Develop a Strong School District Communication Strategy
"Straight talk is the secret weapon. We don't like to tell people bad news. We pussyfoot around unpleasant issues. But telling the truth-sooner rather than later-is one of the keys to being a good school leader. No one likes to tell parents their students aren't doing well or talk to an employee about problems with the work. But, being forthcoming is the only way to effectively present information to the public." This simple instruction comes from Robert J. Ramsey, author of How to Say the Right Thing Every Time: Communicating Well With Students, Staff, Parents, and the Public.
Ramsey, a lifelong educator, should know. He has experience, but he's not stuck in the past. Another key, he says, is diversifying communications: Superintendents and other administrators cannot simply rely on traditional school newsletters or local coverage of school board meetings. "We have to use all aspects of social media. We have to vary our communications and target the different audiences of interest. We have to have a clear message and make sure it is consistent, and that everybody up and down the ladder knows the message. Then we have to keep repeating it in as many avenues as possible."
Every school leader knows communication is important, but these days, when new ways to spread your message seem to grow faster than you can master them, how to do so effectively takes a flexible plan.
Use the Web Tools You Have
"What I've seen recently is a dramatic increase in schools and school boards using online resources to communicate with staff and the public," says Jim Fitzpatrick, retired superintendent of the Essex Town School District in Essex Junction, Vermont, and president of SchoolSpring.com, an online employment source for educators.
The earliest major Web resource educators used was e-mail, but the last decade has seen an explosion of options: notification systems, Google tools, wikis for collaboration, and Web resources for communicating with parents and students on homework assignments and other activities. "More recently, ‘hot-powered' polling tools and surveys that give us better feedback from our constituents are emerging," says Fitzpatrick. "Communications tools such as K12 Insight provide reliable data—statistical surveys, questions, and results—that can be used to gauge the sense of the full community, not just those who happen to respond to a question."
Collaboration by Google
Fitzpatrick believes online tools such as Google docs and wikis will usher in a new era of collaboration between superintendents and boards of education. "These tools are being used to develop policies for schools, to understand what people think is important for kids to learn, and to set goals for the future," he says. "We had sessions with community members and then immediately posted that information on wikis and real-time documents so everyone could see the ideas that different groups were coming up with. These tools helped the district consolidate information for dissemination. That was very effective, and allowed us to accomplish a lot of work in a short time."
Fitzpatrick views the online access issue as the largest communications concern in terms of equity within and across communities. "Sometimes we tend to get defensive about the use of technology," he notes. "We say, ‘We should really be sending out print documents as well, and probably print something in the paper.' But when there was no technology, and we just had print, we never said, ‘What about the people who don't buy the newspaper?' Now that we are using technology for public communications, the notion remains that we still have to employ the old technologies as if everyone reads the newspaper. How does that make sense?"
Share Ideas With Other Districts
in the mid-1990s, a small group of superintendents and other key executives from seven large, high-performing school districts joined forces to improve learning for all students by creating the Western States Benchmarking Consortium. Since its inception, the central focus on improving student learning has been the glue that has bonded member districts. Consortium district leaders meet periodically to discuss best practices and push one another to improve while sharing information.
"From the Western States' vantage point, one of our four building blocks is what we call ‘community connections,' and communicating with the public would fall into that area," says Tom Trigg, superintendent of Blue Valley School District in Johnson County, Kansas, a consortia member. "We all think the only way we can be successful in public communications is to involve all our constituents, whether they are parents, the business community, or patrons who no longer have kids in school." According to Trigg, Western States' schools work hard to develop ways to ensure that there is frequent communication with all of these groups. "This is vital," he says. "Over the last several years, with the budget issues that we all have had, we've been trying to be creative in terms of finding less costly and more cost-effective ways to communicate what it is that we do."
Trigg cites Blue Valley's newsletter as an example. This newsletter was printed nine times a year, and was sent to 65,000 households in the district. It was a positive publication, one that people liked; budgetary constraints forced the district to cut publication to four times a year. "To fill that gap, we've turned to e-mail," says Trigg. "We have a key communicators list, and we e-mail information to that group, asking them to spread the information within their own spheres of influence."
This method accomplishes several things: One, it keeps Blue Valley in touch with a broad spectrum of the community; and two, when someone gets information from a key communicator (who is apt to be a friend, neighbor, business associate, or professional advisor), they are more likely to listen and take the time to really understand what is being said. "So we try to put a little bit of networking and personal touch through that communications method," says Trigg.
He adds that, like most districts, Western States' schools use their websites to a much greater degree than in the past to provide far more information. "I don't know that entire communities are in tune yet with proactively going to a website to get information, but I think it's getting better all the time."
