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What is poor customer service costing your school?
2019-06-25
canvas bag with a dollar sign printed on it

Many schools across the U.S. are experiencing the hard-hitting reality of declining K–12 enrollment. These declines are triggered by falling birth rates (only two states in the U.S. have birth rates above replacement levels), lots of school choice options, homeschooling, and online schools. It is time to take a hard look at how we can remain relevant and competitive. 

Whether we like to admit it or not, declining enrollment also means fewer jobs. We hear lots of wailing and teeth gnashing about budgets and funding at both state and federal levels, but what can we do at the school level that will make a difference sooner rather than later? 

There are several effective strategies you can implement (inbound marketing being one). But today we’ll discuss the importance of one of the most beneficial strategies your school can implement—one with wide-ranging impact beyond increased enrollment. 

Let’s talk about school customer service!

Your goal should be to deliver customer service levels that are nothing like the DMV and more like Ace Hardware or Nordstroms. However, this means every staff member must understand how important customer service is to the survival of your school and possibly their career. 

Female student doing match at whiteboard

Step #1: Do the math

Begin by showing them how enrollment numbers affect your school’s bottom line—and their job. Educators don’t appreciate being told to think of their schools as a business. I get it. But there are some similarities that can’t be ignored, and one is that we must have the revenue to support our programs and services. 

Since school budgets are based on a per-student model, whether it is from tuition or state and federal funding, student numbers are impactful. So, run the numbers for your school or district and share that information with your school employees so they understand the financial significance of each student lost to another school. 

Fill in the blanks:

_____ Number of students homeschooled or enrolled in online or virtual schools
_____ Number of students attending other schools (private or charter schools if you are public and public schools if you are a private or charter school)
_____ Total lost students

Now take the number of lost students and multiply it by the total amount of per-student reimbursements or tuition you receive for the years they are enrolled. The total is your potential lost resources. 

____ (lost students) x _____ (per student income) x ______ (years served) = _____ (total lost income)

Let me share an example from a public elementary school in Arizona, a state with one of the lowest per student reimbursements in the nation.

A local elementary school near me enrolls 65% of the K–8 students within their school’s attendance boundaries. The other 35% attend local charter or private schools, nearby public schools, or are homeschooled. So, the math looks like this: 

1200 (lost students) x
$6100 (per student reimbursement) = 
$7.3M (lost revenue per year)

The long-term scenario is even worse. Over the total elementary grades they serve, which totals nine years, this district is losing a possible $48.8M. Wow! 

If we look at other states, like California, New York, or Vermont, where the per-student spending for public schools is closer to $20,000 per student, you can see what it means to a school’s budget. If you are a private school, even the loss of one or two students might mean teacher layoffs or discontinued programs.

This fact gathering first step helps school employees recognize how customer dissatisfaction affects your school and them personally. How we treat our customers matters. They have choices, and if they feel like we don’t care about them, they can and will go elsewhere. With fewer available students than ever before, we must work to get and keep those we can.

Step #2: Know what your customers want

Our primary customers are parents since they decide where their children will attend. So, understanding and meeting their needs is a critical first step. What do all parents want?

Parents want their children to attend a school where the staff:

  • cares about their children;
  • sees the potential in their children;
  • holds high expectations for their children;
  • inspires and encourages their children; and 
  • acts as their children's advocates.

Parents also want school staff to:

  • treat them with respect and consideration;
  • keep them informed about things affecting their children;
  • provide honest and timely answers to their questions; and
  • listen to their needs and concerns.

You can meet each of these needs with a staff that is fully committed to delivering outstanding customer service at every touch point. And, providing excellent customer service is one of the most impactful ways a school can influence attitudes. 

Step #3: Train, recognize, repeat

Implementing customer service should begin at the top. School leaders must be on board and ensure that having a customer service mindset is an accepted part of their school’s culture. Putting training in place as part of professional development for all staff, from the teachers to the crossing guards, will establish long-lasting benefits.  Training for parents as well as for internal staff and students is well worth the effort. Staff relationships will improve, students will respond to the increased respect and courtesy modeled for them, and parents will feel welcomed and respected. These improvements will make our schools a better place to work and learn—and everyone wins.

