD has been a majority/minority district since late 80s I believe. The M-to-M (Majority-to-Minority) program was phased out when a court ruled the district "unitary." 

There's not much the district itself can do when people willingly segregate themselves into racially-identified communities or move out to avoid certain races of people.

One hit wonder
One hit wonder

Many parents who need to be reached (participating in their childs education) are NOT represented on this billboard.  What about the single family homes, children being raised by their grandmother, children with parent(s) working 2 or more jobs, homeless families?  And a billboard...really? Waste of money.  I guess that expensive communication department is trying to prove their value.

Melissa Payne
Melissa Payne

Isn't the communications department the one with someone who makes more than the governor?

Rickster_
Rickster_

Isn't she the one that said they wouldn't release the budget until after it was passed by the Board? Dr. Green is not being served well by that department.

Astropig
Astropig

Is the photo above the only version that will go on a billboard? 


They look like the family in a Dollar Tree picture frame.

kaelyn
kaelyn

A friend last week asked me if I would recommend our DeKalb high school to a family moving to the area. I wasted exactly not one beat before I laughed my head off and said NO WAY. My kids do fine because we hire outside tutors and they have a great group of friends who are also academically focused. However, our situation is far from the norm and the typical DeKalb student falls through the cracks (or is it craters?).

I cannot thank Maureen enough for this piece. It's a warning sign to me to be on the lookout for these ridiculous billboards. If I saw them without any prior knowledge, I might have run off the road or died laughing.

Greg Kaiser
Greg Kaiser

This is not what the district should be prioritizing.

DunwoodyMom1
DunwoodyMom1

I'm getting a big old laugh out of this "drama".  Leave to a certain few to criticize everything DCSD...(looking at the Jester's here).  Every department has a budget..in this case the Communications department.  If they want to rent 7 billboards and it fits within their budget....why does anyone care?  That's their budget not the Salary and Benefits budget.  Sheesh.....

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@DunwoodyMom1 It seems odd to me that the convocation -- budgeted at $100,000 -- is also being done through communications, which has a director earning $175,000.

As the AJC reported:

Director Houston-Stewart and four other new positions in the communications department have nearly doubled money spent on salaries to more than $800,000, more than half of the entire communications department's $1.5 million dollar budget proposed for 2017.

It is also more than the metro's largest school district. Salaries for Gwinnett County's communications department add up to $483,000.

DunwoodyMom1
DunwoodyMom1

@MaureenDowney Again, this department has a budget;  It is that department's decision on how to use their budgeted funds.  I don't have a problem with the billboards - I have seen these for public schools in several states. I also don't have a problem with the rally other than it should be optional, not mandatory.  Many companies provide rallies and other "off-campus" functions for morale and congratulatory purposes.    The district should have made it optional.  My guess they would have had a substantial outcome without having to mandate it. 


Starik
Starik

@redweather @DunwoodyMom1 @MaureenDowney Unless the school system has a truly bizarre budget system, they are not free to spend the money as they see fit. They get a number of line items - for salaries, supplies, equipment and not much that's not controlled. They can't spend money on advertising unless there's a line item for that.

Ingrid Soble Gero
Ingrid Soble Gero

I choose not to comment on public forums but would be happy to talk to you personally.

BRV
BRV

In principle this money would be better spent on classrooms. However, schools committing funds to advertising is an entirely predictable outcome of the school privatization movement. Businesses competing in a market advertise. Why would anyone expect schools to behave any differently? Charters already advertise and brand. Public schools are foolish not to do the same in areas where they have competition from charters. The bottom line is that this is the future. It's already happening in other parts of the country.

I travel all over the country on business. In places where there are significant concentrations of charters and a heavy push for markets and consumerism regarding schools, public schools advertise. In Michigan, for example, it's become a routine part of many school district budgets to include line items for marketing. I see the ads, billboards etc. when I'm up there. It's simply not feasible to have market-based education and not eventually have advertising.

Astropig
Astropig

@BRV


Okay.To take your idea just a step further,zip code schools will have to do more than just advertise to keep the ship afloat.That means real improvements,not just better billboards and jingles.


They wouldn't do this,as clumsy as it is,without the prod of competition.


The kids win when everybody has to get better to compete.

One hit wonder
One hit wonder

Does this group really think a billboard is going to get a parent in the school house and involved in their child's education? More money wasted.  Come on man....

catmom-scout
catmom-scout

I'm sure glad I'm not a DeKalb County resident forced to pay school taxes that fund rallies and billboards.

Astropig
Astropig

"a revolutionary marketing effort designed to highlight the community’s investment in the success of its schools."


Billboards (invented in the early 20th century to advertise Mail Pouch chewing tobacco)

Webpages (!) just in time for people to move to the mobile space...

Jingles-"Enroll your kids in DeKalb,like you have some kind of chooooooooiiiicccceee!!!!!" 


You can't make this stuff up,folks.Dr. Green is worth every penny they pay him.He's comedy gold.

alt.AJC
alt.AJC

What will strike most viewers as odd is the adult male in the billboard photo.

Nationally, 3 out of 4 black children grow up in homes without any father present. With disastrous academic results and seemingly no public interest whatsoever in addressing the problem.

What is the DeKalb community doing to reverse this?

Carolyn Paul Finnerty
Carolyn Paul Finnerty

Every last dollar that is not absolutely needed elsewhere needs to be directed to the students and teachers. These billboards are a ridiculous waste of money. I am very disappointed in this. Maureen your statement is spot on - 'Dekalb parents want a real classroom focus, not PR stunts.'

Astropig
Astropig

Some public schools don't have to advertise-they have waiting lists.They are charter schools.They don't waste money on stuff like this and don't have highly paid "communications specialists" (propagandists) that use taxpayer money to advertise what in effect,is a legal monopoly. 

cellophane
cellophane

The for profit charter management organizations like Charter Schools USA (schools in Coweta and Cherokee) certainly do advertise-- they even have a PR firm. Flashy direct mail pieces and magazine ads appear routinely. And their sole source of funding is Georgia tax dollars.