Doug Otto, superintendent of Plano Independent School District, in Plano, Texas, another consortium member, agrees. "We've put together a website called ‘University Ready,'" says Otto, "and loaded it with all the information that parents and students need when considering college (such as application procedures, SAT and ACT test dates, and school reviews). And this is for all parents—not just those of high school seniors or juniors. We demonstrated it to the consortium, and many have adopted the same platform for their districts."
In determining goals for their districts, setting parameters for communications, and keeping their boards of education up to date, both superintendents refer to their strategic plans. "We are very focused on our strategic plan goals," says Trigg. "We put a strategic plan into place six years ago because we wanted to be held accountable and have our goals measured. We wanted to have a reporting system to report out to the public on how we were doing, on whether we met that year's goals or not, and to look at our results from a cumulative standpoint."
Otto notes the influence of the consortium in helping to define his district's goals. "We've built all our strategic planning and annual goals around the four strategic areas outlined in the consortium's benchmarks: student learning, capacity development, community connectedness, and data-driven decision making. Every year we build initiatives around these benchmarks." Plano has used that structure for over a decade, and it has proven to be a great technique. "It's much easier for our community and staff when we stick with the same platform as we think about schooling and new initiatives each year," adds Otto.
Ask for the Information You Want
Greg Viebranz, executive director of communications and technology at Westerville City (Ohio) School District, was hired when the district determined it was time to establish a formal communications department and program. "The first step was to conduct a communications audit," says Viebranz. He used focus groups—internal employees as well as community members and other constituents—to determine the information wanted and needed from the school district. "Many times we have an idea of what we think people want to know, but often we don't directly ask them the question ‘What is it you truly need from us?'" says Viebranz. "That was a key point in the audit."
Audit results were broken down into 17 action plans that addressed internal communications needs, 25 action plans to address external needs, and 21 new initiatives. Not surprisingly, one of the main initiatives was to update the district's website, something heard loud and clear during the focus groups.
The new website was launched in January 2008, and the district positioned it as the main source of information about its schools. "After a year, we had a 110 percent increase in the number of page views," from 800,000 to nearly 1.7 million, notes Viebranz.
Westerville had a lot of work to do to improve its internal communications, and that certainly was a component of the new plan. The department spent time helping employees understand they are district ambassadors, no matter their title. "Once we had that perspective in place, we were able to focus our efforts on being more involved in the community and providing them with greater access to district leadership," says Viebranz.
Coffee and Conversation
To that end, Westerville created a series of "Coffee and Conversation" meetings with the superintendent and members of the executive team. They hold these meetings at local coffee shops and cafes in the district, many of which provide the coffee and fixings free of charge. These community dialogues typically last an hour to 90 minutes.
At a minimum, it's a monthly opportunity for members of the community to gather and ask questions of their school district leaders. "The school board isn't involved," says Viebranz. "It is strictly the administration. And we don't bring an agenda or topics for discussion." It is simply a matter of providing the community access to school district leadership. This is important, says Viebranz, because often people want to get information or have questions answered but don't know quite where to begin. They're not necessarily comfortable with going to a formal, structured board meeting to have their concerns heard, and they don't know any other first step. "Providing a comfortable place to take that first step is a key role of these meetings," concludes Viebranz.
More Than Feel-Good Affairs
According to Viebranz, improved communications at Westerville has empowered both the administration and constituents. "These meetings with the superintendent and executive team weren't just ‘feel-good' affairs," he says. "Many of our community engagement activities have brought to the surface some issues or concerns that may have been simmering under the surface. By giving the public an opportunity to share these in a nonthreatening environment, it has allowed us to be more proactive in addressing these issues before they escalate. It has helped us to be more proactive; and it has allowed the citizens to have their voices heard and responded to in visible ways. That empowers them as they face the schools."
In addition to improved community relations, the district reaps another benefit: public support at the polls. In 2009, after the communications program had been in place for long enough to have a positive effect, Westerville was able to secure voter approval for a $3.59 million capital improvement levy. Six months later, voters approved an $11.4 million operating levy. Both of these passed on their first attempt. The capital improvement levy passed in one of the largest margins of victory ever for the school district-and prior to this, the community had approved just three of six ballot issues.
These results show that trust built slowly but securely will pay off for school leaders. In this case, the straight talk that Ramsey emphasizes helped the public's perception of the district. Addressing problems head-on and listening to concerns, even though the topics didn't deal with finances, obviously gave residents the confidence to support Westerville's two major bond issues—and that's a true payoff.