Consider these initial steps:

  1. Conduct an internal audit. Address the most critical issues first. How easy do you make it for parents to get the information and help they need? How easy is it to enroll? How informative and intuitive is your website? How do you communicate with parents and students, and how effective are your methods? Send a secret shopper around to your schools to find out. Get them to use your website and your phone systems to see where the weaknesses are, and eliminate them.
  2. Streamline the bureaucracy. Customer expectations in our digital world are higher than ever, and schools are no exception. Can you streamline processes, consolidate required forms and put them online, eliminate hoops parents must jump through, and remove obstacles that hinder customers from getting the answers they seek? Not sure what those hindrances might be? Ask your staff what keeps them from solving problems during customer contacts, and incorporate their knowledge and suggestions into your solutions.
  3. Implement customer service training. Conduct annual customer service training specific to your staff’s various roles (administrators, teachers, aides, office staff, bus drivers, food service). It isn’t a “do it once and forget it” type of training. Each annual training will help school employees adopt these life skills and establish an employee customer support mindset throughout your school. Your staff will enjoy the advantages of improved interpersonal skills that will benefit them in all aspects of their personal lives. 
  4. Establish recognition and rewards. To reinforce outstanding examples of customer service within your school and among your staff, find and honor those who demonstrate these ideals. Find ways to share their stories, highlight those positive experiences, and let others see examples they can emulate. Catch folks doing things right, and spread the word. You’ll be helping everyone know what behaviors to strive for.
  5. Improve and repeat. Review your progress at regular intervals. Reevaluate your school culture and your levels of customer service, and apply what you’ve learned to continue the improvements throughout the year. 
Sign with the words All About Relationships

It’s all about the relationships!

With an ongoing focus on customer service, you’ll enjoy consistent improvement in customer relationships, a strengthened school brand, and more loyal customers. A positive school culture makes working there more enjoyable for your staff, so the recruitment of highly-qualified staff improves. Your students also benefit from the respectful and supportive attitudes of school employees and their parents. Over time, you are likely to see increased enrollment as well.

While we recommend implementing customer service training for all your staff, here are a few basic tips you can implement at your very next staff meeting, department meeting, and other opportunities, even before you roll out a formalized customer service initiative for your school. Here’s a start:

  • Make answers easy to find. Be sure your customers have easy-to-find access to their questions online. Your school website and social media should be prime communication resources and be intuitive, informative, and reliable. Not sure what your customers’ most common questions are? Ask your staff. They will know which answers they must repeatedly provide, which calls they get most often, and what parents dislike most about your phone tree. Your website analytics can tell you what questions are searched for most often.
  • Raise the bar. Incorporate customer service standards as part of staff evaluation standards. What is not measured will not improve! Recognize those who model these standards and share the positive outcomes their behaviors produce.
  • Ensure handoffs matter. Sometimes we must tell parents or other customers that we don’t have the answer they need but we can find out or get someone to get back with them. The problem occurs when we fail to follow through and make sure our promise is kept. We must provide any necessary details to the person to whom we are handing off the customer request, and we must take responsibility for following up to ensure they completed the pass (so to speak). After all, it was our promise, and we should take responsibility for our commitment. The follow-through and promises kept build trust with our customers. Own the follow-through and train staff to do likewise.
  • Empower a culture of yes. Occasionally there are security, privacy, or legal issues that require us to say “no” to some customer requests. But, there are many ways to get to “yes” (or say yes to a no question) when we empower our staff to think out of the box and find solutions that will satisfy a customer’s need. Sometimes it is as simple as learning the customer’s purpose (the why of their request) and finding a way to accomplish it even if it is a more different solution than expected. Training and trusting your staff allows them to creatively and effectively find resolutions. 

For additional tips to begin implementing customer service strategies at your school, check out some of these articles:

From good to great: school customer service
Customer service: the power of words
Is your front office helping or hurting your school enrollment?
Parents: raving fans or raging foes?
Customer service: minding your Ps, Qs, and Netiquette

Next steps?

We addressed some preliminary steps you can begin today in this article and recommend providing formalized customer service training for your staff. While on-site training is motivating and can get things off to a strong start, it can also be expensive. There are also some online course options, or you can develop your own. A few helpful resources we recommend are: 

Who Cares? Improving Public School Through Relationships and Customer Service
Think Like a Patron: without losing your mind
5 reasons to adopt a customer mindset in schools

School Webmasters is rolling out online customer service training for schools very soon. We invite you to sign up to be notified when our free mini-course for school customer service is available, and we’ll send you the link to the introduction course. Then, if you see value for your staff, you can register for the full online course in development now!

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Digital Citizenship: 2 Guiding Principles to Help School Leaders Face Technology Struggles
2019-06-18
Male student sitting at computer

In your school, are personal devices such as smartphones and personal laptops promoting or hindering the educational environment? 

