The Prince George's County contingent descended on this city this week like headhunters from a Fortune 500 firm. They set up shop in a hotel convention room, carted out promotional videotapes and a giant, collapsible billboard, and geared up for competition.
For two days, the county team scrambled with 89 other school districts to capture a shrinking American resource: teachers.
The Atlanta school system gave away magnetic address books and Houston handed out tiny "Texas" badges. But Prince George's set the standard: The team of five businessmen and five school officials served free deli lunches and kiwi-fruit desserts in a hospitality suite, dispensed tote bags and raffled off a pocket-sized television. They promised a free month's rent to a roomful of college seniors dressed, for the occasion, in conservative business suits.
"It's amazing," said Boston University senior Dana C. Wolfe, an aspiring science teacher, as she left the Prince George's suite. "They really have set themselves apart."
The extra push in Boston was part of an unprecedented campaign -- which includes television advertisements, direct mail, billboards and pep rallies -- to market Prince George's County's historically troubled, but changing, program of public education. While advertising has long been an art form in the business world, government and nonprofit agencies have traditionally shied away from such aggressive self-promotion.
But now Madison Avenue has inspired the county to try something new: the selling of its school system.
It is one of many novel attempts by schools systems across the country to promote themselves, said Virginia Ross, a spokeswoman at the National School Public Relations Association. But Prince George's, she said, offered "the best package I'd seen . . . they're on the cutting edge."
While the Prince George's marketing strategy is one of the most ambitious in the country, school districts elsewhere are testing other tactics.
The Los Angeles County Office of Education has hired the consulting firm used by California politicians such as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein to measure public opinion about local schools. The office then launched an image-building campaign that raised the public approval rating 14 points in two years.
The Macomb County, Mich., Intermediate School District has employed regular marketing research to survey public opinion on the schools, then determine whether new programs are succeeding. In response to the initial surveys, school officials have begun using empty classrooms to offer preschool for children as young as six months and conducting reading classes for unemployed industrial workers.
The determined marketing techniques result in part from a national teacher shortage, which has created new competition for a dwindling pool of college graduates. Also, educators who are grappling with funding shortages and tax initiatives such as California's Proposition 13, which sharply curtailed funds for education, are searching for ways to build public support.
And a lingering malaise about the state of education has spurred school system public relations offices to promote the good things that happen in their institutions.
"Unless the public schools sell themselves," said Prince George's school spokesman Brian J. Porter, "nobody pays any attention to them."
The Prince George's effort has several goals. Sales pitches outlining the virtues of the schools are being made to attract businesses to the county, and to help improve racial balance by drawing white families to enroll in special programs in predominantly black schools.
The system also is promoting itself to bolster morale internally, hoping to make teachers, parents and students feel good about their schools.
"I've got to be able to get the good things out there for people to see," said Superintendent John A. Murphy, who stars in one of the films shown to prospective teachers. "It's important, especially in Prince George's, where the image has been so negatively distorted for so many years."
The county's strategy has included a $200,000 network television advertising campaign featuring talented county students, outdoor billboards, a pep rally for 11,000 employes at the Capital Centre last fall and the recent recruiting blitz in Boston.
The Prince George's promotional package was conceived and funded in part by a committee of business leaders appointed by Murphy to work with the schools. Headed by former county executive Winfield Kelly, the committee sponsored the television spots and designed a package of incentives -- including a month's free rent and discounts on food, loans and credit card fees -- to assist recruiters in filling the 400 to 600 teacher vacancies expected next year.
The national publicity that followed has drawn 3,000 applicants, from states as far away as Montana and California. The business committee also organized and spent $5,000 on the high-visibility push at this week's recruiting convention for graduates of three dozen New England colleges. Some of the businessmen greeted the graduates in the hospitality suite while others passed out apples near a sign that read: "Have your first apple on us."
Next month school officials will initiate a direct-mail campaign, borrowing a strategy usually reserved for the political world, to get out information to every county resident on the 28 magnet programs slated to operate this fall.
The intensity of the campaign, and its focus on new teachers, has been met with some skepticism.
"It's too much," said one teacher with more than 30 years of experience in the county. "Why don't they pay attention to what you have here?"
Paul Pinsky, president of the county teachers union, said such resentment is typical among veteran teachers in the county, who have struggled with low pay, large classes and inadequate materials. He also expressed reservations about inviting extensive involvement of "outside" groups such as businesses that, he said, "can jump in and jump out."
"I'm all in favor of recruiting as many new qualified teachers as we can get," he said. "I would just prefer we do it systemically, rather than a little hype here, a little freebie there."
Already, other school districts have begun to notice that Prince George's is gaining a competitive edge in recruiting. County recruiters got an additional boost recently when teachers ratified a contract that will raise starting salaries from $15,738 to $19,000 annually, among the highest in the Washington metropolitan area.
Bill Barrett, a Montgomery County recruiter at the Boston convention, said Prince George's recruiters usually have taken a back seat to Montgomery. "But no longer," he said, wincing at a poster that showed Montgomery's starting salary of $17,187. "I think they're flaunting it -- balloons, giving away free pencils."
Barrett voiced a common reaction to the Prince George's handouts and promotional glitz. "Everybody picks up the gimmicks, the freebies, but I don't know if it's all that productive."
While Prince George's handed out hundreds of applications and filled up its interview schedule, so did Montgomery, said Barrett.
Jackie Walton, a senior at Boston College, accepted the free lunch from Prince George's, then conceded that "the balloons attract attention, but when you get right down to it, pay is a big thing, teacher-student ratio."
For other students, the gimmicks made a difference.
"The fact they've gone to this much trouble, plus the teacher incentives . . . it gives a very, very good picture," said Dana Wolfe, a 22-year-old from Arkansas