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Samantha JacobsAs imPRessions wraps season one, our last episode is one of the most crucial topics we’ve explored so far: harnessing the power of PR to ignite change in education reform. Episode 24 invites Samantha Jacobs, a fierce advocate for equity in education, who discusses how PR can powerfully ensure every child, regardless of their zip code, has access to the quality education they deserve.


imPRessions Episode #24 Transcript

Kalli: We wrap season one with one of the most important topics we’ve covered yet, utilizing PR to build awareness around education reform. Samantha Jacobs has been an advocate for equity in education and is here with us today to discuss how she uses her PR talents to ensure every child has access to top-tier education, regardless of their ZIP code. Samantha is a senior account executive at Larsen Communications, previously working as a sixth-grade English teacher, and is passionate about the colliding worlds of public relations and education. Samantha, thank you so much for joining us today.

Samantha: Thank you so much for having me. It’s truly an honor to be here and to get to talk with you.

Jenn: Oh, we love this topic, and we’re really excited to have you on. And I love that you were an English teacher, by the way, because that was my favorite, favorite, favorite subject in school. So I love that English was your preferred subject choice because that’s what I would do if I were a teacher.

Samantha: Oh, absolutely. There’s nothing better than like, sharing the love of a good book, especially with a student, and watching them really learn the fun of reading. I really I’m not in a classroom anymore, but I really miss that aspect. I think there’s a lot of magic that comes alongside learning.

Jenn: Absolutely. So before we dive into the importance of education reform, and definitely the unique ways that PR can enhance the initiative, and I know we just talked about you being a teacher, but tell us a little bit about your background and your passion behind the important subject.

Samantha: Absolutely. So I grew up in Los Angeles, and I think it’s important to share that. I went to private school my whole life, and that continued through college. I went to USC to study public relations, and I loved it. I love the subject, I love the experience. But while I was there, I became involved in an organization that tutors and mentors students from South Central L.A., and that was such an eye-opening, life changing experience to me. I learned not just about the inequities of Los Angeles, but also disparities between public and private school systems that I hadn’t witnessed before in my kind of sheltered growing up. So I fell in love with working with students. So I switched gears when I graduated and earned a masters in English and Education at King’s College London. And from there I got a job teaching sixth grade English at a charter school in South L.A. that was amazing. I could talk for ages about what we were just saying, the magic of reading books with kids and really leaning into storytelling and those skill sets. But it was also immensely difficult, and I realized that while I loved working with students, I was better suited for behind-the-scenes work. So that’s when I went back to my PR roots, and I first got a job working at an education, research and policy think tank called the National Council on Teacher Quality, based in D.C.. I was part of the communications team, and I leaned in on teacher prep and teacher policy, which was paramount for me because I learned about the systems that support our teachers and how they can improve and how they need to improve. But when the pandemic hit, a few years into that role, I moved back home to Los Angeles and started at my current organization. Larsen communications were the only strategic communications firm in the US specializing in public education reform, and I’ve had the honor of working with myriad clients, from teacher prep programs to charter schools and helping them with all things strategic communications. Ultimately, I am rooted in the belief that our education system needs to be equitable for all and that a zip code a child is born into shouldn’t define their educational opportunities. And I’m really proud to work in this role, in this intersection between education and communications, to help better the education system.

Kalli: That’s really amazing. Can you explain to us a little bit more about how you work with schools to better public education, and really to help us understand what the relationship is like between PR professionals and school administrators?

