Practical PR: Better together: Partner up for engagement
By Cathy Kedjidjian
Cathy Kedjidjian is coordinator of communications and community relations for Deerfield Public School District 109 in Deerfield, and president of INSPRA, the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.
In this election year, one common refrain from candidates of both parties is that Americans are “better together.” While the divisiveness of party politics may get in the way of unifying our country or our state, as school leaders and education professionals, we can forge partnerships that increase our effectiveness and our reach to improve our schools and communities.
In Illinois, many school districts rely on the superintendent, principals, and other administrators to manage communication and community engagement. They send emails, return phone calls, update websites and calendars, hold parent information sessions or community drop-in sessions, present at the senior center, meet with local businesses, hang posters, and in their spare time, they might blog, tweet or post on Facebook. Those districts fortunate enough to have a communications department often have a staff of one to take on these roles, as well as support and train administrators and front-line staff members and work with board of education members on how to best inform and engage staff, students, parents, and community members.
Even though many school and district officials or school communications professionals are in a solo shop, they never have to be alone. They can connect and combine resources with others in their local and professional communities. Similarly, board of education members can benefit from accessing their own networks as well. Forging community partnerships increases opportunities to connect with constituents to serve students, support families, and make the community stronger.
Communication is key in the success of high-achieving students and the high level of productive parent involvement and superior staff satisfaction in Deerfield Public Schools District 109, a PK-8 district of approximately 3,000 students in four elementary and two middle schools in a suburb north of Chicago:
- Students earn high marks on PARCC tests as well as local assessments.
- A large percentage of parents are active contributors to school Parent-Teacher Organizations. This year, PTOs provided funding for library renovations and construction of SmartLabs in all elementary schools.
- In an annual “ INSIGHTeX” culture survey conducted by HUMANeX, staff reports the highest possible levels of staff satisfaction and engagement. Last year, two schools had 100 percent of staff reporting that they are highly engaged and highly satisfied at work.
Those results are directly related to the culture of communication in District 109, but consistent, clear, open communication couldn’t come solely from a communication department of one person, no matter how many well-crafted emails that one person sends. Emails alone — and no one tool alone or one person alone — cannot establish a culture of communication.
In Deerfield, all public entities work together in the Community Communicators Coalition (CCC), a group of employees within the local public entities who are responsible for communication and community engagement. We meet regularly to share resources and ideas, and sometimes frustrations or failures. We find ways to collaborate to better connect with our shared audience. Specific to education, the local K-8 districts collaborate regularly, and in many ways, with the high school district.
A shining example of collaboration for communication was the March 2015 launch of Text-A-Tip in school districts 106 (Bannockburn K-8), 109 (Deerfield PK-8), 112 (Highland Park PK-8) and 113 (Deerfield and Highland Park High Schools), and beyond the schools throughout those communities. Text-A-Tip is a service that allows teens to find anonymous, immediate help for themselves if they are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, depression, difficult family situations, bullying, or any of the many challenges they face today. The service is available 24/7, is completely anonymous, and is staffed with local counselors to support teenagers (and others) who have a concern or crisis. Teenagers text a message or scan a QR code on their phone to get help.
The team of school communicators from the districts created posters, flyers, and Chromebook stickers for students in grades 6-12 and found a printer to provide printing at cost. They worked with school administrators to distribute the posters and stickers throughout the schools and with officials at the villages and cities, park districts, and libraries to get the posters up and flyers out anywhere that teenagers might see it.
Using Google Docs to share material, they also created press releases to send to local media and templates of emails for school principals to send to parents and students and produced a video to show to students at all schools (view the video at tinyurl.com/textatip).
Being able to collaborate to create and distribute consistent communication throughout the community allowed the program to gain immediate “branding” and deep impact. Text messages came in from students in need on the first day of launch, meaning that teenagers in the communities found the support they needed, immediately.
That community collaboration with Text-A-Tip was easy to establish because many of the leaders of the public entities already had strong connections. District 109 Superintendent Mike Lubelfeld builds bonds with other community leaders so that he can better understand the community as a whole and better serve our parents and constituents. Local leaders — including the mayor of Deerfield, village manager, chief of police, and director of the park district — meet monthly. Those regular meetings ensure that relationships are solid so, if there ever is a crisis or need, the leaders know exactly where to turn for help.
For job-alike sharing, he connects with other superintendents, locally through the Lake County Superintendents Association, statewide through the Illinois Association of School Administrators, nationally through the American Association of School Administrators and the Suburban School Superintendents, and virtually on Twitter through # suptchat, a Twitter chat he co-moderates with Leyden High School District 212 Superintendent Nick Polyak.
Board members can form valuable partnerships with other elected and appointed officials to broaden their experiences and increase their ability to serve their communities. In Deerfield, the board members, trustees, and other elected governing officials in the community hold an annual joint meeting. Some of the time is spent on formal agenda items, but much of the time is spent informally sharing experiences and ideas. These are valuable discussions that lead to greater understanding of the community as a whole among all officials. A representative of each government body gives a quick recap of recent events in their organization. District 109 board secretary Sari Montgomery finds these meetings valuable for herself as a board mem ber and for the district.
”It’s important to have those lines of communication open,” Montgomery says. “When village trustees know who we are — and can put a face to a name — we are more likely to be able to help each other when the need arises.”
Of course, IASB offers great opportunities for board of education members to share with other board of education members. In addition to the learning opportunities at the statewide Joint Annual Conference in November, the regional gatherings are valuable for board member networking and sharing. District 109 hosted the IASB Lake Division dinner in March 2016 and proudly shared the experience of constructing new state-of-the-art science, STEM, and communication media arts labs with board members from nearby districts. District 109 board members have enjoyed learning from other districts and have used those experiences to guide their work in District 109. “Just before we went 1:1 in District 109, I attended a dinner at a school that had just launched 1:1,” says Mrs. Montgomery. “It was helpful for me to see what they did, and their outcomes.”