Merchants relaxed when Brendan O'Brien, weaving in and out of Cross Street businesses Tuesday afternoon, announced that he wasn't a salesman.
His assurances weren't entirely true. Armed with bright orange signs, the president of the Federal Hill Preparatory School parent-teacher organization came with a pitch for public education.
"Would you mind supporting your neighborhood school?" he asked merchants and managers, handing each one a sign he requested they display in their windows. "We want people to see these signs all over and wonder what this is about — and then check us out."
The effort is part of a "guerrilla" marketing campaign launched by the school's parent-teacher organization, headed by O'Brien. The goal is to boost enrollment and promote the positive attributes of a neighborhood school that is often misunderstood.
"We have to raise awareness even in our own neighborhood that the local school is a viable option," he said. "The general pervasive thought is at a certain point you have to move, or you have to go to private schools."
The group hopes to saturate the neighborhood with signs that read "We support Prep" or "My Kid goes to Prep" as part of a coordinated effort to build support for the school, which has struggled to attract and retain students from the middle-class neighborhood.
The plan is for the signs, also sent home with every student and teacher Tuesday, to be displayed in as many business and home windows as possible on Wednesday morning.
Mike Callahan, manager of the Abbey Burger Bistro, readily agreed to display the sign. He also said he'd welcome O'Brien back in a couple of weeks to solicit donations for a spring event.
"Education is the No. 1 priority in this city, and a lot of people in this neighborhood feel that way," he said. "If you can take care of your neighborhood school, why wouldn't you?"
Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that works as the city's residential marketing arm, helped Federal Hill Prep conceive the marketing campaign. A representative of the agency said it's the first of its kind that they've seen from a school.
Only about 40 percent of the school's population comes from the neighborhood, according to Live Baltimore data. A map displayed on the school's front door shows a cluster of red dots in South Baltimore, and the rest dispersed throughout the city.
Live Baltimore has made strong schools a trademark of its "Way to Stay" campaign, which promotes city living. Federal Hill Prep is one of 17 schools the organization highlights on its website as attractive options for city families.
"There are schools with innovative programming and outstanding leadership that are just not getting noticed," said Annie Milli, marketing director for Live Baltimore. "And it's such a detriment to those schools when neighborhood families choose not to attend."
Milli said that families looking to live or stay in the city tend to flock to high-performing and affluent Roland Park Elementary/Middle School as their only real choice for public school.
"People would be shocked to know it's not Roland Park or bust," she said. "Roland Park is a great school, but there are others."
O'Brien said the school faces two challenges. There's the "prep problem," in which people think the school requires students to enter a lottery for admission — or win a lottery to pay tuition. Neither is true. It is a public school and does not charge tuition. On the other hand, it lost families who fled during leadership transitions, fearing that the educational quality would suffer.
Federal Hill Prep also faces competition from the popular Baltimore Montessori Charter School, which is drawing many Federal Hill students. If that continues, Federal Hill Prep could see a budget crisis because the city funds schools based on enrollment.
"We know that bringing kids in the front door is paramount to making sure we have a quality staff and can turn the lights on," O'Brien said.
Principal Sara Long said she would like to raise the enrollment of 265 by another 100 students. The school's enrollment took a hit in 2012 when it dropped middle grades. Long hopes parents will appreciate a traditional elementary school that has grown more diverse as a result of its out-of-zone population, emphasizes project-based learning, and has a science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) curriculum.
Parents also boast that the school's fifth-graders score highly on standardized exams, and are accepted into the city's elite middle-and-high school programs such as the Ingenuity Project.
"We want people to know the tide has turned," Long said. "You don't have to spend $30,000 a year to have a quality elementary education."
Jennifer Devine spends 90 minutes of her day traveling from West Baltimore to take her first-grader to Federal Hill Prep. She believes the school provides her daughter the best education possible and has every intention of keeping her there until the fifth grade.
"She has grown from being a kid to a student," said Devine. "Even though it's a distance, it's a great school, and it's worth it."