Surveys showed that half of all Maryland employers believed a lack of qualified workers was harming their ability to do business in the state. Two-thirds complained that recent high school graduates lacked satisfactory writing and math skills.
In response, the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education (MBRT) teamed up with Stanton Communications to promote and implement the Achievement Counts campaign, designed to motivate and inspire high school students to achieve academic success.
Based on information taken from focus groups, MBRT and Stanton determined that students wanted concrete information that clearly outlined how achievement in school would affect their earning potential in the workforce after graduation.
"We thought that businesses couldn't just complain about the situation," notes June Streckfus, MBRT executive director. "We had to roll up our sleeves and do something about it."
MBRT decided the best strategy would be to grab students' attention during the first few weeks of ninth grade, rather than waiting until later in their high school careers.
MBRT worked with Stanton on developing a comprehensive program that provided students with messages linking achievement in school to success in life, delivered by multiple influencers. For the 2004-05 school year, they recruited speakers from the business community and recent graduates to go into schools to engage ninth graders on career exploration.
The Achievement Counts initiative also featured a Maryland Scholars pilot program - conducted in Frederick and Harford counties - where MBRT tracked the number of high school students enrolling in high-level math and science courses.
Stanton pursued a comprehensive media strategy that included issuing Achievement Counts press releases in every Maryland school district and inviting local newspapers to publish recruitment advertisements for guest speakers. The agency also facilitated the delivery of a regular series of e-mails and newsletters about the campaign to parents.
In addition, a website (www.bewhatiwanttobe.com) was unveiled last school year to provide teenagers with photos and stories of successful professionals in their 20s and 30s.
"A high school kid can look at the website and say, 'Boy, that guy doesn't look much different than I do," explains Ray Weiss, EVP and MD of Stanton's Baltimore office. "It profiles various people in specific jobs whom kids can relate to."
The agency helped recruit college graduates last school year through a direct e-mail campaign targeting university alumni. Overall, more than 1,500 volunteers were recruited, trained, and sent into 200 high schools statewide to talk to more than 71,000 ninth graders.
The Maryland Scholars pilot program succeeded in getting more low-income students to enroll in high-level math and science classes than any other scholars program in the country, Streckfus claims. Based on the positives results, she says, MBRT was asked to testify about the Achievement Counts campaign at a Capitol Hill hearing on keeping American students competitive internationally in the fields of math and science.
Furthermore, 90% of students surveyed after speaker presentations said they would work harder in school, and the teen-oriented website is now receiving 2,400 hits per day, with the average session lasting nearly five minutes.
During the 2005-06 school year, more than 2,000 volunteers are expected to visit high schools across the state to speak with ninth graders. MBRT's board also voted to expand the Maryland Scholars program statewide after seeing the positive results of the pilot program.
PR team: Maryland Business Roundtable for Education and Stanton Communications (both in Baltimore)
Campaign: Achievement Counts
Time frame: September 2004 to June 2005