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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
MARKETING AG HIGH SCHOOL GOES BEYOND ABCS
When you talk to folks at the three-year-old Agricultural & Food Sciences Academy (AFSA) in the suburban Twin Cities in Minnesota about the charter high school and its promotional efforts, you often hear the words "we don't have a lot of money for marketing."

The Agricultural & Food Sciences Academy, Little Canada, Minn, is currently full with 160 students in grades nine through 12.
On the other hand, the school is full with 160 students, and the marketing efforts undertaken during the past three years have worked. Starting with some pro bono work from Twin-City based Colle & McVoy (the school is still using the logo the agency developed), the school's efforts have included media relations, direct mail, personal school visits by staff and students, school fairs, a booth at the Minnesota State Fair, open houses, special activity nights (called Family Fun Nights) and word of mouth. There was a small amount of advertising in Twin City daily and weekly newspapers the first year only.

"With any new product, adoption marketing is critical," says Doris Mold, community relations coordinator and marketing consultant for the school. "When you don't have a lot of money, it becomes even more difficult. We've used a variety of methods to get the word out. But that's all part of the battle."

The school visits have been one important tactic. Becky Meyer, school director, says the AFSA Ambassadors - students trained by Mold to speak extemporaneously at middle school visits during recruitment efforts - are key to promotional efforts. "The school recruitment trips have been particularly effective," she says.

GETTING STARTED

Many of you may be familiar with the Chicago High School for Ag Sciences. And agriculture high schools in Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and a number of other states have also sprung up in urban areas in recent years. The Minnesota urban ag school, with students in grades nine through 12, offers classes in biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, ag science, language arts, social studies and more.

The school also has a partnership with the University of Minnesota, allowing for opportunities for students to collaborate with the university on a number of projects in such areas as agronomy, plant and animal sciences, engineering, farm life, etc. The relationship with the ag school is logical. Of the current senior class, the first graduating class, many will be going to the university.

Meyer says most promotional efforts are built around how the academy provides a nurturing environment using these core values:

  • Safe and caring place

  • Public school with private school values

  • Small class sizes

  • Student-centered learning

  • Respect, honesty, leadership and citizenship are emphasized

  • Good conduct and dress code enforced

  • Academics, attendance and work required.

AFSA students proudly display their ribbons from the Minnesota state Ag Science Fair competition; several of the students went on to compete in the national competition.
"Because we are a public school, we're funded by the state," Meyer says. "Marketing a high school is a new experience for me. We've learned quickly that we have to do what we say we're going to do and be able to have a draw - in other words, what can we provide that draws students and their parents toward our school."

The "draws" were obvious. Students interested in agricultural or horticultural careers were "gimme putts." But promoting the concept as a prep school for agriculture, promising project-based learning with field experiences, advanced technology and individual offices for each student were all part of the promised package. For example, each student has his/her own desk/chair, desktop computer and lockable storage space. I guess I'm not surprised that the school is full right now.

The school is also beginning to more fully engage local agribusinesses based in the Twin Cities, all of which is part of the school's overall marketing plans. Although there aren't what I would call "sponsors" of the school, support for various in-kind services and products (and some cash for scholarships) have come from such companies and groups as CHS Cooperatives, Land O' Lakes, the Minnesota State Fair, Minnesota AgriWomen, Minnesota Farm Bureau and area FFA alumni. "We do have needs from agribusinesses in the area for many in-kind services and donations," Meyer says.

And one company that has provided significant in-kind support is General Mills.

You know, the Cheerios folks.

The school's board chairman is Ron Olson, vice president, grain operations, for General Mills. The large consumer food company, based in the Twin Cities, is a natural to be involved in this urban ag school. Olson has been involved in the school from the beginning. One prime example of General Mills' involvement was the opening of the school three years ago and the need for furniture for the building.

Students at AFSA are offered many opportunities for project-based learning, as with these students working on tissue cultures.
"The timing was right," Olson says. "This came during the Pillsbury/General Mills merger and we were able to provide desks and other equipment for the school."

Olson says General Mills is keenly interested in the success of the school for two basic reasons. "One is to develop future career paths for the kinds of jobs that feed into the system. In our case that's food science," he says. "Also the school reaches into the city environment and targets learning in agriculture, and that's unique and needed in this state."

BACK TO MARKETING

The various marketing tactics used have undoubtedly been successful. The first year the school had 43 students, last year 128 and this year it's full at 160. "We still do news releases and other traditional marketing, and we're working on a new brochure," Mold explains. "Now we're trying our first foray into the whole ag community."

In November, the school held an open house for agribusiness, government and University of Minnesota personnel. Approximately 125 people attended the open house, which gave local agribusinesses and others the opportunity to learn more about the school and meet the students.

"Our goal is to use events like this to better market the school to agribusiness and get more opportunities to work with local companies and ag organizations," Mold says. "We'd like more shadowing opportunities, internships (paid or unpaid), and week-long intensive education periods at these companies."

Mold listed beekeeping and welding as two examples. She also mentioned one company is going to try to arrange for a group of students to work on a cattle ranch in Nebraska during what the school calls its M Term. During October (O Term) and May (M Term) students are afforded the opportunity to do more intensive learning over a longer period of time in one specific area.

"When we started the school, the agribusiness community was behind the idea of creating an urban high school," Mold says. "Now it's time to put those words into actions."

The challenges ahead for the school include determining the desired size of the school. "What size do we want to be and what size will make us effective long-term?" Olson says. "The school is 'maxed' out now."

Some believe the school should shoot for a target of 300 students. That means new space will be needed if the number of students is expanded. Olson and school officials are exploring larger spaces.

Another effort underway is getting a 501c3 foundation in place. This will allow better opportunities for agribusinesses and others to donate to the school and deduct the contribution from a tax standpoint.

Ultimately, however, the success of the school will depend on the experience of the students. Thus far, despite the small budget for marketing, the school is succeeding. "One of our staff last year was a finalist for the National FFA AgriScience teacher of the year. The teacher said this to the judges: 'If you visit our school you're not going to be impressed with the facility or the equipment or the textbooks. What will impress you are our students.'"

Says Meyer: "Our students are the best marketers we have." AM

Den Gardner is owner of Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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