In February 2018, the Education Week Research Center surveyed 500 school leaders. One alarming statistic surfaced from the report—95% of school leaders are concerned that students spend too much time on their phones at home. 

The level of technological connectivity in today’s world is beyond anything we as digital immigrants have ever seen before. Word may have traveled fast back in the 80s and 90s on the playground or in the hallways, but these days, the doors of instant communication have been thrown open and remain open non-stop, day and night.

This is new territory for everyone. The students in your schools are digital natives. They have always known a world chock full of technology and online connections. As school leaders tackle the challenges brought about by personal devices, it’s worth noting that we are in relatively uncharted waters and the currents can be treacherous. As a society, it’s fair to say we don’t have all the answers about technology, and, as adults, it’s imperative to be open with youth and seek to collaborate with them. 

Despite the unknown, more research is beginning to emerge such as the statistic about screen time mentioned above. To help students succeed from elementary through high school, it’s important to learn from the past and each other, ideally including the digital natives in the mapping process as well. In this blog, we will examine real-life examples of those in our society taking a proactive stance to the challenges facing youth regarding technology and identify two core principles to help you chart your course. 

1. Use your influence to make a difference in your school community.

Two adult females looking at a computer screen
As a school leader, your voice matters. Here are two examples of corporate executives using their position of influence to answer technology concerns. What can you learn from their examples? 

Facebook Executive Speaks to College Graduates
Recently, Facebook Executive, Sheryl Sandberg spoke to college graduates. Ms. Sandberg admitted that Facebook leader, “didn’t see all the risks coming” and “didn’t do enough to stop them.” Acknowledging the downsides of technology, she urged students to use technology for good, understanding that there are those who choose to use technology harmfully, willingly or not. She said, “Technology needs a human heartbeat.”

How can you encourage students in your school community to use technology responsibly? 

Apple Shareholders Issue Public Letter
In January 2018, key shareholders urged tech giant Apple to “issue a health warning for their devices and change their systems to allow parents greater control of their children’s usage.

In a public letter, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) together with Jana Partners LLC, called on Apple, Inc. to address the concerns of phone problems, to get involved in research about the negative effects of device use, and to install an advisory board to be current on the situation. The letter, speaking truth to power, drew attention from the media.

In the letter, the shareholders raised the following points:
  1. 67% of 2,300 teachers surveyed noticed a growing amount of students negatively distracted by digital technologies within the classroom. 
  2. 75% note that their students’ focus on tasks has decreased.
  3. Since personal technologies have come into the classroom in the last 3 to 5 years, 90% note an increase in emotional challenges among students.
  4. 86% recognize an increase in social challenges. 
  5. Pertaining to increasing risk factors for suicide: U.S. teens who are on their electronic devices three hours or more each day increase their likelihood by 35%, and for those who spend five hours or more on their devices, the likelihood increases by 75%.
  6. Teens on their devices more than five hours a day get less than seven hours of sleep (rather than the recommended nine).
  7. Long-term issues such as high blood pressure and weight gain are long-term issues linked to sleep deprivation.
  8. Following five days of a device-free outdoor camp, youth tested “far better on tests for empathy than a control group.” 
  9. 58% of parents worry about social media’s influence on their child’s mental and physical health.
  10. 48% describe regulating screen time in their family is a constant struggle.
  11. 58% describe their child as attached to their device.

This public letter exemplifies standing up for what is right and in the common good. Apple quickly responded to the letter, and a few months later, has now entered the discussion about digital health. At schools, we seek to instill character traits such as courage and honesty. Even in our communities, we see the growing theme “See something, say something.” 

Both of these examples show brave members of the community raising their voices and taking a risk for the greater good. How can you raise your voice in your school community, courageously facing the challenges your school community faces?

2. Lead by example and collaborate.

Students looking at laptops and tablets

There are several organizations and movements out there to help you keep students safe and responsible when using technology. Here are a few we have found:

#SavetheKids Movement

In April 2018, Collin Kartchner took a risk and started a movement called #SavetheKids. Kartchner believes in the astronomical power of social media, raising money to aid hurricane victims, cancer patients, and orphans in South America. For the past year, he has traveled to schools and community centers nationwide to raise awareness regarding the dangers of social media. Mr. Kartchner connects with teens, sharing a message about the destructive effects of technology on mental health and self-esteem. Through his counterpart movement #SavetheParents, he challenges parents to reconnect with their children. He has spoken to thousands of youth and adults across the country, calling on them to “rise above the negative effects of social media, while showing the world how to use it for doing good.”

