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"LEADER" Online: Spring 98

Marketing 101

Lanny Fred offers tips on building a comprehensive parent education program

by Terry Gibney

Surely Lanny Fred could have a career in advertising. But he works in Montana, not on Madison Avenue, and his passion is parenting. Fred directs the Parent Connection, the parent services organization for the Billings Public Schools and neighboring districts. A conversation with this marketing-savvy educator reveal a blueprint for building a comprehensive parent education program.

"I think it’s very important to keep the program out in front of the community at all times," says Fred, noting that the Parent Connection’s extensive offering of services is not worth much if no one knows about them.

In addition to serving as a gateway to social services and health care agencies, the Connection promotes parent education through the use of Active Parenting Today, Active Parenting of Teens, 1, 2, 3, 4 Parents! and Parents on Board.

The Parent Connection uses every possible medium—TV, radio, print, live presentations, a citywide network of people and materials—as well as old fashioned hospitality to invite people into parent education. "We’re very parent-conscious," states Fred. "When parents come through our door, we’re on our feet to make them feel welcome."

Eliminating the stigma some parents feel when they seek help is a challenge that Fred and his staff meet head-on. "It’s important to help parents over the initial fear that they must be bad parents to need a parenting class," he says. "We instill in the minds of our trainers that we are not experts. We stress the smorgasbord approach to parents—take from the program what works best for you."

So how does the Parent Connection actually get parents into classes? Here are some of Lanny Fred’s tips—a sort of Parent Education Marketing Primer.

1. Use the mass media...
Television and radio stations in Billings are required to provide free public service announcements and programming that benefit the community. However, this does not always translate into airtime when many non-profits are competing for publicity. One of Fred’s solutions was to become a member of the advisory board of "Friends of the Family," a local TV station’s ongoing promotion of family-friendly activities and services in Billings. Now he has the inside track to getting his organization’s name and number in front of the public.

The Parent Connection receives some of its best response from human-interest stories in local newspapers. One of Fred’s leaders recently facilitated a group attended by an older couple struggling with the challenges of a teenage daughter. The couple’s participation in the Active Parenting of Teens program helped turn the tide, and the family wanted to share its story. The result—a prominently placed article and picture in a local newspaper that raises new interest in the teen program.

Fred also heavily publicizes the telephone number of the Parent Connection, making sure it is used whenever possible in stories and promotional materials. "People don’t always understand what the Parent Connection offers," he says. "But if they have the phone number they can always ask."

2. Pound the streets...
When the Billings parent education program began eight years ago, Fred and his staff made 45-minute presentations to the parent/teacher organizations in all the city schools. "We used Active Parenting preview tapes and taught some easily-learned parenting skills," he says. That was enough to get classes started, and within a year and a half, 1,000 parents were trained. "Having that many leaders out there made a big difference," says Fred. "It was at that point that word-of-mouth started having an impact."

Presentations at schools are still regularly employed, with a large part of the time devoted to promoting 1, 2, 3, 4 Parents! and Parents on Board. "We’re targeting parents who have preschool kids," says Fred. "We want to give parents good information while their children are still very young."

The Parent Connection makes classes easily accessible by holding them not only in their downtown office but also in schools, churches and business sites. "We are willing to facilitate classes at any place and any time," laughs Fred. Parents must pay for classes but the United Way and the Billings Breakfast Exchange provide a scholarship fund, so no parent is ever turned away.

3. Create new avenues for parent education...
The Parent Connection’s main office houses a Family Resource Center with books and tapes for parents. Fred is in the process of establishing satellite resource centers in all twenty-four elementary schools. Seventeen are already up and running.

In addition to providing learning resources to parents, these centers also welcome parents into the schools and engender a feeling of belonging. Parents no longer go to school just for special events or when there is a problem. The part-time coordinators at the satellite centers are parents themselves, furthering the idea that parents do have a place at their child’s school.

In February of this year on two consecutive Saturdays, the Parent Connection held its first "Parent Fairs" for preschool parents. These three-hour fairs put a packet of information in parents’ hands and gave them a brief overview of parent education opportunities. The result has been increased enrollment for 1, 2, 3, 4 Parents! classes, a program that is proving very successful in Billings.

4. Work Your Contacts...
"We’ve trained about 400 facilitators over the years," notes Fred. For a creative administrator, these trainers form a community-wide network of helpers who are a great source of referrals, resources and advice. Fred’s office sends updated information packets to "alumni" every year so the Parent Connection is always on their minds. These people are "a tremendous referral base." Fred’s advice: keep them in the loop.

5. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels...
Measuring the results from parenting classes is never easy, but Fred believes that follow-up questionnaires are an important tool for gauging success. The last Parent Connection survey was sent out to 200 parents who had attended a parenting course. Over half of the surveys came back, and 97% of those respondents answered "yes" to the question "Have you seen a positive change in your family as a result of attending an Active Parenting class?"

While acknowledging the many successes of the Billings program, Fred is cautious not to view it through rose-colored glasses. "It’s a continual effort. If you don’t keep working to get the message out, enrollment will plateau," he observes. With an educator/marketer like Lanny Fred at the helm, it’s hard to imagine that happening.

Reprinted from Leader magazine.
Copyright 1998 by Active Parenting Publishers, Inc.