Samantha: Yes, for sure. One of my favorite things about PR is that, as you both know, it’s present and it’s necessary every single sector. I often say that the phrase communication is key is popular for a reason, but people don’t often connect the dots between the role of PR and education. So as with any PR strategy, it helps to lead with objectives. So our goal is to try and improve educational opportunities for kids. What this means is expanding effective school networks, bringing educators into the teaching profession, providing hands on support for change in the education sphere. So this includes. It goes beyond tasks like student enrollment and teacher recruitment. So in order to achieve these goals, schools need brand awareness. They need to reach their audiences. And for schools and education players, that often includes families, aspiring teachers, community partners, local elected officials, etc. to see the impact that they’re making. So we’re really proud to work with education partners who are doing great work, from providing great educational experiences, academic experiences, social emotional experiences to students, in addition to teacher prep programs and education advocates, to help them achieve this goal of creating a better and more equitable system. So they’re the superheroes. They’re doing this amazing, impactful work. And then where they’re megaphone. And anyone who’s ever talked to a teacher, a principal, or, you know, a receptionist working in the front desk at a school knows that these people are heroes. They’re public servants. They are the best of us, but also that they are at extreme maximum capacity. Barely have a second to breathe, let alone think about how to publicize the work that they’re doing. They understand that need to shine a light on the work that they’re doing to grow their sectors, but it’s a bandwidth issue. So that’s where the work of a PR agency like Larson Communications comes in. We partner together by learning about them and their work, building relationships, getting a really good sense of what’s going on on the ground with them, especially, you know, on a school campus. We want to know, what are you doing that’s special? What are you doing that’s innovative? What are you doing? That’s just making your families and students happy. And then from there, we go on to promote it to their communities. After identifying exactly what their goals are and who their audiences are. But there are also many reasons why people in education need PR outside of that traditional school environment. So aside from that proactive storytelling that might go on in a school setting, some other ways that we work to improve opportunities for all kids are working with school networks or local education agencies to start a new school in an underserved community or changing legislation. You know, an example of that is addressing underfunding after Covid and working with advocacy partners on the legislative front. In California, where I’m based, there is often a lot of work to even find school buildings where kids can learn safely. And then on a kind of high level, a lot of our partnership work is starting conversations that move the needle, that get people thinking about what’s going on in schools, what’s going on in the education system, and how it’s going to impact our country and the education your kid is going to get, your neighbor’s kids going to get whoever you know, right?

Jenn: I’m curious, Samantha, as your role. So you’re a little unique because you were a teacher, so you were hands-on in a classroom, really on the inside. Understanding the importance of some of these initiatives that you’re working on. Can you tell us a little bit more from a teacher perspective, what some of the ways PR outreach can really help teachers? And, you know, I don’t know if you have any examples of your time in the classroom of when some of these PR tactics would have really, really helped, you know, your work and the work of with your students?

Samantha: Yeah. Thanks for that question. It’s a really good one. So as a teacher, especially when I started teaching, like many new teachers in the classroom, I was 22. I had no idea what I was doing. It was really a battle to show up prepared each day. And while I was energized, you know, by the students, by the idea of having a classroom be my office space, at the end of the day, I had zero capacity to think about anything other than how I was going to get through my lesson planning for the next day. And so once I left the classroom, I learned a lot about the systems that go into public education. And it was kind of surprising, like, oh, why didn’t I know this while I was in the classroom? Like, why were my eyes open to the fact that we were struggling with enrollment, that we were struggling with teacher recruitment? Like, these were things that just didn’t sink in while I was in the classroom because I was so hyper focused. On the kids. And that’s the case with all teachers, right? Your priority is your students. But if you take a step back, you see that, especially in public schools. And I was at a public charter school where this is super relevant, that enrollment is a challenge, teacher recruitment is a challenge, and people don’t have the bandwidth from a school campus to help address those kinds of issues. I would have had no idea where to start in talking to aspiring teachers about checking out my school or connecting with potential families to look into the school for enrolling their kids, that just was something that I had zero idea of. So partnering with a PR firm is a really good way to keep interest in the public education system and to keep it growing. And even to keep it, I guess, like instead of saying keeping it growing, like help it survive and thrive so that teachers can focus on their job, which is to teach kids, inspire kids, mentor kids, and that when it comes to the more bureaucratic issues, which is typically getting the bodies in the classrooms that can be left to someone else and not put more on an already packed teacher’s plate.

Jenn: Yeah, and a serious shout out to teachers right now, because the work that the teachers, especially here in the US, have to endure buying their own supplies, essentially doing probably the most important job, one of the most important jobs in the world, and a lot of times kind of just sort of left to figure it out and a little, you know, high and dry. So big shout out to teachers. I couldn’t do it. Big respect.

