The Big Flea Thrives on Word of Mouth

The fifth annual MV Big Flea was held last weekend in Alexandria, Virginia.  This year the annual flea market raised an impressive $30,619 from nearly 2,000 attendees.

Since 2007, the MV Big Flea has raised $93,481 for the Mount Vernon Community School PTA. Not bad for a public elementary school where 2/3rds of the kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But what’s even more surprising is the role word-of-mouth communications have  played in the Big Flea’s success.

“We don’t have a big advertising budget,” said MV Big Flea spokesperson Maria Getoff.  “We’ve spent less than $1,000 on advertising, and about $7,500 total, to organize and promote the event since 2007.  Instead, we’ve relied on inexpensive grassroots and word of mouth communications tactics to spread the word.”

Local community listservs are the MV Big Flea’s primary means for reaching thousands of potential donors and event attendees.  Organizers do their best to to make the messages “sticky” so they have staying power and spread throughout the community (see here and here).

Organizers rely heavily on other online resources: Craigslist to sell items (and promote the event), Freecycle to get rid of the leftovers, a WordPress blog for a website and targeted Facebook ads to raise awareness in the week before the event.

Old fashioned tactics like personal meetings with community leaders, yard signs and photocopied flyers also help spread the word.  As a result, despite a very limited presence in the local media, the MV Big Flea is widely known in Alexandria and attended by thousands each year.


Why Isn’t McDonnell Investing in Human Capital?

Do these children know that the Governor is cutting their school budget?

Virginia is one of the highest performing states in the nation according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But Governor Robert McDonnell’s recent budget cuts, reducing programs to 2008 funding levels, will be a step back in time.

A time before research showed what an impact extra curricula activities have for children’s happiness and educational outcomes. A time before the same research showed that if children get breakfast they do better in school.

Nevertheless, the new Governor proposed cutting these items and more on Wednesday.

In total he is cutting more than $731 million dollars in Virginia’s public school education system and it will be Virginia’s poorest that will suffer. Those districts, like Alexandria, who knew that this was coming will not be hurt as badly as Lynchburg, Petersburg and other poorer jurisdictions that must rely more heavily on state funds.

One commenter on the Richmond Times Dispatch said it quite well: “Bob4Jobs wants to spend money on bringing in jobs – what companies does he think will come while he cuts and destroys public education? Companies want good public schools and an educated work force. Cuts to our public schools are not the way to go! And yes, I would pay more in income tax.”

Yes, so would many.

Great Expectations for ACPS

Alexandria parents have been complaining for years that the current course work is not stimulating, that there are too many worksheets and children are not being asked to think.

And the reason is simple.

For years now, ACPS has relied on the Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs) as its baseline, as well as textbook curricula, such as Everyday Math. And the reality is that parents were right; ACPS should not be using one standard or one curriculum. We should not use one curriculum to match many student needs, we should instead be using many different curricula to match many different students.

Why? Because all students come to the table with different talents, needs and learning styles and we as policy makers and advocates need to be doing a better job of meeting those learners’ needs.

ACPS is responding by writing a new, more flexible set of standards and curricula, one that will challenge all students to learn and to achieve.

This became abundantly clear at a Maury Elementary School PTA meeting last month where, after her presentation,  parents asked the math coach, “Why should our children be ‘Algebra ready’ by eighth grade?”

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know, that’s what they tell us.”

That is not a reason. This is never a reason. The reason we want students to be “algebra ready” is that we want to establish high expectations and high standards, not just for our high income learners or TAG identified, but for all our students.

We as a community and as a school system need to have “great expectations” for our students and expect high standards.  Because this is how we stimulate learning, creativity and critical thinking in our students. Is this important? You bet it is.

In Erika Miller’s presentation last week at Agenda Alexandria, this Stanford educated, T.C Williams graduate, and now executive at the nationally famous, Education Trust said:

“What schools do matters! But, rather than organizing our educational system to narrow gaps, we organize it to exacerbate them. How? By giving students who arrive with less, less in school, too. We don’t have the same expectations of them,” she said.

She went on to detail some aspects of high performing  schools, which included faith in the students’ ability to do well regardless of background, socioeconomic status or race.

Quoting others in the field:  People have to understand that these students can be just as successful as anyone else. It begins with the belief system,”  said Richard Esparza, former principal, Granger High School (WA)

Rob Krupicka, Alexandria City Councilman, advocates for the investment in early childhood education says, “when children are born, no matter what their background, they have equal capacities.  Differences start being apparent very early though as young children’s minds grow in response to the world around them.  This is one reason why early learning programs like home visiting and pre-K are so important to a child’s success in school.”

And so as ACPS develops its own curriculum, and develops high standards for each and every student, I say, “Bravo!”   Let’s move forward.

Grassroots = $50K Raised

In 2007, Mount Vernon Community School PTA parents created a fundraising event. Called the “MV Big Flea” the idea was to collect items from members of the community, sell them and keep the proceeds. Donors would receive a tax break and the PTA would raise much needed revenue.

Parents are now working on the fourth Flea and poised to reach a historic milestone this year: $50,000 in total money raised.  Effective grassroots communications and word-of-mouth marketing has been key to the MV Big Flea’s success.

“The community listservs on Yahoo are great,” says Big Flea Communications Czar Joe LaMountain. “We can quickly and easily reach more than 10,000 people about donating items or buying things on our website (”

In addition to Yahoo Groups, Big Flea “Curator” Cynthia Webster routinely posts items for sale on Craigslist.   In addition to making pre-event sales, and reducing the need for storage space, Craigslist postings also generate website visitors.  Nearly 30,000 people have visited the website since it was created in 2008. “To get so many visitors, for what is essentially a local event, is amazing,” LaMountain said.

While grassroots communications is typically thought of as a political activity, there are many applications for fundraising, which is obviously essential to any charitable cause.  The success of the MV Big Flea is a great example of how a charitable organization can effectively use social media tools to disseminate their message and raise funds.

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