In the past, the concept of public schools was practically taken for granted. Parents walked their kids to the bus stop, watched as the bus drove away, and then asked their kids what they learned in school that day over the dinner table. In today’s era of instant communication through cell phones and social networking; a virtual bombardment of news from a variety of outlets including TV, radio, newspaper, and websites; and higher expectations for teaching results, a climate of treating schools as businesses has become more and more prevalent.
But, is it reasonable to treat public schools as businesses? As you might expect, the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. The answer is somewhere in-between.
Public education remains one of the fundamental building blocks of the United States. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, fierce political rivals, didn’t argue the necessity of a country’s duty to provide a quality education to its citizens. Adams even wrote, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”
Since all of the general public, not just those with kids in schools, is responsible for paying for their local public education, it’s important for schools to treat their local taxpayers as shareholders in their “company” whose product is public education. But… how can school districts do this?
- Schools offer a good product: Providing high-quality educational opportunities to all students.
School districts’ strengths lie in identifying student needs and implementing innovative programs to provide assistance to struggling students as well as additional challenge to students who excel. New programs such as Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM), learning assistance, and English Language Learner (ELL) programs help ensure that schools reach the entirety of their population with new programs popping up virtually every day.Administrative staff and teachers work collaboratively on new strategies of teaching subject matter. Professional development is a watchword in today’s educational system with all employees working on improving their practice year-over-year to stay on top of new methodologies.Providing the quality education is the product that schools provide their communities. By doing this, the communities can experience endless benefits ranging from a better-trained workforce when students graduate and work for local businesses to increased property values as new families look for places for their children to grow and learn.However, providing a quality product means little if your school district doesn’t share its success with its shareholders – the local taxpayers.
- Schools must communicate with their shareholders: Share your district’s successes with the community.
Just like any business, school districts need to stay in the forefront of the community’s minds. In order to reach the entire community, not just parents, districts need developed communication plans and strategies to get the word out when great things are happening at their schools.Inventory your district’s regular communications assets including reports, activities, announcements, and more. Design a calendar for when your district will communicate the different elements you have in your repertoire.Social networking like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram should be methods in your district’s communication toolkit. That being said, introducing new media doesn’t mean forgetting newsletters, postcards, weekly emails, or “traditional” methods of communication. The most effective communication plan combines new and traditional media to ensure your organization reaches your audience however and wherever they get their information.Effective Communications Plans include releases that go out annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and even daily. If your district releases an annual report, naturally, you would send that out once a year, preferably using a combination of paper-based and electronic methods such as releasing the report on your website and then posting a link to your Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as mailing it directly to every member of your community, not just parents.
- Schools need to reach out to their customers: Listen to what your community wants from their schools.Of course, your school district’s primary customers are your students and their parents. However, the district’s audience includes more than just your primary customers – it also includes your employees and taxpayers, anyone who might have a stake in what schools mean to them and their lives, even if they don’t have kids currently in schools.What does your community want from their schools? Have you ever asked them? Without knowing what your audience wants, you won’t be able to ensure you’re communicating the news they want to learn.The solution is to reach out to your audience for feedback about what they want to know about your organization and what you do. There are a variety of ways to reach out to your community.Here are just a few examples:
- Key Stakeholder Interviews. The Key Stakeholder Interview Process begins with identifying a number of key stakeholders in your community. These stakeholders include members of your community who love and support your schools along with those who may be critical of what you do. After identifying a group of stakeholders, typically between 15-25, one-on-one interviews are conducted. The results of those interviews are collected, collated, and analyzed to provide a comprehensive document featuring intensive analysis of the valuable qualitative data collected from your stakeholders featuring trends, specific responses, and other points of interest. The Key Stakeholder Interview Process provides your organization with a detailed plan for both the present and the future.
- Surveys. A survey can be a great way to generate ideas and perceptions about what your community thinks of your schools. Surveys offer a great first step in beginning to understand your community and planning your communications as well as your future plans including bond and levy measures. However, keep in mind that surveys can only provide a 30,000-foot view. You may learn that a certain percentage of your community has specific beliefs about their schools, but surveys often cannot tell you why your community believes what they do. For that, you will need to conduct more in-depth approaches like those mentioned below.
- Open Forums/Open Houses. Invite your audience to attend an open forum. Present the basics about your district’s future plans, and then have leadership and other staff monitor the open house by asking members of your audience what they would like to learn more about or know about your organization.
- Social Networking. Using social networks such as Facebook and Twitter can provide your district a way to both talk and listen to your community. Keep in mind that using social networks requires a time commitment as social networks are a two-way street. Your district needs to remember to pay close attention to its social networking accounts. Reply promptly to any questions or concerns your audience may bring to your attention. If you ignore your community’s inquiries on social networks, your community may become frustrated and badmouth your schools, possibly resulting in failed bond and levy measures.
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Art Edgerly & Eric Jacobson