Perception of schools’ quality determining factor in decision

A new poll shows an evenly divided public, with roughly half willing to consider putting their own children in East Baton Rouge Parish public schools and about half unwilling to do so.

That comes from some new questions added to an annual phone poll, conducted in August. It’s the fifth such poll the parish school system has commissioned in five years.

SCI Research, a division of Survey Communications Inc., of Baton Rouge, surveyed 800 East Baton Rouge Parish residents. The overall margin of error was 3.5 percent.

A handful of new questions in the latest poll zeroes in on whether Baton Rouge residents would consider putting their children in public schools and why or why not. The questioners excluded residents of Baker, Central and Zachary, cities that have formed their own school districts in recent years.

These new questions were asked of less than 400 people, heads of households without school-age children. These questions have a larger 5.7 percent margin of error.

Fifty-percent said “yes,” they would consider putting their children, if they had them, in public schools, while 48 percent of this same demographic said “no,” they wouldn’t.

SCI then asked those without school-age children to say why they gave the answers they gave.

The issue for “yes” and “no” respondents was the same: “quality.” Or more precisely their perception of the quality of public schools. Their reasons were mirror opposites of each other.

A little less than half of those willing to consider putting their children justified that stance because “the quality of the public schools is good.” Meanwhile, half of those, 50 percent, who said they wouldn’t consider putting their children in public schools did so because the “the public schools are poor quality.”

No other reasons given by respondents came close to matching the relative perception of the quality of the public schools.

Fielding questions from School Board members Thursday, John Boston, an SCI representative, said he wishes he had a more precise feel for why people said what they said.

“This is where you drill down in focus groups,” Boston said.

The school system, which paid SCI about $20,000 for the most recent survey, has no plans to foot the bill for focus groups.

Overall, the 800 residents participating gave the system roughly the same marks in 2011 as they did in 2010 in almost every area surveyed by SCI Research.

“While we have quoted some higher numbers, they are not statistically significant. They are within what we call the margin of error,” said Boston.

The marks maintained the improved scores that emerged in 2010 compared with 2009.

That uptick in perceptions came after a $425,000 effort in spring 2010 to improve the public image of the parish school system.

School officials think the “We’ll Make You Think” marketing campaign, created by Zehnder Communications, was key to that improvement.

Indeed, in the SCI Research poll, 69 percent of respondents said they remembered the theme of the 2010 campaign.

On Thursday, Zehnder laid out for the School Board plans to revive that campaign, starting with print ads in local publications in December, TV ads on WBRZ and WAFB in January, and zoned cable TV ads from February to May. The renewed campaign also would continue to use the website created for the initial campaign.

Chris Trahan, director of communications, said in an interview Friday that the renewed Zehnder campaign would cost a little under $200,000, less than half the cost of the initial campaign.

Trahan said that school systems similar in size to East Baton Rouge have much larger budgets, but he said that increasing his advertising budget is not practical while the school system is undergoing large annual budget cuts.

“We understand we’re working within the economic realities of the day,” Trahan said.

Half of those questioned in the SCI Research poll had children in public schools, half didn’t.

The poll results ranged from a low of 49 percent who agree that the school system “leads the state in the number of National Merit semifinalists” — a true statement — and 80 percent who agreed the local public schools “welcome partnerships with community organizations and civic groups.”

The most improvement was among those who agreed that “public school students will attend some form of higher education after graduation.” This year, 52 percent agreed that was true, while last year just 45 percent agreed with that statement.

As in past polls, those respondents with children in the school system were much more positive about the system than other respondents.