Ad Campaign Touts Positive News About D.C. Schools

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

It's the rarest of species: a good-news advertisement about D.C. public schools.

"Did you know," the announcer intones on the ads, which aired last month on WPGC (95.5 FM) and are scheduled to run again next month, "that the only school in D.C. to earn a national ribbon for excellence last year was a D.C. public school? Go public and get a great free education!"

Those terms -- describing Key Elementary -- aren't usually associated with a system that ranks among the bottom in test scores nationwide. But the campaign, titled "Rediscover DCPS," has been launched by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee as one step toward stemming the decline in public confidence in a system whose enrollment has plummeted from 80,000 students three decades ago to 45,000 this year.

In addition to the radio spots, the $9,000 campaign, which makes a particular push for special education students, includes a section on the school system's Web site featuring 13 elementary and middle schools, and earlier school registration dates, officials said at a news conference yesterday.

"A positive marketing campaign about the school system . . . is long overdue," said Jeff Smith, president of D.C. Voice, an advocacy group that circulated a petition in November urging the media to report on positive school system developments. "No one has been willing to own the system. It continues to be the same talk about what's wrong with the system. Lots of things are wrong. If you're the CEO of any company, you have bad spots, but what's good is what you sell."

Whether the campaign will make a difference is far from certain. The enrollment decline in traditional public schools has been matched by a surge in the rolls at D.C.'s growing number of public charter schools, which showed a 14 percent increase over last year, to 25,729 students.

The budget proposal by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) for fiscal 2010 and the following few years shows that the administration expects the enrollment decline to level off at about this year's student population, but aides would not explain why they believe that will be the case.

Yesterday, the mayor announced that the city has settled a six-year-old class action lawsuit, J.C. v. Vance, aimed at improving services for special education students who are incarcerated. Staff has been increased, and students now participate in 30 hours of specialized education, officials said.

The school system's public awareness campaign states that 11 schools offer expanded special education services. School officials hope to persuade families to remove their children from costly private institutions, where fees are paid by the District, and return them to the public system.

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