Master Community Engagement With These 3 Steps

Table full of icons and palletsBetter communication is a top priority for school district leaders.

It’s a common refrain among administrators, “If only we could get parents and teachers and students on the same page, committed to the same goals—oh, the work we could do together.”

School leaders have spent countless hours and much money developing strategies and programs intended to reach out to and connect with disparate stakeholder groups.

An open and honest pipeline of community feedback is fundamental to a school or district’s ability to build trust and drive positive change in classrooms. But simply opening the floodgates to let in information is not a recipe for success.

You have to have a mechanism for listening to and thoughtfully responding to critical members of your school community. It could be teachers. It could be parents. In many cases, it’s students. Anyone in your community who stands to be affected by the decisions you make.

There was a time when much of this dialogue took place face to face through regular town hall meetings. But in an age where social media, including Facebook and Twitter, enables parents and others to voice their opinions, informed and otherwise, at the push of a button, school leaders need solutions that promise to connect with stakeholders where they already are: online.

A tougher challenge
Setting up dedicated school-owned social media accounts to monitor and respond to feedback would seem an obvious solution. But, as countless school leaders have already discovered, social media can be a difficult, often inherently risky platform on which to engage your school community.

Few subjects ignite more passion than those that concern our schoolchildren. The slightest misinterpretation of an online statement or act taken out of context can fuel a public relations crisis of epic proportions. More than a few good school principals and district superintendents have watched their careers evaporate under the weight of seemingly innocuous online gaffes.

If setting up a solution for listening and responding to community feedback is the first step toward bringing school leaders and members of their local communities closer, developing a replicable process to use these tools respectfully and with discipline is the difference between failure and success.

So, what can school leaders do to ensure their foray into social media is met with a positive response? These three steps are absolutely critical.

  1. Develop a system. Every school needs a system for listening and responding to community feedback. Give parents, teachers, students and others a safe way to reach out and connect with you online. Create a listening station to actively monitor different social media and flag comments about your school or district. Pause before you hit the reply button and be sure to always formulate a safe, effective and respectful response.
  1. Create a process. Once you’ve got an effective system in place, you need to develop a process that everyone who interacts with members of your school community can follow. Empower the right people within your school or district to respond to comments and feedback. Set clear parameters and guidelines so that faculty and staff are accountable for responding to members of the public in a timely fashion and ensure that everyone in your organization knows what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of an effective online response. And don’t forget to track and monitor the data and feedback you receive from local community members. Analyzing that information will help you make better, more informed decisions.
  1. Train the heck out of faculty and staff. Training is critical. Make sure every member of your staff understands the overall goals of your communications effort up front. Each person should understand their role and how their contribution affects the long-term success of the program. Make sure everyone involved is comfortable using whatever technology you choose. If a teacher needs extra training on how to use social media, provide it. If an administrator wants clarity about the information that you plan to collect from the local community, give it. Get to the point where you feel comfortable moving forward together, across the entire organization.

Looking for a communications tool that brings these three pillars and more together in a single solution? Let’s Talk! is something to explore.  

It’s All About Relationships

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By Shelby McIntosh

My husband and I just went through the difficult process of choosing a daycare for our toddler son. As any working parent can tell you, this process is not fun. How can anyone possibly provide your child with the kind of love and care that you do at home?

But if we both wanted to keep our jobs, we had to make a decision. In the end, we chose the daycare center that had the best record with the state, accredited teachers with a low turnover rate, a competent director, and parents and children of all backgrounds.

While we were optimistic about our choice, it wasn’t until I met the woman who would be my son’s teacher that I was sure we had made the right decision. She was loving and kind, and I felt an immediate connection with her. We bonded over what we loved most about living in Washington, D.C. (the diversity) and the least (the home prices!) and how strange it is when your students become adults and have babies of their own.

After 30 minutes, I felt that I knew her. We were beginning a very special relationship; she would take care of my son, and I was happy with that.

With this experience in mind, I started thinking about how parents of school-aged children judge the quality of their child’s elementary, middle or high school. At K12 Insight, we know from our work with school districts across the country that parents and school district employees usually rate the quality of their own school higher than the quality of other schools in the district or the quality of the district as a whole. We refer to it as “proximity to the source.” In essence, the more interactions an individual has with a school, the more connected they feel. And the more connected they feel, the more satisfied they are.

At K12 Insight we help superintendents and other school leaders build trust capital with their stakeholders — community members, employees, students and their parents. Similar to leaders in other fields such as medicine, politics and law, leaders in education often have to make difficult, unpopular decisions they believe will improve their school districts. Only when these leaders have enough trust capital can they make these difficult decisions and still maintain support from their stakeholders.

To build this trust capital, school districts and their leaders have to build relationships, and these relationships are only built through two-way communication. K12 Insight fosters this communication through surveys, focus groups and our newest innovation called Let’s Talk! These products and services connect school districts with their stakeholders, one conversation at a time, so that every community member, employee, parent and student is as satisfied with their school district as my husband and I are with our son’s daycare.

First Impressions

I know it’s an annoying cliché, but it’s true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Sure, you can do your best to gain someone’s trust after you have made a mistake, but isn’t it a lot easier to get it right the first time? School districts have to make an exceptional first impression so that parents and students feel confident about the quality and leadership of their schools.  I can still remember my first day in the 1st grade.  At the end of the day my teacher put me on the wrong bus home, because the school had the name of my street spelled incorrectly.  You can bet that left a lasting impression on my parents and me to this day!

As my story exemplifies, the beginning of the school year is when parents are the most engaged and paying the most attention to their child’s school events.  For parents with young children just entering school, this is when they first see the district in action, and they expect their child’s transition from home to school to be flawless.  Buses should be on time, schools should be clean and safe following summer renovations, and textbooks should be in adequate supply.

If all goes according to plan, then parents feel reassured about their school’s leadership. If, however, any one of these things (or a number of others) goes wrong, it will be an uphill battle for the superintendent to try and convince parents that the district can make things right.

If your district isn’t measuring these issues, problems will slip through the cracks, making it impossible to learn from previous mistakes.  Try an Opening of the Schools survey.  Survey each school’s principal about which operational areas the district flunked this year, and figure out what you can do to improve. Then conduct the survey again next year and track district progress.  Consider it an exercise in continuous improvement — and use it to make a good first impression on next year’s parents.