Newsweek magazine recently named Sandwich High School among the top 500 high schools in the country...number 484, to be exact. The school’s students consistently score high on the annual MCAS tests. Latest figures show 93 percent of students performing at advanced or proficient in English, 89 percent at either advanced or proficient in mathematics, and 88 percent at either advanced or proficient in science.
Despite such positive statistics, Sandwich High School continues to lose students to out-of-district schools, including charter schools. Earlier this year, town selectmen noted that 78 students, who graduated from 8th grade in June 2010, did not go on to attend Sandwich High School that September. Figures from October 2010 show 55 students from Sandwich attending the Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis.
The Sandwich School Committee has been grappling with this reality, and at Wednesday night’s committee meeting, a six-step plan for marketing Sandwich High School was presented to the committee. Those steps include “branding” or establishing an identity for the school, upgrading the school’s website, greater use of social media, hiring an outside public relations firm, increased use of promotions and advertising.
The cost of the marketing program is estimated at $50,000, and that figure has led some to question whether such a plan is really worth the money.
School committee member Robert P. Catalini has been at the forefront of the push to market Sandwich High School.
Mr. Catalini said he made it clear during his campaign when he ran for the committee last spring that the school district needs to try to repair some of the damage done to its public image during the past few years.
“I think you need to be progressive,” he said. “A lot of it is about branding; people create brands. You’re your own personal brand walking around. You’re going to have a certain persona, people are going to perceive you in a certain way. The same is true with a school.”
Mr. Catalini said that not promoting Sandwich High School will not only leave lasting scars on the school district, but the town as well.
“If people don’t want to move here because of the schools” he said, “and they don’t feel comfortable and they’re going to move somewhere else, it’s going to affect the local economy, it has an effect on housing prices; it’s all sort of tied together.”
The need for a marketing plan is reflected in the dramatic exodus of students from Sandwich High School to other schools in other towns.
Earlier this year, Town Manager George H. Dunham revealed Sandwich paid $813,314 in tuition payments in the last fiscal year to other schools that Sandwich students have opted to attend instead of Sandwich’s schools.
In the current fiscal year, the town is expected to shell out $1.6 million, a 98 percent increase in one year.
Tuition assessments are charged to the town by the state for students who attend a charter school or a public school in another town.
The state then sends this money to the school districts where the students are attending to cover education costs. That money comes directly from the town’s municipal budget.
Other towns must pay for their students to attend Sandwich High, but that tuition assessment goes directly into the school budget and does not offset the hit on the Sandwich municipal budget. According to Sandwich Public Schools Business Manager Michelle J. Austin, this year Sandwich is expected to take in approximately $204,000 in tuition assessments from other towns.
According to Mr. Catalini, recent turmoil within the school system may be the reason students are opting for schools other than Sandwich High.
“Let’s just say there was some negative press,” he said. “Whether it was real or perceived, there was a lot of questions about 8th graders coming to Sandwich High School.”
Part of that negative press came from the controversial decision not to renew Mary Ellen Johnson as Sandwich superintendent of schools. In April of last year, the Sandwich School Committee voted to renew Dr. Johnson’s contract for three years. It was later ruled the vote was invalid because that meeting was not properly posted. A second vote, following a new election that brought in a new board, resulted in Dr. Johnson’s contract being declared void. The matter is still in litigation.
Mr. Catalini said there are other factors out of the school committee’s hands that may affect a family’s decision not to send their child to Sandwich High. A family may opt to send a student to a religious school, or a school that has been attended by previous family members for generations.
“That’s not an issue, but I think everybody who lives here should at least feel comfortable in terms of sending their kids to Sandwich Public Schools and feeling like they get a great education.”
Mr. Catalini’s plan was not without its critics.
School committee member Marie A. Kangas objected to the idea of using educational dollars for non-educational purposes.
“Honestly,” she told the committee, “I would rather see new science books in the high school than spend $12,000 on a new website when we already have one.” Ms. Kangas also mentioned the current tough economy as a reason she did not think that money should be taken away from students to pay for a marketing plan.
Mr. Catalini said he considers it healthy that some people would have questions and initially oppose the plan.
“I’m happy to see a dialogue, I think we’ll do some more homework and come back and ask for support, explicit support, and see where the chips fall.”