It ain't easy.
I worked on marketing projects for the local school district a couple years ago and I plotted out all the schools (district, charter, private) in our region on a map with red dots. Guess what? There was a sea of red. It can be a bit overwhelming. But even before doing that research, I already knew the familiar favorites that were nearby. You probably have them, too--the ones that have waiting lists and enrollment lotteries. It ebbs and flows, but sometimes it can feel like your nearby competitors are leaving your school in the dust. So how do you handle having a popular charter school in your area?
1. Accept what you can't change. Do they have crazy-high test scores, talk non-stop about "rigor" and have smaller class sizes? Accept it: the playing fields will never be level.
2. Don't talk trash. It can be tempting on school tours or open houses to talk about the negatives of a nearby competitor. Even still, this is a no-no. You come off looking petty, angry and undermine your audience's trust. You no longer seem impartial and/or a reliable source of information and they may be less likely to believe other information you impart. Further, you may alienate some as they may have relatives or other children that currently attend the schools you are critiquing.
3. Promote your differences. The best you can do is point out your differences (without naming them as such) and explain why it's good you are what you are/do what you do. Refer to research backing up your claims and true-to-life anecdotes to make your points believable and authentic.
4. No knee-jerk reactions. Don't deluge the neighborhood with postcards or start doing weekly open houses. And if the charter school is offering free chess club or Hummus Tuesdays, don't assume you must offer the same or focus on that. Besides, is that what is really drawing the families?
5. Make sure your marketing ducks are in a row. In a non-knee-jerk fashion, of course. This is an area over which you have control and can have a real and lasting positive impact on your school. Also, conduct some informal research to determine where your school needs particular focus--retention (enrolled students are leaving) or are fewer families enrolling (say, kindergarten enrollment is shrinking).
6. Don't ignore them. Take a tour. Attend their events. Take a look at their literature and try to absorb all the details just like any other school you would tour for research. You may find potential ways to innovate at your school (after deliberate thought, not just in a knee-jerk way), in marketing and beyond.
7. Remember to stay the course. If things are running properly, your school should not be subject to passing fads, but rather a tried-and-true, trusted partner in your child's education. Just as families come and go, and might come and go again, the same is true of charter schools. Part of that is just the era in which we live.
Do you have any tips? Has having competitors nearby been beneficial for you? Have you read up on the pros of labeling your school's programs?