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City Neighborhoods
Advertising pushes city charter high school over top in first year

Sunday, August 18, 2002

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

If you caught a recent movie hit such as "Spider-Man" or "Signs" at the Waterfront in Homestead, you probably saw an ad before the previews for a high school that provides students with laptop computers.

You might have seen one of the school's billboards across the city of a smiling teen-age girl with a tousled hairdo, her head cocked to one side.

Or you could have received a slick brochure in the mail showing a youth with a large red "C" on the bottom of his skateboard in midjump.

And even if you missed every one of these marketing pitches for "High School at Life Speed," hundreds of others didn't.

Young people from throughout the city applied so quickly that by the first week of July, they had filled all 156 ninth-grade slots for the first year of City Charter High School, which opens Sept. 3. And there's a waiting list.

"I have to tell you it worked. There was overwhelming response," said Richard Wertheimer, education manager for what has been dubbed "City High." "More than half the students applied online. We're really pumped up."

Starting in the spring, City High launched what has probably been the most aggressive advertising campaign for a charter school in this region.

Organizers hired the Monroeville-based Sheldon Advertising to do the marketing and CommerSel of Squirrel Hill to design the Web site.

Using about $50,000 in funding from The Heinz Endowments, the Grable Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, City High invested in an advertising campaign featuring hip-looking teen-agers in a series of billboards, two direct mailings to local homes, movie ads at Loews Theater at the Waterfront in Homestead, brochures, promotional compact discs and the Web site, www.cityhigh.org. The money also covered the design of a logo, letterhead and business cards.

The marketing promotes the school's emphasis on career preparation and use of technology by highlighting the laptops for students and opportunities for paid college classes and "real work" internships.

"It's called City High and it's a whole new take on public school," one part of a brochure mailing reads. "Sure it's open to everyone, but only 156 ninth-graders will get in. Are you going to be one?"

Wertheimer said that as a result of the campaign, the school received nearly 400 requests for applications. Its waiting list has fluctuated between 10 and 36 students.

And the first ninth-grade class is a diverse group. It includes an even number of boys and girls, about 65 percent of whom are white and 35 percent African-American. Also, 130 students come from the city and 26 from nearby suburbs.

"Our goal was to reach into all the neighborhoods and find a way to get a broad base of students," Wertheimer said. "I'm quite excited about the demographics."

He praised Sheldon Advertising and CommerSel for effectively attracting students on a limited budget.

Laura Sheldon, owner of Sheldon Advertising, said her strategy was to find economical ways to fulfill the advertising rule of thumb of getting people to see a promotion three times so that they will remember it.

"We started April 15 with the cinemas because 'Star Wars' and 'Spider-Man' were coming out, and we knew kids would be going to those movies," Sheldon said. "Cinemas are a good place for school information."

The 10-second ads ran from May 3 through Aug. 7 at the 22-screen Loews Theaters at the Waterfront for a minimum of 2,310 spots per week.

Then came the 14 billboards, which rotated to different spots in the region.

The direct mailings rounded out the strategy. The large brochures with attached response cards were mailed to 16,850 homes with youngsters 13 and 14 years old. The first round of mailings in May was sent to Pittsburgh addresses, while a second round in June included Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs.

The City Charter High School is off to a fast start almost in spite of the Pittsburgh board of education.

Charter schools are authorized by local school districts and receive taxpayer money, but operate independently. The Pittsburgh board had approved a charter for City Charter High School in February, but then tried to block it in March, saying it fell short on explaining how it would handle special education students.

A Common Pleas judge ruled in April that the board's previous approval should stand and the school could begin.

The school also is relying on several key staff members from the Pittsburgh schools who have taken leaves of absence to found the charter school.

Wertheimer was coordinator of instructional technology for the district, and Mario Zinga, the other primary City High organizer, oversaw training teachers and other employees in technology for the district.

City High's chief administrative officer is Maxine Klimasara, who had been principal of Reizenstein Middle School in East Liberty.

Other City High staff include Linda Savido, who had been the librarian at Westinghouse High School in Homewood; Jackie Perhach, former outreach coordinator for Schenley High School's high-tech magnet; and Mary Poehlmann, who worked with the information technology program and Connelley Technical Institute and Adult Education Center.

City school district spokeswoman Pat Crawford said school officials would have to wait to see what impact City High will have on the district's student population, which was nearly 38,000 last year.

"What we have to do is get competitive and remain competitive because what charters have done is increase the number of choices in the community and make those choices more accessible to families in the city and outside the city," she said.

Innocenzio Grignano, director of the Charter Schools Project at Duquesne University, said he did not know of any other local charter school that has engaged in such an aggressive marketing campaign.

But elsewhere in the state some charter schools have promoted themselves extensively, he said, such as a kindergarten charter school in State College called Wonderland that has taken out whole page ads in local magazines in that area.

"The developers of City Charter High School saw that they needed to attract the attention of the community," Grignano said. "That's a lot of what they're trying to do."

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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