Samantha: 100%. I like to say that my teaching year was a dog year, like it was seven years wrapped into one. Like that’s how it felt. And like when I talk to a veteran teacher who’s been in the classroom 20 years, I’m like, you are cut from a different cloth, like you are a superhero. You are the foundation of our society. Teachers are really, really underappreciated, as you just mentioned. And something that I struggled with as a teacher that I’m way more aware of now is that I was floundering and I was by myself. I was in a program and a school site where I did not have support. I didn’t have a roadmap to get me into the classroom, to navigate the bureaucracy and the paperwork and the finances and the tests that all are so over complicated to even get in the classroom. And I was young and hungry. I wanted to get in the classroom, and it was so hard to actually get there. And then once I was there, it was so isolating, like I did not have any sort of roadmap to help me. And so it’s really frustrating to see so many aspiring teachers go through that still. And we work with a lot of teacher prep programs, which is really, really important to aiding the system. Um, these are teacher prep programs-A couple of amazing ones are Relay Graduate School of Education, Teach for America California, and Teach start, who understand that if we’re going to improve education, we need to get people in the classroom who want to be there and who want to stay there. And they’re providing all these resources supported every step of the way, from financial support to mental health support to coaching throughout everything, because that retention is going to boost when those tools and support systems are in place. And so the way that we aid that with PR is helping spread these messages, helping reach this audience of aspiring teachers, whether that’s a 22 year old college grad or a 42 year old Marine Corps veteran who wants a career change and saying, like, hey, do you have any interest in the classroom? We’re going to help you. So your job can just be to teach, to do what you want to do. And we’re going to help make that a sustainable career for you.

Kalli: It’s so interesting that you say that because I have I have some friends that, you know, they went to school, they went down their traditional education path. They’re teachers at 22. And then actually, my brother-in-law went through Teach America. Um, we’re in New York. And his experience because he had a, you know, previously had a different career, and now he actually also teaches English… his experience in the classroom is very different than some of my friends that started young, you know, younger when they first were out of school, just hearing about it from the outside, you would think, oh, well, it’s just because he maybe has more work experience or, you know, has is a little bit older, a little bit more life experience, maybe that’s. It’s a little different. But hearing it from this perspective and from your perspective, it probably was very much that like he you know, I know he was learning in the classroom of like, you know, how to handle it and what to do rather than being the student in the classroom. You know, he was the teacher, you know, in Teach America. He started off, you know, of course, learning in the classroom as a student, but then becoming a teacher as he finished the program, which is a little bit different. And it’s really interesting to kind of form how you are in the classroom and that mindset of how you act in the classroom and, and to be a teacher when you’re learning it on the job.

One of the things I wanted to dive a little bit more into, though, is you mentioned how public charter schools have traditionally been the target of misinformation. Um, you know, like you said, you went to private school. I to also, you know, went to private school when I was younger. So I’m really curious, can you elaborate a little bit more on the misinformation around public charter schools and how PR reverses that threat?

Samantha: Yeah. Thank you for this question. I think it’s immensely important. I mean, I am a white progressive woman living in Los Angeles. When I told my family and my friends that I was going to start working with charter schools, I got a lot of raised eyebrows. I got a lot of like, wellness checks, like people were concerned. And the reason was, is that there’s a huge misconception about charter schools. People think that they are a Republican tactic, frankly, to privatize the education system. But it is so frustrating to hear that because it’s absolutely not the truth. It’s so far from the truth. There is a lot of political tension that goes behind that characterization. But ultimately, what’s important to know, leaving all of that behind, is that charter schools are public schools, and the work that I get to do through my organization is to promote this message and to dig a little deeper and shine a light on the great work that these charter schools are doing. And if it’s helpful, I can give a brief description of what a charter school is and how it’s different than a traditional school.

Jenn: Please do because I would love to actually know myself- how it varies from… because I went to public school. But there are especially where I live in New York City, there are a lot of charter schools in the area. Pardon my ignorance, I really don’t truly know the vast differences between the two. So please tell us.

