President’s Corner

School/Community Relationships: A Vital Lifeline

by Don Hooper

Community relations. Community involvement. Community engagement. Community partnerships. Regardless of what you call it, we all need well-planned and well-structured programs in place to promote and nurture community understanding and support for our schools.

Effective school/community relations are more vital to our education systems than ever before given the climate of public scrutiny that surrounds public education today. And smart school leaders know that good relationships with their communities do not happen by accident nor are they guaranteed. They take strategic planning and sustained efforts to succeed.

As a school leader you should periodically ask yourself the following questions to ensure you are constantly building and reinforcing positive relationships:

* Who are our community stakeholders? Who is connected to our schools and/or who needs to be?

* How are we communicating with them? Are we using effective methods to interact with our stakeholders to provide them with important and useful information and to gain their feedback?

* What do they know and think about our schools? Are we giving them the information they want and need to fully understand our educational programs?

There are many ways to answer these questions. How you do it is not as important as being sure to do it. To address the first two questions in the Fort Bend Independent School District, we developed a communications matrix for our district, which serves as a quick-and-easy reference tool for identifying all of our publics and the different methods we use to communicate with them.

To create the matrix, our communications department assembled a team of district representatives from instruction and various support services. We asked each group to identify its publics or customers, then list all of the ways they communicate with them.

With that input we created a matrix listing all stakeholder groups across the top and all methods of communication down the left-hand side. With this new tool, everyone quickly recognized the additional groups they might need to reach and the alternative means to do so. We also identified areas of strength and areas needing improvement in our communications.

The answer to the third set of questions is not as easy. Depending on whom you ask, you get a variety of responses as to what people know or need to know about their schools. Nevertheless, the best way to find out what people know and want to know is to ask them—and then to listen to what they have to say.

Surveying your publics is one of the most effective ways to collect useful information. The data you receive from surveying can provide you with answers to important questions, such as "what do stakeholders know and think about their schools," "what do they want to know more about" and "what do they think needs improving?"

Surveys do not have to be complicated to be effective, but you should seek a professional's help in constructing an appropriate instrument to address your needs. Surveying your publics today is easier than it used to be. You can put your questions on your Web site and gain ongoing feedback at a greatly reduced cost by eliminating the need for printing. The feedback you receive will be valuable in your planning and improvement efforts.

Asking people what they think is an important relationship builder, and building better school/community relationships is vital to the success of our schools. After all, we know public support for public education is vital to every child in this country so that every child will have the opportunities in life that only an excellent education system can provide.

Don Hooper is president of AASA.