Two-thirds of Hoosiers are satisfied with their public schools, a recent Ball State poll shows.
But many Indiana school district officials still feel they’re losing the battle for public opinion, pointing to what they see as statehouse defeats — from expansion of the state’s voucher program to high-stakes teacher evaluations and standardized tests — as proof.
Hoping to change the education debate, the leaders of West Lafayette Community Schools launched an unusual marketing push last month: they premiered a documentary film laying out their take on Indiana education policy.
The district funded the film, called “Rise Above The Mark,” not with tax dollars, but with donations to its foundation arm. But West Lafayette superintendent Rocky Killion was instrumental in visioning the film, which takes aim at Indiana lawmakers — and pulls no punches.
“We’re the right school district to start that conversation because we’re not making any excuses,” Killion says. “We’re not saying the reforms are hurting our public schools from a metric. We’re saying that it’s going to hurt our future if we don’t change course.”
Commissioning a documentary is an extraordinary marketing move for an Indiana school district. Few corporations even employ a staff member dedicated to marketing and public relations full-time, says school communications consultant Donna Petrait.
“They’ve been kind of blindsided and unprepared for dealing with competition,” says Petrait, who’s also executive director of Indiana’s chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.West Lafayette’s film would have to go a long way to counter the message of another prominent education documentary.
“Waiting For Superman” grossed $6 million in 2010, prompting nearly 300,000 people to directly pledge support for an overhaul of the nation’s public education system.
At Superman’s core is a very different message: wasteful spending and bureaucratic inefficiency are nullifying the efforts of good teachers and good public schools. The film also floats charter schools as a possible solution.
“Teachers are great — a national treasure, Teachers unions are, generally speaking, a menace, and an impediment to reform,” says author Jonathan Alter in an interview for “Waiting for Superman.”
“Waiting for Superman” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. “Rise Above The Mark” opened before a crowd of more than 1,000 people filled Long Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Lafayette.
From frame one, “Rise” offers an earnest rebuttal of the state’s current education policy regime, opening on an interview with a tearful teacher. She says she’s retiring early, dismayed by the direction of Indiana school policy.
“The legislators have beaten us down,” she says, fighting tears. “I hope that some way, we find a way to fight our way back up to the top.”
For a small-budget film, the documentary has professional polish. The filmmakers brought in Peter Coyote to narrate it. Prominent critic and former Assistant Education Secretary Diane Ravitch appears too, alongside Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond and Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg.
Petrait, who helps public school officials draw up communications strategies, says districts don’t need to get into the documentary film business. But she does urge them to dedicate resources to public relations efforts.
“Unless school districts start telling their own stories and being proactive in their communications, things are not going to get better,” she adds.