• June 2010

Why School Communication Matters

By Meg Carnes and Kitty Porterfield

Some years ago, the superintendent of a large, urban school district launched a major initiative to increase the quality of that district’s customer service. Research convinced him that offering excellent customer care throughout the organization would improve employee morale and raise the school division’s approval rating in the community. The superintendent announced his intention and established a small task force to create a set of standards by which customer service efforts could be measured.

Initially, his plan was met with hefty resistance within the organization. “What does a school have to do with customer service?” employees grumbled. “Our business is education. Our business is teaching students to read and think. Everyone knows we do a good job!”

Hmmmm… Are We Sure About That?

With student test scores being held to high, very public, and sometimes arbitrary standards, with school bond proposals failing in many communities and budget fights increasingly bitter, with the media running “gotcha” stories about “lax” school building security, with a growing number of highly organized and vocal parent groups speaking out on behalf of their children, you have to wonder just how effective our messages to the community are.

A Bridge, Not a Buffer

For the most part, institutions—including schools and school divisions—have used public relations (and community relations and media relations and even employee relations) as a means of keeping people out. Leaders send the press release or the employee newsletter with management-filtered information and hope that it will keep the troops happy. Communications becomes the buffer between leadership and the stakeholders.

But it’s just not working. The bond referendum is defeated; the school budget is cut; and the media continues to thrive on “bad news” stories.

There is a Better Way

Consider the following, says Meg (pictured right).

  • What if we used our communication to build bridges instead of moats?
  • What if we came to understand what our parents really want and need in order to make our relationships work?
  • What if we could create a reservoir of good will in the community that would carry us over the big bumps when we meet them?
  • What if we could reduce the tensions within the faculties in our buildings and between faculties and other building employees?
  • What if our students actually had a better climate in which to learn? Shouldn’t we pay attention?

Kids are the Chief Reason Why Communication Matters

“Students learn better when adults communicate well,” says Kitty, pictured right. “The need for good communication in our schools is great because the needs of our students are great. Students matter.”

Good communication increases parent involvement in the school. Many school and family collaborations have demonstrated that parent involvement is a key ingredient in higher student achievement. Good communication between the school and parents—and between the school district and the community—creates a climate of trust and respect in which teachers can teach and students can learn. Good communication builds a team—that team we are always talking about—that team that surrounds and supports a student so that he or she can succeed.

The Engine Oil Light is Blinking

Four school stories appeared in the local paper one day last week:

  • A large school system is facing a $2 million budget cut. In presenting his proposed budget to the school board, the superintendent outlined half the cuts and was quoted as saying that he “hoped” that the county government “will fill the rest of the shortage.”
  • In a nearby system, students protested loudly when a high school principal offered $30 to any student who would name a perpetrator in a recent cafeteria food fight. “Bribery!” the students charged. District officials said that the practice of offering monetary rewards “happens a couple of times a year.”
  • In yet another large system in the area, a student was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting as she and a friend walked home from school. The principal labeled community claims that the shooting was gang-related as “hysteria.”
  • Back in the first system, a teacher and coach was charged with using his school computer to solicit sex with a minor. According to the school district spokesman, the teacher was placed on unpaid administrative leave, pending the outcome of the investigation. “We take very seriously the welfare of all the students in our schools,” he said.

Ouch! In every one of these communities, the potential for rupture between school and community or between leadership and staff is huge. You have to hope that the lines of communication have been well tended and that the relationships among all the stakeholders are strong.

Every day in this country, we are designing and building new schools—smart schools, green schools, mega schools, community schools. In those buildings, we are constantly reframing how we work and how we teach and learn.

We are differentiating curriculum; designing collaborative literacy, parallel curriculum and thinking strategies; and creating learning communities. We try to create and sustain excitement about what we are doing—both inside the building and out—by re-organizing the district management, by re-branding our programs, or by adding new and flashy technologies.

What we are not doing is focusing on the ways in which we are communicating with our stakeholders—our employees, our parents, our neighbors, the business owners, our elected officials, the taxpayers, or the reporters who write the stories. We are not paying enough attention to the relationships with those around us—the relationships that provide the long-term, sustained support for public education in our communities.

A New Paradigm

High quality communication does not occur accidentally. It happens when leaders are thoughtful and intentional about their efforts. It happens when leaders build strong personal relationships with their team and with their stakeholders.

High quality communication is both carefully planned and the result of everyday interactions. It is a process—one that has no end. High quality communication rests on a mutual respect built between the school or school system and its various stakeholders. School leaders with good communication skills recognize and serve all the many and diverse audiences in a school community.

The superintendent whom we mentioned at the outset—the one with the customer service bent—persisted in his initiative, despite the naysayers. He communicated clear standards for his employees.

Wherever he went within the organization, the superintendent talked about the need for good communication and good service. He provided resources to increase service in places where it was most needed. He evaluated departments on their service. He found ways to reward individual staff members and departments for outstanding service. Within a year, there was a marked change in climate throughout the district.

In Why School Communication Matters, we share the wisdom that we have gained from working with the folks who make education happen for our young people—school leaders. We believe that by building good relationships every day, a superintendent, school board member, principal, or school staff member—indeed, any school leader—can create a better environment for teaching and learning and helping students thrive.

That, for us, is the bottom line.

Buy Meg and Kitty’s book here.


About Meg Carnes

Meg Carnes is a communications consultant who works with school leaders to translate ideas into communication practices. Her experience in K-12 education as a teacher and central office communicator gives her grounding in the issues and challenges that school leaders face.

She worked as a communications specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) and was co-recipient of the Gold Medallion for communication excellence from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

She is the co-author of Why School Communication Matters: Strategies from PR Professionals. She is a frequent presenter at NSPRA conferences and has served on judging panels for communication competitions. She is the president of CHESPRA, the regional chapter of NSPRA. Meg received her Accreditation in Public Relations in 2004.

In her spare time, she serves as an advisor to a charitable-giving foundation dedicated to serving students and educators. Meg lives on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

About Kitty Porterfield

Kitty Porterfield was at the helm of the Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) communications and community relations operations on the morning of September 11, 2001. With her leadership, the school system, the twelfth largest in the country communicated effectively with staff members, parents and the larger community to ensure the safety of all district students and employees.

Kitty directed community relations in Fairfax County schools for nine years, building a creative and proactive communication team. Her work has received numerous awards, including recognition from the U. S. Departments of Education and Homeland Security. She is also the recipient of many regional and national awards for print, video, and web media, including the 2004 National School Public Relations Gold Medallion and the 2007 Mariner Award for Exceptional Leadership.

Previous to her work in Fairfax County, Kitty was a communication and program director in both Arlington (VA) Public Schools and Alexandria City (VA) Public Schools. Since leaving Fairfax County, Kitty has been a communications consultant to school districts, schools of education, and education associations and is a speaker at regional and national education and public relations conferences.

She is co-author of Why School Communication Matters: Strategies from PR Professionals. She has published numerous articles about education and education leadership. Kitty is a graduate of Radcliffe College, with a degree in government. She lives in Northern Virginia.

Contact Meg and Kitty at www.porterfieldandcarnes.com.

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