Consultant plans a beefy outreach campaign for Alexandria schools

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 5:03 PM

The man who got Wendy's to ask "Where's the beef?" in its legendary 1980s marketing campaign has a new challenge: Helping Alexandria's public schools better sell themselves to potential donors and volunteers.

Alan Hilburg, the communications consultant whose work for Wendy's was followed by efforts to polish the reputations of Leona Helmsley and Don Imus during periods of controversy, is seeking to improve the image of a school district that is Northern Virginia's most diverse and, by some measures, its least successful. The federal government labeled the system's only high school, T.C. Williams, among the nation's "persistently lowest achieving" in March.

Developing marketing strategies are common for companies and colleges but rarely a priority for school districts. Superintendent Mort Sherman, who prefers the term "community outreach strategy," says he hopes the effort helps the district attract more private donations and other support at a time when fiscal strain makes it hard to pay for new initiatives.

Hilburg will make $48,000 - an amount district officials hope will be repaid several times over in new corporate support. The school district also is working to establish a local education foundation that would make it easier for companies to donate money to Alexandria schools.

"It's about building a more effective bridge between the classroom and the community," Hilburg said. "It's about creating a sense of social responsibility in Alexandria."

Hilburg is one of several external consultants Sherman has tapped since he was hired in 2008. In the last two years, the district's expenditures on consultants have increased threefold, to more than $900,000. Much of that money, Sherman said, has been spent on specialists charged with overhauling nine Alexandria schools that didn't meet federal standards last year.

The school district's search for a better community outreach program has begun in focus groups across the city, where Hilburg asks collections of parents and teachers to share anecdotes that might bolster the district's reputation.

"So many people come to work here every day, and they don't know what's happening in the local school system," Hilburg said.

School districts across the country increasingly have turned to the private sector to cover budget shortfalls or pay for new programs. Former D.C. School chancellor Michelle A. Rhee this year tapped $65 million in private grants to help pay for teacher raises and bonuses.

Private foundations have caught on with particular force among Northern Virginia schools, home to some of the nation's wealthiest communities and fastest-growing districts. Fairfax County, Virginia's biggest school district, is preparing to start a second foundation to enhance its ability to attract donations.

Alexandria schools, which serve some of the least-affluent parts of the region, are fighting not only for private-sector assistance, Sherman said, but to distinguish themselves from neighboring districts.

"People often lump Arlington and Alexandria together, but we're incredibly different. Our level of service has to be better understood," he said.

The district includes more non-native English speakers and students who receive free and reduced-price lunches than neighboring school divisions. Since 2002, the district has consistently failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but the on-time graduation rate has climbed several percentage points in recent years, to 79 percent.

School officials say they would like to organize more opportunities for business leaders to spend time in Alexandria classrooms.

"We're trying to engage them emotionally," Hilburg said. "A brand is not slogan or a product. It's an experience."

With the help of six interns, he has compiled a list of more than a thousand Alexandria businesses and organizations that might be convinced to donate time or volunteer hours to local schools.

But community engagement in Alexandria, where a smaller portion of public funds is distributed to education than in almost any other school division in the Washington area, remains a challenge. For every 10 new residents moving in to the city, there is only one school-aged child, according to the city's statistics, leaving new residents with little personal connection to the school division.

Hilburg, who says his work might not end with a new catchphrase or logo, nevertheless peppers his explanation of the campaign with would-be slogans: "Try us, you'll like us," for example. Or "ACPS - it's Alexandria's best kept secret."

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