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In new ad campaign, city’s charter sector aims to explain itself

On each side of the split screen, a girl with long hair and a puffy white coat walks to school, where she works on a writing assignment, raises her hand to answer a question, watches the clock, and walks past a bulletin board plastered with student work.

Then the divider disappears and the two girls leave the building hand in hand to stack blocks on a crowded playground.

As the scene plays out, a voiceover narrates. “Like most children in New York City, these two second-graders attend different schools in the same building. They both love science, their favorite color is green. They both want to be doctors, or astronauts. Can you tell which child attends the district school, and which the charter school?”

Because of the city Department of Education’s policies about filming inside buildings it owns, both girls actually attend the same school, Our World Neighborhood Charter School in Queens. It’s a creative liberty that the New York City Charter School Center took when creating the television ads that make up the first phase of a new campaign to sway public opinion in charter schools’ favor.

The ad campaign comes at an important moment. Encouraging charter school growth has been a hallmark education policy of the Bloomberg administration, and most of the Democratic candidates for mayor have signaled that they would not be as friendly to the privately managed schools.“The Bloomberg approach to charter schools was one of the fundamental mistakes of this administration,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio at a forum in Brooklyn last week.

The Charter Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the sector and assists individual schools, argues that de Blasio’s take does not reflect public opinion. Officials say the ad campaign is in part a response to a survey finding that many New Yorkers say they support charter schools — but that many others say they do not know enough to be able to form an opinion. Other people have misperceptions about charter schools, they said.

“What we’ve tended to see in polls about charters is a lot of people still don’t know that charters are public schools,” said CEO James Merriman. “This is meant to inform them that there are benefits and not just controversy.”

Of the ads, which can all be seen at a single website with the address What.AreCharterSchools.com, some are aimed purely at letting New Yorkers know that charter schools can be an option for families. But others face some of the most persistent criticisms of charter schools head on.

Two of the ads focus on co-location, the sometimes divisive policy of letting charter schools operate inside public school buildings. The ad with the two girls ends, “As long as it’s a great public school, it shouldn’t matter.” Another ad finishes, “Sharing space works — and it’s what makes New York City great.”

The ad campaign is planned to unfold over multiple years, organizers say, and in multiple forms of media. Right now, the four 30-second spots are airing on local television networks — an ad buy that Merriman said cost “in the low six figures.” The group is also working on a series of print ads that will feature charter school leaders and appear in local newspapers in the coming weeks. There will also be a direct mail campaign to people who have expressed interest in charter schools in the past, and some of the ads will appear in Spanish-language media.

“I don’t think anyone has done this before — a public awareness campaign talking about charters with this magnitude,” said Petra Tuomi, the charter center’s director of marketing and communications.

Merriman said the campaign was meant to provide insurance at a time — during and directly after the mayoral election — when criticism of charter schools is likely to get increased airtime.

“I think when a new mayor comes in, whoever he or she may be, I think they’re going to understand that charters are a key component of moving the system forward. I’m not really worried, frankly, that anyone is going to go around trying to dismantle charters,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s a mayoral campaign and campaigns are loud, and we just want to make sure that parents — as we say, who may or may not know — are hearing from us directly about what charter schools are about.”