Samantha: Thank you. Yeah, and so many people don’t. Most people don’t. I didn’t really know until I started working at a specific Ed reform organization. So part of the work we’re doing is to, you know, shout these definitions from the rooftops. So charter schools are public schools. They are free. They’re public. They’re open to all. What where they’re different is that they don’t require a specific regional tie to attend them. So, Kalli, you’re a parent. That means that depending on your address, your child is assigned a public school where they can attend. And baby number two is going to have that same situation. Every student in America has an assigned public school. And if all schools were created and run equally, that would be a fine system. It’d be no problem, but it’s not the case. So you’re assigned school may be wonderful, but it might not be what your child needs. And we’re seeing a lot of disparities in the public school system based on location, based on funding. I won’t get into the whole property tax element of it. Um, but what I will say is that charters exist to become another option for where to send your kid, and they offer some different choices and different needs-based offerings that a traditional public school might not have. And what that could look like is a smaller class size, or maybe a focus on STEM, maybe a focus on performing arts or college prep. It just gives you the option as a parent, as a caretaker, to look at your child and say, I know what they need. And now I have different options of where I can send them, where they’re going to thrive. So charter schools exist to give more options to families. Everyone should be on the same team. The goal is the same, which is giving every kid a great education. But there is this kind of disconnect where people think that charters are taking money away from public schools, or that they’re kind of this free range, willy nilly organization that gets to do whatever they want. Charters have the same state and national accountability standards as district schools. They still have to, you know, abide by the standards that regular public schools do to show that they’re providing an up-to-par education for their students. And what we found since charters have taken off is that they work. There is a ton of success being found in charter schools, and there actually was just a recent study out of Stanford that studied hundreds of charter school networks in the country, and found that reading and math scores were higher for students who went to a charter school than they would have been if they had gone to their local public school. So they’re working there a way to not take down public schools, but to bolster the system and to give families more opportunities and options for their kids.

Jenn: Thank you for defining that. That’s really interesting and really glad to hear that these students and these children have options and parents have options. Um, and that kind of leads me to my next question. And I know you may have covered a lot of this already in our conversation, a lot of people not really understanding the differences between public schools and charter schools, especially in terms of parents being able to put their place, their children in schools outside of their zip codes. Is there anything else that parents should know about some of the PR work that you’re doing, or anything they should know about the current work regarding education reform?

Samantha: Yeah. Thank you for that question. And I’ll try not to repeat myself from the soapbox I got on in answering that, but I think it’s just really crucial for parents to know that options exist out there and that there are just more opportunities than you might initially think. To send your child to a high quality public school. And public charters are growing now. There are more than 3.7 million students in the US who are attending a charter school, and that number is growing.

And charters also are doing a lot of really good work to serve under-resourced communities. 70% of charter school students identify as black or Hispanic, and that’s compared to 53% of traditional public school students. And so what that means is that, especially in today’s day and age, where black and Hispanic students have already faced hundreds of years of discriminatory systemic practices, they’re now being compounded with the learning loss and trauma coming out of the pandemic and the racial awakenings happening in 2020, that these communities need quality educational experiences. We really need to close these gaps and really fight for equity in education. And charters are proving that they’re doing that, that they’re working with these marginalized communities to close those gaps. And so I think it’s important for parents and guardians to know that, to know that I’ll say it again, charter schools are indeed public schools. And if I can give an example of just a really outstanding example of a charter school, if you think about if you lived in Chicago, where would you think or where? What do you think about when you think about public school? Do either of you know?

Jenn: Uh, well, yeah, I mean, Chicago is a tougher area for education. I think in this city, I can’t say necessarily outside of outside of the city. I live in New York, but that’s what I’ve heard.