Digital Citizenship Education: DigCitKids

In February 2019, Dr. Mike Dribble along with other contributing authors, published DigCitKids: Lessons Learned Side by Side. The book is a collaborative work involving educators and parents from around the world. It seeks to confront real problems on a local, global, and digital level. The collection of stories in the book demonstrate a quest to instill digital citizenship in the classroom and the home. The book highlights the importance of learning together and talking with children, rather than at them.

Dribble believes a foundation of healthy digital citizenship, as well as good citizenship in general, is built on the “Five Be’s.” 

  • Be We Not Me. Understand that there is strength in numbers. The digital world should be made up of positive interactions. 
  • Be an Example. Good behavior must be modeled. Whether online or off, demonstrate character.
  • Be Curious. Ask questions, search for answers, and be able to learn from and teach each other. 
  • Be a Citizen. See differences but find common ground. Discover your voice in the world.
  • Be Empathetic. Consider how others will likely receive your message. Be careful when sharing ideas, applying the THINK model by asking if your communication is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.

Media Literacy: NAMLE

According to NAMLE, the National Association for Media Literacy Education, media literacy is that having the ability to “access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication is interdisciplinary by nature.” 

Media literacy represents a necessary, inevitable, and realistic response to the complex, ever-changing electronic environment and communication cornucopia that surround us.” In order to be successful, individuals must be able to “develop expertise with the increasingly sophisticated information and entertainment media that address us on a multi-sensory level, affecting the way we think, feel, and behave.” 

The world communicates to us via a combination of sounds, images, and words. NAMLE defends that it’s vital to develop a wider set of literacy skills to understand messages as well as to successfully use the same means to raise our own voice. 

Literacy in the media age demands critical thinking skills, promoting healthy decision-making in and outside the classroom. NAMLE is not an anti-media movement, and it is made up of educators, health care providers, faith-based groups, and consumer and citizen groups who seek a higher understanding of the media environment. 

Michelle Ciulla Lipkin is the executive director at NAMLE. Since 2017, she has “advocated for greater media literacy education through CNN, PBS News Hour, NPR, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera English” (source). Lipkin launched the first-ever Media Literacy Week in the United States and has established partnerships with Participant Media, Twitter, and Nickelodeon. She is a strong advocate for media literacy education. 

My Digital TAT2

My Digital TAT2 is a nonprofit organization in the heartland of technology, Silicon Valley. It was started by a social worker and a child psychologist. Their approach to technology is “positive and empowering, not fear-based.” They seek to educate early with a focus on helping families stay connected via open communication as well as fostering the creation of respectful, thoughtful online engagement. The organization supports student discovery of the value of a positive digital reputation and standing up to cruelty on and offline.

According to My Digital TAT2, the most successful way to establish kind and respectful online communities is to involve all stakeholders: students, educators, and parents. As they collaborate with youth in the classroom setting as well as teen advisory boards or programs, the organization can get a real handle on how youth use technology and its effect on them.

Your Role in Digital Citizenship

As school leaders, we are painfully aware that our school communities are not immune to the harsh realities of today’s world. Smartphones and other personal devices with their various tendrils, including social media, are similar to other things in the world that are wild and free in our society. 

One of the most powerful components of technology is how devices facilitate our ability to accomplish or share certain aspects of our lives. It’s easy and fast. Our voice travels miles in milliseconds on the phone, our words travel just as fast via texts or emails. Heartfelt and thoughtful or hurtful and thoughtless intentions can be communicated, interpreted, and shared with others instantly. 

As you examine ways you can use your influence to raise awareness to the struggles your school community faces, your students and others will notice. As you collaborate with others, including your closest digital natives, your students, they and others will listen. As we come together to chart our courses through this unfamiliar territory, we will be better suited to create and foster environments of learning on a higher level, using technology for good. 

Resources

 “Growing Up Digital Alberta.” A collaborative research project by Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital, the Center on Media and Child Health, Boston Children’s Hospital, University of Alberta, and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (2016) 

Twenge, Jean M., PhD., iGen. New York: Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), 2017. 

Yalda T. Uhls, Minas Michikyan, Jordan Morris, Debra Garcia, Gary W. Small, Eleni Zgourou, & Patricia M. Greenfield. “Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues.” Computers in Human Behavior Journal (Oct. 2014): 387-392 

American Psychological Association. (2017). APA’s Survey Finds Constantly Checking Electronic Devices Linked to Significant Stress for Most Americans: Stress in America™ poll shows parents struggling to balance personal and family technology use, February 23, 2017. Accessed April 12, 2019. Available online.

