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May/June 2011

Practical PR: If you listen to them, support will follow
by Mindy Ward

Mindy Ward is director of community relations for Des Plaines CCSD 62 and past president of the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.

As decision making in all areas of board governance becomes more challenging, listening to internal and external stakeholders is more important than ever.

In 2008, Des Plaines CCSD 62, a 4,770-student school district with eight elementary schools (K-5), two middle schools (6-8) and a K-8 balanced calendar school, embarked on a community engagement process that reached more stakeholders than any dialogue model previously used. The rich opinions and recommendations gathered in several focus groups continue to serve as the foundation for comprehensive academic and facility planning, goal setting, implementation and monitoring.

The district’s 11 schools and two support buildings, ranging in age from 40 to 85 years, were out-dated and minimally maintained. Pullout services were provided in substandard locations, middle schools were overcrowded, parent drop-off/pick-up and bus traffic patterns were inadequate, and safety features were minimal.  

Several years of cost containment resulted in reduced, eliminated or shelved academic programs. A successful referendum provided the resources to expand and improve academic programs, but the school board wanted to reintroduce academic programs that were research-based, modeled best practices, met the needs of a diverse student population and were sustainable.  

Unfortunately, a previous community engagement initiative, known as “Visioning,” turned many supporters against the district. While it involved hundreds of parents, staff and community members, very few of the ideas were implemented. This time, with money for the changes already available, the district wanted to make certain that the changes implemented were the changes that the community and staff wanted and would support.

Current superintendent Jane L. Westerhold was charged with renovating the district’s buildings and academic program, with the goal of supporting and promoting 21st century learning practices and programs.

Action mode

The district’s key communicators transformed from an e-mail distribution list to an action group — the Community Discussion Committee (CDC). A small group of Des Plaines stakeholders (leaders of intergovernmental and community organizations, as well as retirees and parents) was convened. Members identified stakeholder groups and potential conversation leaders who could organize and facilitate focus groups. The Harwood Institute’s “Public Engagement and School Facilities Handbook” was used to train discussion leaders at their choice of three sessions.   

Focus group discussions were scheduled during a four-month period with meetings held in non-school locations, such as churches, other school districts, park district facilities and the library. Community relations staff trained and provided clerical support and supplies to the committee. Administrators and school board members were not involved in the community process, but separate dialogues were offered to them.

Thirty-eight CDC members facilitated 30 focus groups and generated feedback that was compiled into a comprehensive report for the master planning committee.   Armed with flipcharts and markers, CDC members engaged more than 500 stakeholders in identifying and prioritizing what they wanted for the community and District 62 schools, as well as how schools should look and feel, and what they should offer.  

Five major themes surfaced:

1) Approved technology programs to make schools compatible with the rest of the world. This included better curriculum, equipment and wiring, wireless access, phones in every classroom, interactive classrooms with LCD projectors, computers and white boards, laptops or computer desks for every child, and on-site technical support personnel;

2) Improved safety with controlled entry, card-key entry for staff, better defined entry doors, and safer pick-up and drop-off areas with less congestion and better traffic flow;

3) Well-controlled climate so children can learn more easily, with air conditioning, and better ventilation and heating systems;

4) More and better-used higher-quality space to limit overcrowding and allow a large amount of flexible space, designed with adequate storage (not currently perceived as adequate) and different types of grouping and different types of activities, especially small group work, and space that is inviting, comfortable and bright (i.e., natural light and windows); and

5) An improved lunch program to promote healthy eating habits, with better food quality, healthy choices, better facilities, adequate space in the lunchroom, more time to eat and an easier payment plan.

Secondary themes included: smaller class sizes; expansion of fine arts programs; expansion of sports, intramural and after school programs; well-constructed, maintained, and clean buildings built to be low maintenance featuring more energy efficiency, solar power and a general move toward “green” schools; options for year-round programs and flexible schedules; updated/adapted curriculum to keep pace with changes in the world and prepare children for the future; and more parking.

Findings were shared with the programs and services committee and the community building committee. Programs/services recommended improvements to programs and learning environments. Through a series of meetings, the community building committee developed broad, guiding principles that addressed key improvement ideas such as safety, cost efficiency and facility impact on education.   

The school board approved the recommendations and directed administration to begin implementing and evaluating the various components of the master plan in a cost effective manner.

The results

To date, academic improvements have included the introduction and expansion of interactive technology, the introduction of literacy coaches, the return of middle school sports, a classroom and professional focus on “Balanced Literacy,” as well as revisions made to the district’s gifted education program, and implementation of a staff cultural awareness and diversity appreciation program.

Modernization, additions and renovations to three of the schools, traffic improvements to a year-round school, and the construction of an Early Learning Center attached to an existing school began last spring. This spring, four more schools will begin the renovation process, with the remaining schools to follow. Improvements include upgrading instructional technology, upgrading mechanical infrastructure, creating secure main entrances, and modernizing the district’s food service program. All improvements are to be completed by 2012.

Because the collection and refinement of reports and data into a comprehensive plan involved hundreds of people, it was important to engage a wide array of stakeholders. Equally important is actively keeping and expanding stakeholder involvement in this multi-tiered, multi-layered and multi-year project.

The master plan also has these communication and marketing components:

  • The district logo was redesigned and the campaign was branded. This ensured strong recognition with an integrated approach.   
  • Plan progress reports are included on each board agenda, in minutes and published in “Board Briefs,” which are posted to the district website.
  • Information is shared and feedback gathering continues at parent communication council, community advisory board, administrative council and building meetings.
  • Academic and facility progress is published in community and family newsletters, which are mailed and posted to the district website,  
  • Comments posted on district and media blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and e-mails sent by stakeholders are monitored and answered.
  • Community relations and the superintendent use Facebook and Twitter to announce and report master plan progress.
  • The superintendent and administrators present to editorial boards, reporters, community members, community organizations and intergovernmental agencies.
  • Prior to the installation of construction fences, letters are sent to nearby residents, notifying them of future construction activities.
  • A community open house at one of the schools completed last fall allowed neighbors to see the improvements first-hand.   

Support of the master plan remains strong, with skeptics becoming supporters when their suggestions were heard and often implemented. Ongoing reporting of the comprehensive plan is well received and appreciated.

Effective communication that will strengthen relationships involves sending and receiving messages. You may be communicating, but are you listening?   If you listen, your internal and external communities will support your plans.

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