Communicating on a Peanuts Budget

A school district doesn’t need a large staff to connect with parents and community by ALBERT E. HOLLIDAY
Communicating and relating well is a necessity in any school organization, even though funding may not allow a fully staffed communications program.

Over the years, executives in school districts big and small have devised a number of low-cost practices that have been used with great success.

Each of the following deals with one aspect of a comprehensive communications program. Each idea can be implemented on its own or in tandem with others, and your staff can customize an activity to meet your specific needs.

* Harness your best boosters.
Work with several of your more enthusiastic graduates of recent years and form an alumni association or, even better, an alumni foundation. Many graduates, especially those who live far away and don't usually attend class reunions, will welcome a chance to revisit former classmates and teachers. An alumni hall of fame, with new honorees selected each year by the association, is an added draw for attendees and serves to honor noteworthy former students who in turn will provide role models for current students.

The association can provide a means for alumni to recognize in various ways teachers and other staff and community members who gave them special inspiration years ago. A foundation can be the source of funding for special school projects.

* Use school board meetings as a mini information forum.
At the early part of each regular board meeting, set aside five minutes for a brief overview of a district program by a staff member, a student leader or a community volunteer. Many employees and volunteers in schools operate in near obscurity. This time at a board meeting allows about a dozen people a year to have their “15 minutes of fame” and provides board members with information they probably would not know about otherwise.

Key Communicators
* Plug into the power structure.
Create a mailing/contact list of all of the key communicators and VIPs in your school community organized by neighborhoods if the school system covers a wide territory. Key communicators are the ones to whom friends, relatives and neighbors listen and trust, especially in times of crisis. They are the people you and your staff must get to know well. You need to find ways to supply them with information of concern from their—and not just your own—perspective on a regular basis.

When a problem arises, these are the people who have to be informed of the facts right away so they can reduce rumors and pass along correct information throughout their communities.

* Let others speak.
A school board should have at least one advisory committee studying a specific issue each year.

The best way for residents to learn about a school program is to be placed on a committee and be charged to study it first-hand. Such a committee will be a learning experience for the participants, and they might even come up with some valuable suggestions for the school staff and board. Be sure to thank them, especially with something in writing, when their work is done.

* Offer a special resource for students in need.
Consider starting a student mentoring program. Adults work one-on-one in a school with students who have had difficulty. A mature person who is willing to be a listener or facilitator
can be a positive influence on a student. This program will require screening, training and supervision of adult volunteers, but it has been a success in many districts. A bonus of the activity: It brings citizens into schools and gives them a feeling of accomplishment on behalf of their schools and young people.

Personal Contacts
* Allow for other points of view.
Require the operation of at least one partnership in each school each year. The principal and staff should pick an outside partner who is willing to devote personal and staff time to a student-based project involving a business or community agency for several months.

The goal is to expose students to new faces and settings and ways of doing things. For many community partners, this will be the first time they will have close contact with faculty and students since they were in school as students themselves years ago.

* Build on the power of personal contact.
Initiate procedures each fall in which each staff member has the responsibility of handwriting letters to parents of students (in a teacher's class or homeroom) so that the parents of each student on all levels of the system receive a personal letter. The letters serve as a personal welcome to the parents and envelopes can contain a printed overview of the school and what is to be expected in the new year. The stamped envelopes and inserts are provided by the principal or the central office. Five letters a day takes 5 or 10 minutes—a teacher can do a whole class in a week or so. Parents will welcome a personal contact, especially one that is not associated with a student's problem.

* Ask for opinions.
By using a cadre of people to interview their friends and neighbors, a school chief can have a means of gaining a valid sense of opinions of residents on a specific topic in a manner of days. By using volunteers, the cost is only staff time to train and supervise the interviewers. A bonus of the activity: It will develop a group of well-informed members of the community, who in turn will soon become key communicators within their circles of friends.

Close to Home
* Inform the closest audience first.
Your closest and a most important audience is your own staff and board members. A chief must take special efforts to be sure that staff members are the first to know of matters that affect them and their schools. A modest staff newsletter for all certified and support staff is essential for any size district and for large schools. Informing staff and board members first is a major sign of trust and confidence in them, and that level of trust will be reflected in the comments that employees pass along to their friends and neighbors about the schools and people in charge.