473695
How to Make an Effective Teacher Website
2019-06-11
Parent and teacher smiling in a classroom

These days, there is a wide variety of ways and means for educators to reach their target audience—students and their families. From emails to school websites and group texts to school social media platforms and apps, the options are nearly endless. So, how do you and your school decide which routes of communication are best for your school community? 

Teacher Sites Can Improve Teacher-Parent Relationships 

Your school and district websites are essential PR tools, but since they must reach a large audience that encompasses your entire community, they serve distinct purposes and functions. 

In contrast, the sole audience for teacher sites is current students and their families. You may ask, “Is a teacher website worth it for such a limited audience?” The answer is yes

Because parent-teacher relationships are so important for school public relations, they need constant nurturing. And because the audience for teacher websites is so narrow, teacher sites can focus on that ever-important public relations facet—nurturing teacher-parent relationships! 

We recently asked a group of parents what they wished schools would better communicate. Their answer may surprise you. Parents want to know more about opportunities to volunteer and participate at their kids’ schools, and, more than anything, they want to be kept in the loop of what’s going on in the classroom. 

Teachers dedicate the majority of their time to teaching critical lessons. A teacher sees students every day and has his or her finger on the pulse of the classroom. So, teacher sites are ideal grassroots communication tools. That is, they can advocate for parent engagement at the ground level. 

Classroom-level communication is too specific for a district or even a school website—but a teacher site is the perfect home for it! At School Webmasters, we believe it’s possible and vital for you as educators to successfully bridge the communication gap between you and your school community. Effectively using your teacher website will help you do it.

Best Practices for Teacher Sites

Teachers will want to use websites to help satisfy the common needs of their students and families throughout the school year. Here are some best practice tips when it comes to establishing a trusted teacher website. 

Keep it current. 

The biggest issue with a teacher site? Keeping it updated! This is hard for busy teachers, but consider this: What is your gut response when you visit a website that appears to be outdated? Calendars left empty, newsletters irregularly posted, or old photographs of past students scream “not up-to-date.” Your teacher website is like your professional resume, and keeping it updated is important to your personal brand.

Seek input. 

What are teachers most often asked? Where do communication issues most often stem from? 

If you’re not sure where to start with your teacher site, start with these questions. You can also seek input from parents. In fact, it’s smart to engage parents and meet their needs by sending out a survey and asking for their input. 

Keep a current calendar.

Calendars are a great way to share news and announcements as well as provide advance notice to help parents plan for participation in events. Classroom calendars can include due dates, important deadlines, student birthdays, and other class-related events like assemblies or field trips. 

Use photo galleries.

Images from the classroom not only speak a thousand words, but they also build school loyalty and strengthen your school’s brand. As teachers regularly post images from the classroom, parents feel more connected to their child’s education. Showing off student work and highlighting classroom successes brings the classroom home in a personal way. 

Teachers are incredibly busy and may feel they barely have time to keep a classroom website updated, let alone take and post photos. But think of your teacher site as a kind of “online resume.” It is to a teacher’s benefit to show the great things happening in your class. 

Post lesson plans.

Are there critical lessons you wish you had a bit more time to share with students? Help parents support students at home by allowing them to better understand the important concepts you are currently teaching in the classroom. Teacher websites are a great place to share added information about hard-to-tackle topics so families understand how to support their children in their journey to learn. Teacher websites are also a great place to fight jargon monoxide. Parents may not feel comfortable acknowledging that they don’t understand all of the educational vocabulary used at parent-teacher conferences or elsewhere on campus, and your teacher site can serve as a subtle education plan for parents as well.

Keep a homework page.

Depending on the age-level of the class, there will be varying degrees of need when it comes to providing homework help online. Many schools use resources such as Big Ideas, Canvas, and Aleks to turn in homework. While most school districts have parent portals to track student report cards and attendance, teacher websites offer easy access to homework tools for those common moments at home when a child forgets the assignment.

Father helping son with homework.

Share resources—links, research, etc.

Teacher websites can be a treasury of inside as well as credible outside resources to help connect students and their families. By so doing, teachers help bring the classroom and education into their students’ homes. Teachers can easily share an unlimited amount of information such as outside links or youtube videos, which enhance or encourage further learning at home and at school. Teachers can also easily share valuable research information they would like students’ families to have access to—another way of connecting the two institutions and enriching students’ education. 

Publish class schedules.

