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March/April 2014

Practical PR:
Issues of poverty affect district communications

By Bill Clow

Bill Clow is director of community outreach for Harvard CUSD 50 and a board member for the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.

Childhood poverty is an unfortunate reality in Illinois. In 2011, more than one fifth of our children lived in poverty, with 300,000 living in extreme poverty. More than 200,000 Illinois children live in a household without access to a car. Some 50,000 live in households without a telephone. Countless more live in households where languages other than English are the primary, or only, language spoken.

• The issues related to poverty and education are widely publicized and discussed. Children raised in high-poverty households are at a significant disadvantage during their educational careers.

• These children are typically less prepared on their first day of school.

• They have fewer resources at home before and during their formal education.

• They are often dealing with other family issues, including hunger and homelessness.

• Parents or guardians of impoverished children are sometimes less educated and often less familiar with the education system.

Many of the parents in impoverished families are doing all they can to ensure the survival of their family. Even when they have the time and energy to focus on their child’s education, they may not have the tools or skills needed to help.

Because of these issues, communications and specific outreach with impoverished families is essential. Good communication between the school and these families can help them access assistive resources, aid both parents and children in better understanding the possibilities and expectations of the educational system, and arm parents with parenting and educational tools that can help them help their children succeed in school.

As our understanding of the educational needs of families in poverty grows, it is important that district communications factor in the sometimes different needs of these families in both message delivery and message content.

The impacts of poverty often become roadblocks to effective and efficient communications. For example, as school districts move to upgrade and modernize their communications, pushing toward e-newsletters, videos, blogs and mobile apps, it is important to remember that there is a limiting factor to new technology. Not everyone has easy access to high-speed Internet. Not everyone walks around with a smart phone in their pocket. Some people don’t have email accounts and even more don’t have a way to access them on a regular basis.

Also, there are still tens of thousands of people in Illinois who are not comfortable with electronic communications. This is often because they lack familiarity with email and the Internet, but it also can be due to language or cultural barriers, technology literacy and connectivity issues.

Good communications and public relations practices are important, regardless of the audience, but they are perhaps more important when communicating with a challenged audience like people living at or below the poverty line. Be sensitive to the fact that parents in impoverished families are often less familiar and less comfortable in educational settings and with educational concepts and terminology. Communicate with clear, concise messages — free from jargon and acronyms. Meet your audience where they are, using media they are already using and comfortable with, as well as language with which they are familiar. Engage in a conversation, as opposed to a monologue. Listen.

It is incumbent upon school district leaders and communicators to make sure no one is left out of the conversation about public schools. Technology has been a boon to communications. We can reach more people faster and cheaper than ever before. We can interact with constituents in new and exciting ways. But technology can be a barrier to many groups of constituents, including families living in poverty.

Districts should take strides to ensure that the neediest families are hearing from us and have an opportunity to communicate back. Reach out to all segments of the school district to make sure you understand the communications issues of the families in your district. Don’t make broad assumptions about the communications and public relations challenges of any of the families you serve. Ask them the best ways to reach out.

This will most likely require that important messages are delivered in a variety of ways, using a variety of media. This also may require printed copies of any e-newsletter — or versions in Spanish or Polish or Mandarin. Effective communications will probably include roundtable discussions and focus groups in the community at times and locations that are convenient to various members of the community. It may include partnering with local community and social service organizations who work with these populations. It could also involve seeking out and using expert advice. One source of expert advice is the National School Public Relations Association’s Diversity Communications Toolkit, available at

 Ultimately, communicating to diverse audiences, including impoverished families, is no different than teaching. You are delivering the same message to everyone, but you have to differentiate how you say it and your means of delivery to best reach each member of your audience.

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