* Participate in a community newsletter.
In some communities, officials of the school district can work with officials of their city or town to produce a joint newsletter for residents. A monthly newsletter can serve as a primary source of news and feature material about people and their activities in the community and in schools.
In locales served by a regular commercial newspaper that goes to a majority of residents, staff members might be encouraged to contribute articles, columns and photographs to the editor on a periodic basis.

* Let others help.
Trained volunteers can be useful and productive in many settings. The way to make the program work is to match willing volunteers who possess necessary skills with staff members willing to work with outsiders (other than paid part-time aides, for example). You will need a supervisor or coordinator, and that person might be a volunteer too.

How does a school chief obtain volunteers? Ask, ask, ask. (Many able people would never speak up to volunteer, for fear they would be rejected.) Lots of folks will respond to a request to work in a school setting, provided they are asked and given support. Be sure to sponsor an annual volunteers’ recognition lunch or dinner each year as a thank you.

Climate Analysis
* Plan structured involvement of parents.
Parent involvement can be minimal or extensive. At a minimum, each parent should have a structured and cooperative working relationship with a teacher of that parent's child. It could be a written document, such as a student-teacher-parent learning contract—a device that has been especially helpful for a student who has had difficulty in school.

The biggest challenge is to find ways for parent-teacher contacts at the secondary level. This is a critical period in students’ lives, and teachers and parents need to work closely for students' success. (You can be sure that operators of private schools find appropriate ways to maintain excellent relations with parents of high school-aged children.)

* Conduct audits of school climate.
School climate sets the tone for creative human performance. The climate can be positive or negative and can be measured. You need to find ways to assure that mutual respect, honest communication, positive self-concepts and effective human relationships exist among teachers, students and administrators in each school. The people who go to school every day ought to have reasons to look forward to the experience.

* Be liberal with compliments.
An authority figure's positive comments to an individual—a student, a staff member, a resident—may be that person's highlight moment of the day or week. We in the school business should not hoard compliments that are deserved but provide them in liberal doses. We need to show youngsters and adults that the rewards for success are greater than the penalties for failure.

An Open Ear
* Stimulate your employees and students to speak out in the community.
Many staffers and even some student leaders are eager to talk about their work and interests with others, especially in groups. Each week speakers are sought by program chairs for civic and service associations and other groups. They would welcome knowing about possible speakers from the school system. A school chief can encourage a staff member or student leader to form a small speakers' bureau. The school print shop class can put together a flier listing names of speakers and their topics, and the flier or brochure can be sent to community organization officials once a year.

* Keep an ear to the phones.
Perhaps above all else, school leaders ought to be concerned about first impressions that parents and community residents gain from their initial contact with someone connected to the school system. Important attention should be given to those occasions when first impressions, and possibly negative ones, are formed.

Consider how your central-office telephones are answered—by person or by machine? This is a frequently cited sore spot for those on the outside, and often school leaders aren’t aware of it. A school chief would do well to learn how visitors and first-time telephone callers are greeted and helped (or not helped) by employees who work in a school office. A staff meeting could be held yearly to discuss how best to answer phones and handle messages and visits by outsiders to an office. A support staff member might be the best person to manage the meeting. Even administrators in the office might learn a few things about these matters, too.

Concerted Effort
None of these items will cost many dollars to put into practice. All, however, will require time and effort on the part of the administrative staff.

The school superintendent has the responsibility to initiate a practice and establish operating rules. An activity has to have coordination and monitoring.

An ideal situation will exist when some current staffers and a few community members step up and show willingness to carry out some of these activities. And that can happen when the leaders of a school district recognize the value of comprehensive communication and show others in the school-community that they will take time and effort to achieve it.

Al Holliday, former publisher and editor of the Journal of School Public Relations, can be reached at 1830 Walnut St., Camp Hill, PA 17011. E-mail: aholliday@earthlink.net