When is lunch? What time is school out on early release days? Aside from the school district calendar, class schedules are in high demand in every home. When it comes to scheduling a doctor’s appointment during lunch, figuring out what time orchestra is so parents can drop off the forgotten instrument on time, considering when to show up at school to eat with their child, or a myriad of other reasons, making this information quick and easy for families to locate online is a must.

What Makes Teacher Websites Effective?

Teacher sites act as a specific and detailed service for teachers and parents. At the beginning of every school year, teachers communicate a host of valuable information and expectations. This shared information helps families to prepare better to support the school’s efforts to set students up for a successful journey throughout the school year. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, it can be a challenge for families to keep track of all this communication. They know they’ve seen or heard it before—maybe in an email, on a flyer, or at a parent-teacher conference, but where do they find that information now? 

With a teacher site, teachers can post announcements, classroom rules, lesson plans, permission forms, classroom wish lists, opportunities to volunteer, etc. Having communications in one dedicated place saves parents the hassle of keeping track of paper announcements and the stress of worrying they may have missed something. 

The content of your teacher site is most important. Here are a few other tips to make your teacher site as effective as possible: 

Make it mobile.

When it comes to successfully communicating with your school community as a whole and equitably, you have to meet them where they already are. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that communication via mobile devices is most likely to reach parents where they are. Teacher websites designed by School Webmasters are mobile friendly both for teachers uploading and editing information as well as for parents and families looking for it. No software is required to use the website, and teachers can update from wherever they have internet access. 

Personalize it.

Teacher websites from School Webmasters are designed to simultaneously and easily reflect personality and professionalism. As teachers use various designs and images, they further solidify the school brand and contribute to a deeper connection between school and home. Do some families in your school district have children of various ages? Every teacher website should reflect the class grade level and the teacher’s personality.

Establish trust. 

Balanced, thoughtful communication will not only get your message across but will also help your students’ families recognize rewarding aspects of belonging to your school community, particularly online. Offering a wide variety of reasons for parents to seek out your teacher website and have it act as a portal to the district website will foster trust within your school community. Families will have a window into the classroom when they can see photographs of their children engaged in learning and access explanations of the key concepts that are being taught. It’s a win for everyone! 

Mother helping daughter with homework

Worth the Effort

Sharing details regarding various class-specific information on a dedicated site is more desirable to nurturing parent engagement than using the school or district website. Consider the cluttered mess a school website’s Home page would be if it were to post the goings and comings of every classroom! Following these principles will help you and your school offer students and their families an opportunity to be better connected.  

With the many school communication options to choose from these days, sagacious school educators will simplify their methods, thereby strengthening their school public relations. Rather than overwhelming students’ families with a barrage of messages via the internet and elsewhere, successful schools approach communication strategically and respectfully. 

Prudent school leaders recognize the varying schedules and situations of families striving to care for their children. They also help families understand the important roles school personnel play in the lives of the students. As schools actively communicate with families using resources such as teacher websites, schools build a respected rapport between home and school as well as a stronger school brand. Effectively and specifically communicating with your school community will bring about great results. Your school community will know where to look for answers. They will appreciate you. You will earn their trust and confidence.

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Ideal Components of Successful Teacher Websites
2019-06-04
Image of foot bridge

While working as an educational assistant, I helped a fourth-grade student struggling with math. As we worked on problems, sometimes this student complained, “Why did they have to change math?!” I could picture an adult in his life griping in a similar way while trying to help their son at home. As I worked with him, his teacher began explaining an approach to multiplication I had never seen before. As I watched her demonstrate this new technique, I couldn’t help but wonder how much it would help the student if his parents could see what we see in the classroom. How much would it help this student if the parents could reinforce this concept at home, helping him practice these new methods as part of his homework, instead of lamenting the old way we used to do math? 

Bridging the gap between home and school is vital to student success. 

Each year, visitors bravely cross the famous Capilano Bridge located near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This simple suspension bridge stretches 450 feet across Capilano Canyon and sits 230 feet above the Capilano River. Simple suspension bridges are held up entirely by anchors on both sides with no middle supports. The spectacular views, thrilling footsteps, and admirable design of the Capilano Bridge attract over 80,000 tourists each year.  

As educators, establishing solid foundational anchors and cables from your side of the gap will encourage a reciprocal move on the homefront—bridging the gap between learning at home and at school. Just as tourists flock each year to marvel at the Capilano Bridge, your school community will establish a reputation for strong home-school communication. One of the best ways to reach out to parents is through teacher sites. 

Teacher Sites: What They Are and What They Offer

Just as school websites provide necessary information to homes on a school level, teacher websites achieve the same on a classroom level in a personalized, professional way. 

