Building Community Trust One Conversation at a Time

By Suhail Farooqui/School Administrator, August 2015
There’s a feeling school leaders recognize when they drive to work each morning. Not a sick feeling, just a little off. It’s there when they walk down school hallways and visit with teachers and students, or in conversations with parents and business owners. Somewhere between the parking lot and the district office they look down and realize the ground has shifted beneath their feet.

By now, every superintendent in America has felt the early effects of two seminal changes in public education. The first is personal. Once revered as the community’s top educator, district leaders increasingly find themselves thrust into another, less-familiar role — that of trust builder-in-chief. The second seminal change in public education is the competition they face.

It doesn’t matter how many years an administrator spent in the classroom. These days, perception is their stock-in-trade. They’re selling the district’s story, polishing its brand. Doing everything they can to engage parents and earn the trust and goodwill of the school community. Then, just when they think they’ve got it nailed, enrollments nosedive — a sure sign that competition has arrived at their doorstep.

Case for Survival

When large-scale shifts hit any industry, the risk is nothing short of extinction. Across the country, those who have witnessed and studied the best that K-12 public education has to offer admit they are worried about the longtime viability of our public schools.

Here’s the good news: As real as these threats are, they also present an undeniable opportunity for our schools to improve. The economic landscape is dotted with examples of industries that have not just survived, but thrived in the face of transformational change.

Many administrators will bristle at the comparison of public schools to for-profit companies. Schools are not corporations, but they face similar threats and can learn from examples of history.

In his bestselling book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, author and leadership consultant Daniel H. Pink asserts that, at their core, the best educators are sellers of learning. This is an amazing realization. It’s also extremely difficult for many who work in education, myself included, to comprehend.


Sellers of Learning

So, how can school leaders better equip their districts to deal with the looming threat of competition brought on by school choice? How can they build stronger relationships to thrive in their capacity as trust builder-in-chief?

My firm, K12 Insight, a member of the AASA School Solutions Center, works with hundreds of superintendents nationwide to nurture healthier relationships between school districts and the communities they serve. This is our three-pronged approach:

Eviscerate communications silos. School leaders have bemoaned the existence of silos in education for decades. There was a time when tearing these silos down brick by brick felt like an impossible task — and it was. But technology has changed that. These days, it is possible to centralize inbound and outbound communications at an affordable cost. This is how American businesses have succeeded — by dialing up new efficiencies and freeing up staff to focus on their core mission. There is no reason schools can’t do the same.

Implement a winning process. Conduct a quick review of your team. I bet you’ll find that everyone communicates with stakeholders — be it teachers, parents, staff and taxpayers — in different ways. Good communication requires uniformity.

Establish expectations with your community, respond in a timely fashion and track feedback so you can learn from those conversations and make smarter decisions.

As budgets constrict, it’s more important than ever to maintain a healthy headcount. That means engaging with families who might otherwise consider alternative forms of education for their children. It’s important that you have a system to identify these families and a strategy to retain them.

Provide training for everyone. There’s no shortage of passion in K-12 schools. Educators are committed to the cause. The problem is they often lack access to the tools and resources to get the job done right. This is true in the classroom and it’s true for communications.

Every time an irate parent calls is an opportunity to win someone over. Make sure your teachers and staff have access to the training and tools they need to ensure your district is putting its best foot forward at every step.

Don’t shrink in the face of competition. Use these steps to connect with your school community and get better together — one conversation at a time.


Suhail Farooqui is CEO of K12 Insight based in Herndon, Va. E-mail: