ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Data can help drive community engagement
by Cathy Kedjidjian
Cathy Kedjidjian is coordinator of communications and community relations for Deerfield Public Schools District 109 and vice president of communications for the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.
Successful school districts measure the impact of programs and instruction on student achievement. Similarly important is measuring the impact of communication efforts on community connections. Many measurement tools help district leaders learn, often in real time, what stakeholders understand, or misunderstand, about the message. Educators also learn what stakeholders expect from schools and the best avenues to reach community members. Data allows leaders to highlight successes, respond to concerns before they grow into problems and gain support for their schools and public education. Measurement tools include surveys, instant feedback sources and social media metrics.
Many cost-effective or cost-free tools allow school districts to learn about community perspectives on any specific issue, gain insight into what the hot topics are, or track general culture and climate. In Deerfield Public Schools District 109, we survey stakeholders often with a combination of different surveys to get the data we need to ensure that we are connected with stakeholders.
SurveyMonkey is an easy and relatively inexpensive survey tool. A free option limits length of surveys and number of responses allowed; paid subscriptions cost $300–$780 per year. Organizations can add logos, customize color themes and create custom URLs to share via email, websites and social media. Results appear, in real time, in an easy-to-analyze, easy-to-share graphic format that allows districts to quickly inform the public about results and actions taken based on the input. Districts that use Google Apps for Education can build surveys and collect data free of charge with Google Forms. The reporting is less robust than SurveyMonkey, but with staff skilled in data analysis and reporting, it’s not difficult to analyze feedback and share results publicly.
“Do-it-yourself” tools allow quick check-ins with stakeholders on a specific topic or for informal temperature checks. The results can inform the content of in-depth, annual or biennial climate or culture surveys. When conducted by professional research organizations that focus on the education world, in-depth surveys offer large databases of results to compare one district to local, peer district, or national samples.
Instant feedback sources
Email is the ultimate open door. Districts should always encourage community members to contact administrators with questions, comments and concerns. If administrators notice a trend in topics, they can develop a Frequently Asked Questions page on the website to address common questions. In District 109, we enhance email communication with a service called “Let’s Talk!” which allows community members to submit questions or comments online at any time. The “Let’s Talk!” button appears on our district homepage and that of every school, and administrators have the logo on their email signatures.
The tool sorts topics and assigns the dialogue to the appropriate leader to respond. Over time, administrators see the topics the community is most interested in, allowing us to guide the content of more in-depth surveys and to target messages to the community. It also provides data on our response time and satisfaction with responses.
Social media metrics
Communication professionals love social media not only for its ability to connect with target audience members directly and instantly, but also because Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools are inherently measurable.
Facebook has built-in, cost-free analytics. Page administrators see the growth in page “likes,” post reach (the number of people who see the post), and engagement (the number of people who like, comment or share any given post). Twitter also offers anlytics, as do social media dashboards such as HootSuite and TweetDeck, which allow administrators to track all social media sites from one virtual place. Those metrics allow communicators to target the message, down to the words or phrases that make the most impact, and schedule the best time to reach the target audience.
Take risks, take action
A benefit of ongoing measurement of community engagement and results reporting is that leaders become comfortable taking risks. When you are in the habit of seeking feedback, you don’t think about failure, but rather about striving to the end goal of success, whatever the path. By measuring, reporting and responding, you build trust with the community so that the public supports school leaders’ efforts — even if at first they don’t succeed.
When asking for input, whatever the method, create a clear and consistent feedback loop. Share results publicly, develop a plan to take necessary action based on the results, and as you put changes in place, continue to point to the community input and collaboration that led to the changes. Don’t ask if you won’t act.
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