A teacher's ability to communicate successfully with families is critical to the success of both the students and your school

A teacher’s ability to communicate successfully with families is critical to the success of both the students and your school. School Webmasters offers a simple teacher website platform that is an excellent tool for home-school communication

All teachers are a little different, and so are their communications methods—and that’s what makes teacher sites so fun! From themes and layouts to photo galleries and calendars, teacher websites are designed to suit the needs of every class. Designed to be user-friendly and simple to update, teacher websites from School Webmasters make it possible for teachers to: 

  • Post homework
  • Display lesson plans
  • Publish class schedules
  • Communicate with students and parents
  • Share news and announcements 
  • Display photos
  • Provide resource links
  • Create a class calendar

Also, you can coordinate teachers sites at your school with your school or district site design if purchased along with School Webmasters’ websites—coordination that helps strengthen your school brand.

Great teacher sites are an important and effective school public relations tool. We’ve heard many times that parents don’t care about the overall school or district—just about the classes their students are in. In fact, the best teacher sites help bridge the gap between the information parents want and their perception of your school. Let’s look at a few ways teacher sites provide added support to the bridge between home and school communication.

Great Teacher Sites Help Bridge the Gap to Understanding Concepts

Each classroom is different. Each teacher is different and prefers various approaches, methods, and tools. Regardless, students need support both from home and from their educators at school. Therefore, underlying concepts should be communicated home to better help students succeed. Teacher sites are a great place to share teaching methods and complex concepts. 

There are a variety of ways your school can do this. For example, many elementary schools have motivational programs encouraging young students to read regularly, master sight words, and master math facts. Like you, I have seen firsthand how these core capacities are essential to student success. Once they accomplish those key elements, they enjoy a smoother transition into each additional layer of education as they progress through the school year and each grade level. 

In contrast, if they struggle with core concepts, they are hindered; they fall behind quickly. Many times, teachers explain programs and curriculum to parents at the beginning of the year during Back to School nights or in the middle of the year at events like curriculum nights. While these approaches are important, often parents and caregivers can struggle to fully grasp important details or methods from infrequent exposure shared once or twice during the school year. With five children of my own, ranging from elementary to high school, I can attest to this wholeheartedly. Finding ways to send important conceptual information to parents and caregivers in a way they can understand (and on their own time) can greatly benefit your students. 

When your teachers use teacher websites to share concepts, they can look at the overall class and their needs. What would they like their students to better understand? How could parents support the students in their understanding? Perhaps teachers could include a video on their teacher website explaining a math concept. Or, perhaps providing a link to a Khan Academy video could help parents and caregivers as they encourage the students at home to do their math homework. 

Ridgefield Public Schools recognized the need to help parents understand the ways they are teaching literacy and math, so they hosted a “Let’s Play School” afternoon. With the help of the PTA and the school math and literacy specialists, parents learned the same techniques their children were learning. Because this event took place during the day, the school knew not all parents would be able to attend, so they asked their School Webmasters’ communication coordinator to attend and film the event. The communications coordinator created a video and posted it to the district’s YouTube channel, which allowed parents with students at all the elementary schools in the district to see and learn for themselves as well. 

The benefit of this type of communication is significant, and with the access we have to technology, it’s easy to reach students and parents in their homes in creative ways. Consider the ease of access to this kind of school communication: no matter when teachers add videos and other forms of instruction to their websites, parents can access it throughout the school year.

Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, explains the benefits of teaching via video and its timeless benefits in his Ted Talk. Using videos differs from Back to School nights and other events that parents may not attend, therefore missing the instruction. Not so with videos. They are accessible anytime, anywhere. It saves the teacher time and energy, yet the gift of knowledge is available over and over again, and the gap to understanding concepts is overcome. 

puzzle pieces with the words bridge the gap and performance

Great Teacher Sites Help Bridge the Gap to Fostering Correct Principles

Teachers are a critical foundation of your school. All of the teachers at your school or in your district seek to educate their students through various ways and means. As they strive to do so, they are your boots on the ground for school marketing, school branding, and school PR. Consider these questions:

  • How is your school vision shared with students and their families on a daily basis? 
  • What is your school community’s impression of your current school climate? 
  • Is your community satisfied with the experience they receive from your schools? 
  • How do you establish unspoken evidence of your school or district’s mission? 
  • Do you share inspiring stories regularly with your students and families? 
  • How often does this happen? 
  • How do you seek parent input with the challenges you face such as with behavior or even technology? 

