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Communication and Engagement Pave the Way to School Success

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By Rich Bagin, APR, Executive Director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA)

Years ago the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) offered a guidebook entitled Making and Marketing Your School as a School of Choice. This was even before the charter movement, open enrollment, vouchers, and the home schooling surge began nibbling at the enrollment of our public schools.

Even then, principals and superintendents saw the need to better identify and define the attributes of their schools. They realized that it was their job to make sure parents knew and understood the benefits and values that their schools could provide for their children and communities. They also realized it was their job to collaborate with parents groups and others to assess their strengths and weaknesses and then set an action plan to improve those areas that needed more attention. By coming together, they realized how their schools were working to improve and why the collaborative climate made their schools a school of choice in their respective communities.

Today, public schools face more competition than they have at any time in the recent past. And yet, we see a lack of commitment and proactive action to tell an individual school's story. Principals tell us that their schools are often better and more inclusive than their local competition, but many parents and others are often enthralled with the "new kid on the block," enticing them to attend their schools.

Competition Funds and Supports Communication Effort

If we firmly believe in our schools, we must "go to bat" for them. We can't wait to react to situations. Our competitors understand the need for proactive communication, and we will continue to lose ground until we become more aggressive in our own preemptive efforts.

In the last 3 weeks, we have seen four employment announcements for communication- and marketing-related positions for individual charter, parochial, and independent schools. While it is great that these schools understand the value of the communication function, our own research shows that public school districts spend one-tenth of one percent of the entire multimillion-dollar operating budget of local school districts on communication. And, to make matters worse, many school districts only employ just one professional communicator to serve all of their schools, not one communicator per school. Some school districts don't even have a professional communicator on staff to help them retain and build enrollment or to offer overall support for their school systems.

Parent Preferences in Teacher Communication

When it comes to individual school communication efforts, leaders can learn from the communication research conducted by NSPRA and its partner K12 Insight, Inc. Just over a year ago, we analyzed the responses of 43,410 parents in 50 school districts throughout the U.S. When it comes to teacher-parent-school communication, here are the top content items that parents prefer:

Information Parents Want from Elementary Teachers:

  1. Updates on their child's progress and insight on how to improve
  2. Timely notice when child's performance is slipping
  3. Information on child's behavior, how he or she gets along with others
  4. Information on what their child is expected to learn this year
  5. Class events calendar, homework, and grading policies

Information Parents Want from Secondary Teachers:

  1. Timely notices when child's performance is slipping
  2. Updates on their child's progress and insight on how to improve 
  3. Homework and grading policies
  4. Best ways to communicate with teachers
  5. Information on what their child is expected to learn this year

Proactive Approaches Will Lead to Success

We must be more proactive in all our communication efforts. The best place to start is with improvements at the individual school level. Teacher-parent and principal-parent communication are key to building a great reputation for your school. Demonstrating that you care about all your children helps parents appreciate your staff. The engagement of your parents coupled with the achievement of your students starts building a positive buzz about your school.

The best public relations you can have is for your parents to say good things about your school. Combine this caring approach with progress in achievement and your parents will be ready to speak with prospective parents about the many benefits and great services your school provides. Finally, set up a See for Yourself program where prospective parents can confirm the many benefits of having their children attend your school.

All parents want the best schools for their children. And today's parents are fortunate to have options for their children. They often make choices based on what other parents are saying, as well as after considering the overall reputation of your school. So, it is up to you to make sure that your school is positioned well among its competitors. If you remain silent, you risk shrinking both enrollment and state funding for your school and system.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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