In Focus

by

Published: July 5,2004

Out of necessity, much of the dialogue surrounding public education centers on issues such as per pupil expenditures, faculty recruitment/retention, facilities, technology and curriculum. Indeed, all of these are critical elements in building quality school systems. They cannot be trivialized in the equation.

But there’s another component of educational success that is often overlooked at the local level, and that is the importance of parental and community communication.

Consistent, proactive communication efforts can aid local school districts in their quest for excellence. Poor communication efforts can foster apathy and distrust. Some school district administrators and boards mistakenly define a “quality” communication effort as a one-way flow of communication from administration to the community when it fits the school board’s or administration’s agenda. Others minimize the effort to the development of newsletters, videos or press releases. Still others correlate a quality communications effort with the attainment of awards.

From personal experience, I have seen that some school districts are more focused on documenting attributes for awards than addressing core community concerns.

A strong communication effort involves a two-way flow of communication and goes beyond standard communication tools. It involves leadership and advocacy at the board level and the administrative level. It involves respect and common courtesy at the individual level. A strong communication effort is a dialogue, not a monologue, and requires periodic self-evaluation and assessment.

As a past president of a local educational advocacy group, I’ve had the opportunity over the years to listen to the concerns of parents, teachers and business/community leaders regarding educational direction. Communication has always stood out as a priority, and those seeking to build or enhance their communication efforts should consider the following:

• Is there a communication plan for the district? Is it defined sufficiently to include accountability components?

• What is the school board’s and administration’s philosophy regarding communication? Do leaders buy into the concept of proactive communication, or do they see communication as being “necessary” only in the case of bond issues or fund raising efforts?

• Is there a strategy for engaging the input of parents and community leaders? Is it specific and measurable or is it vague?

• What is the experience level of individual(s) responsible for communication efforts? Are they focused simply on producing communications materials, or do they understand the importance of building bridges with organizational constituents? • How are parents and the broader community informed of school activities/issues?

• If the school district has parent groups such as advisory councils, task forces and so on, are these groups open for membership? Is the process for being “tapped” for service communicated in the open? • Are minutes of parent councils and advisory groups made available to parents and the general public? Is the process for disseminating this type of information clear?

• What is the district’s policy for responding to inquiries? Is there a commitment to returning phone calls and e-mail? Is there a goal to respond within a certain period of time? What procedures are in place to communicate follow-through?

• What procedures are in place for parents/concerned citizens to share confidential concerns? Are professional checks and balances in place to respect that confidentiality?

• Are communication vehicles such as Web sites updated regularly or are they outdated? Do they contain appropriate contact information?

• Are media properly informed of school-related activities?

Schools face enormous responsibilities and challenges in educating our children. With cooperation and a commitment to communication, the broader community and administration can work in partnership to create a productive educational experience for all concerned.

North Mississippi-based journalist and consultant Karen Kahler Holliday writes frequently for the Mississippi Business Journal. Send comments about her column to mbj@msbusiness.com.

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