Samantha: Yeah, totally. And that’s the that’s the reputation. And there’s absolutely truth to it. Chicago Public schools face a lot of uphill battles. There’s a ton of politics involved. There’s a lot of underfunding. And while there are, of course, absolutely excellent Chicago public schools, and the teachers are amazing, there’s another there are other options. And there’s a growing network of charters in Chicago. And there’s one in particular called Learn Charter School Network. We’re really proud to partner with them. They’re alumni graduate college at two times the rate of their peers, and their college graduation rate is eight points above the national average. So you can’t argue with the numbers, right? They’re doing incredible academic work. And then I talked a little earlier about a recent study out of Stanford that studied. Charter schools versus public school outcomes. That study found that Learn is closing the reading and math achievement gaps for Black and Hispanic students and those with low-income backgrounds, finding that the gains equated to an additional 71 days of learning in math and 54 days of learning and reading for learned students in a single year. And I have memorized those numbers because they absolutely blow my mind. And I talk about it at every opportunity to like strangers on the street, because those numbers are amazing and they speak for themselves  And so what we do is we try to, you know, shout that from the mountaintops and let parents know that, hey, maybe you’re your Chicago public school or whatever school you’re choosing to send your child to in Chicago is amazing, and it’s working out for them. But maybe you have another child who needs a little bit more of a boost. They need a little more of an academic focus in their setting. Here is another amazing option for you with proven success. And you get all the benefits of the public education system because this is part of the public education system by sending your child there. So that’s just an example of how hopefully the work we’re doing to shine light, light on these schools can work and help families just understand the high quality options they have out there.

Kalli: That’s really great. And just, you know, wondering about, how else to get the word out there aside from funding. Obviously, raising awareness is a key element in improving these public schools. What are other marketing factors that can help shed light on this important tactic?

Samantha: Yeah. Uh, there are so many. It all starts with strategic communications. I would say, you know, helping find the right messages and the right messengers develop those plans to enact change. Media relations is a really key part of our work, too. In that goal of raising awareness, schools are so dynamic, but who is going to really be able to know that, aside from the schools, families and staff, people who get to go on campus, so inviting press to cover schools, to talk to school leaders and teachers and even students allows so many more people to witness that magic. And that often opens a door to potential new families, potential new teachers, community advocates, and donors. I’m also really proud that Larsen Communications has tapped into a really robust digital marketing arm, really, you know, trying to adapt to the future of tech and know that if you’re, you know, if you just move to New York and you want to know the best school to send your kid, then you’re probably going to do is go to Google and type Best school near me, right? Using Google ads, paid social media ads, etc. are all really effective ways to raise awareness so that if you tie it best school near me in New York, you could have a school that pop up there, have their landing page where it’s not anything misleading, but instead it just gives you that awareness of their brand name. You click on their site, you learn about their offerings, and you learn about more options in your communities. So the digital aspect of PR has been really exciting to tap into. One more marketing factor that I think is important to know is a part of education. Communications is advocacy. A lot of people don’t connect those dots either. I know I did not until I got into this line of work, but helping people create and move legislation is directly impacted by a good PR strategy. If I may. A good example of that comes from our work with a California charter network called Aspire Public Schools. Last year, we helped them launch a campaign called The Cost of Quarantine. What it did is it called on California state leaders to develop systems to allow for students to follow quarantine requirements in relation to the pandemic without losing critical funding, and to try to translate that wonkiness. When students are absent in California, their school does not receive money for that student for the day. Attendance and funding are intrinsically tied. And that’s a whole other issue about how a school, how a public school receives funding. But for this example, what that means is that if a kid has to quarantine for health reasons, safety reasons, their school. Loses money, which means that that student loses money for their education, which doesn’t make any sense. So Aspire wanted to launch this campaign with the message that there should be zero cost to schools and students for medically responsible quarantining.

So to do this, we got to partner with them on this advocacy initiative. And what that looked like was writing op eds, uh, running social media campaigns, circulating petitions, helping with overall campaign strategy to raise awareness of this issue and to help move the needle for state legislators and different education advocates.

Kalli: Oh, that’s really great. And, you know, thank you for diving into that, because, you know, through this whole conversation, you’ve really given us a lot to think about. And, you know, especially, you know, for myself as a parent and for the parents listening to really better understand how our school systems really do work, you know, education is the foundation in which future generations can bring change to our complicated world. And it’s so refreshing, really, to know that PR professionals like you are working overtime to ensure children across the US have access to elite schools. Thank you so much for the work that you do and for discussing it with us today.

Samantha: Thank you so, so much for having me. 

Kalli: Of course, and for our listeners. While this may be a wrap to season one, we are eagerly preparing for season two. If you have a guess in mind, email us and say hello at ‘Till next season.