Media blitz battles negative image

Wareham school officials tout success  in campaign

By Lydia Goerner | May 24, 2017
Wareham High School’s posters advertising opportunities for students are one element of the Success Lives Here campaign.

Wareham Public Schools officials say the district has a problem. Not with academic programs, which have undergone a resurgence in recent years, but with something harder to change – its image.

This week, officials launched a new media campaign called “Success Lives Here” to change the conversation. The campaign will use posters, advertisements and social media to boost the district’s image, focusing on the positives rather than its past.

The negative view of the schools has caused students to leave the district, sometimes utilizing school choice to attend school in another district, which impacts Wareham financially.

Because of Massachusetts’ school choice program, enacted in 1991, parents can send students to public schools outside of their home district. A School Attending Report this year revealed that 699 students who live in Wareham do not attend its public schools. The number of students who choose the school choice route has increased from 12 in 2007 to 197 this year.

Under state law, Wareham must reimburse the district where students are sent 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil cost. That figure is capped at $5,000.

The problems with the Wareham school district’s image began when the new rating system for schools, based on standardized test scores, was rolled out, said School Committee member Geoff Swett.

The Wareham Middle School was consistently at level 3 on the rating scale. The scale is out of five, with one being the best. Wareham High School rose to a one on the scale several years ago, but no one seemed to notice, Swett said.

“The problem with the rating is it is judged by the lowest school rating of your district,” Swett said. Wareham is considered a level three district since this is the lowest rating in the district.

Another factor that contributes to the negative image of the district is the income of students’ families, Swett said. When he first began as a School Committee member 10 years ago, he said the number of students who qualified for the free and reduced lunch program was in the high 30 percent. Now, it is in the mid 50 percent range.

“Wealthier people don’t put their kids in Wareham schools,” Swett said.

Swett also pointed to the override funding the town asked for to improve schools several years ago, which was turned down.

Swett also pointed to the failed Proposition 2½ override attempt several years ago, which would have raised property taxes above the state-mandated 2½-percent cap in order to provide a yearly influx of money into the school system. Opponents of the measure argued that the town needed to live within its means, and it was ultimately defeated at the ballot.

“That sent a message to parents that the town wasn’t invested in the schools,” Swett said.

Students leaving the district can be harmful to Wareham’s finances. When a student leaves, this does not fundamentally change the number of teachers, buildings or programs necessary for the school. The school receives less money for the same offerings.

The district’s reputation has an effect on real estate in the area too, according to Cindy Parola, a Wareham real estate agent and former School Committee member.

“I just had an open house this weekend,” said Cindy Parola, a Wareham real estate agent. “A family looked at three condos and they really liked the one in Wareham the best, but they didn’t want to be in Wareham because of the schools, so they chose a different condo.”

Parola said historically, people bought a home in a particular ZIP code because it had a good school system. After school choice became an option, real estate agents had more leeway.

Parola said she has still lost sales because of Wareham’s school reputation.

Though the town is struggling to repair its image and boost finances in several areas, Swett said this media campaign is not just an advertisement for the district. He is optimistic the improvements to Wareham schools will help parents and students re-think the best place to get an education.

The high school’s new International Baccalaureate diploma program is one of the improvements and will allow students to start taking courses next year. This is a more student-centered type of education, Superintendent Kimberly Shaver-Hood said.

The district is also highlighting its middle school Humanities Academy, which ties serving the community in with academics, its dual enrollment program, culinary arts program and STEAM academy, the school’s science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics program.

These opportunities have already made an impact on where students choose to go to school, Shaver-Hood said, but she hopes the media campaign will help promote them and slow the financial “drain” of students leaving the district.

Though it may take time to change the longstanding perception of the district, Shaver-Hood is confident that it can be done as people become aware of what the schools are implementing.

“I believe the opportunities we have will compete with any program and any school in the state,” Shaver-Hood said.

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