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 prospective families 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 highlight your differences (without naming them as such) throughout your marketing endeavors whether it's on your tour, at an open house, on social media or on your website. Explain why it's good you are what you are and do what you do. Refer to research backing up your claims and true-to-life stories of success to make your points believable and authentic.
4. No knee-jerk reactions. Don't panic and 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. Besides, is that what is really drawing the families? Stay true to your brand, as that is what attracted families to your school. (Obvious caveat: if your enrollment is sharply declining and you are not providing a quality education, of course your school needs to do some soul-searching and change.)
Example: Due to the success of some nearby charter schools that had cropped up, our creative, artsy-leaning school pushed for a school uniform requirement. Some thought that in doing so we would be more competitive with the charter schools who required uniforms. The uniform measure was roundly rejected by families. Turned out uniforms did not appeal to our families. They didn't want the school to become like the nearby charter schools.
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. No matter how simple or limited in scope, you need an organized plan. A great place to start is meeting with your administration and gathering information so you understand your school's actual weak spots. For example, are you having trouble keeping families (retention) or finding new ones (recruitment)?
6. Don't ignore them. Tour your competitors. Attend their events. Take a look at their literature, too. 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 and your school is providing a quality education, your school should not succumb to passing fads, but rather remain a tried-and-true, trusted partner in 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.
Hopefully reading this gives you the confidence to remain calm and steady in the face of steady (and often relentless!) competition and also to embrace the idea of creating a marketing plan. If you just can't wait until you plan, read about 5 things you can do right now.