Perhaps your school incorporates Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Its purpose is to promote a school climate where appropriate behavior is the norm. Home behavior is crucial to reinforcing those behaviors. In this way and others, how do the classrooms in your school model what is important to you? How can you better educate all parents about the importance of supporting their children in doing their homework? As you open the door to parents and caregivers through various ways such as teacher websites, you are helping, encouraging, and expecting them to see and understand the importance and benefits of your school’s core values. As you do so, you build a stronger school community. You market your school. As teachers consistently share this vision through their teacher websites, home becomes an additional “classroom” of your school, bridging the gap to fostering correct principles.   

puzzle pieces with the words listening, bridge the gap, and hearing

Great Teacher Sites Help Bridge the Gap to Individualized, Streamlined Communication

It can be difficult to make space for the school communication needs of everything going on in your district or at your school. For high school students, there is a multitude of enrichment opportunities available to many, as well as other opportunities available to only a certain few. Club meetings, test prep classes, game schedules, internships, and scholarship opportunities. 

How do you send certain communication out? What do your teachers wish their students’ families could understand? Good teacher websites can help communicate individual classroom needs. When communication is personalized, rather than sending out mass communications to the whole school, parents and caregivers notice this personalized approach, and they will be grateful for a school that tries to personalize messages. Whether your district or school is large or small, urban or rural, choosing to use teacher websites to communicate various types of information contributes to successful parent-teacher communication.   

bridge the gap speech bubble

When it comes to education, the communication gap between school and home can often feel like an intimidating, deep gorge like Capilano Canyon. Communication across the divide for the benefit of the student can be difficult. Particularly when support from home is lacking in various ways, the path your students travel for the sake of their education can seem treacherous and precarious. Not everything makes it across the divide. 

Teachers teach students principles, give them homework, and send communications home, encouraging home involvement. Parents and other caregivers, earnestly seeking to provide for the basic needs of the students, don’t often have enough time in the day to do much more. How often do your students receive instruction and information and successfully carry it home to their families? Do your students’ parents and caregivers understand the educational jargon used in teacher feedback and parent-teacher conferences? All of this effort is for the benefit of the student, now and in the long run. So, consider how your school could improve via minor adjustments, renovating or strengthening anchors and cables in your figurative bridges to homes around your school community. 

As educators and parents together commit to Improve communication, the home-school communication gap is overcome. The bridge between home and school becomes safer and more stable. The educational journey of each student is successful.

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Using school websites and social media to encourage parent engagement
2019-05-28
silhouette of parents with child

What if you could get your school’s parents more engaged in their child’s education? You’re undoubtedly aware of the research results on the benefits to student learning when parents are engaged in their child’s education. Some of those benefits include:

  • better student attitudes about learning;
  • higher grades and students who do better on tests, particularly in reading and math;
  • improved social skills, better behavior, and decreased truancy and skipped assignments;
  • higher expectations for students;
  • increased student self-confidence and feelings of acceptance and respect; and
  • lower dropout rates and increased graduation rates.

And beyond the benefits to students, more engaged parents also provide:

  • increased teacher morale;
  • improved school reputation;
  • higher opinion of parents by the teachers; and
  • increased parent confidence (feel more capable of helping their child, more comfortable being at the school, and increased confidence in their parenting skills).

Benefits of parent engagement include:

  • helping their child to set educational goals and encouraging them to achieve their goals;
  • staying informed about their child’s progress (through academic scores, visiting the parent portal, communicating with teachers); and
  • supporting and advocating for your school with the local school board, federal, state, and city governments.
Engaged parents create a win-win for everyone involved

As you can see, engaged parents create a win-win for everyone involved, from the student to the school staff. However, the most significant impact comes from the expectations or aspirations parents have for their child. Parents’ attitudes and influence within the walls of their own homes effect generations. 

The level of impact engaged parents have is powerful, regardless of the parents’ education, income, or other socio-economic factors. When education is encouraged at home, that influence is greater than any other single factor (teachers, social group, peers). So, why wouldn’t we, as educators, do everything we can to help parents become engaged and help them feel included as part of the support team so vital to a student’s success? Of course, we would. Our goal is to put every student in a position to be successful, right?

So, before we look at specific ways to encourage parent engagement using our school websites, social media, and one-on-one events, we must make sure parents feel welcome and valued, or our other efforts will fail.

How to make parents feel welcome and valued

First, we must acknowledge that every parent brings a variety of attitudes about school, based on their own experiences growing up, with them. That baggage, good or bad, has very little to do with our school, but perception is the reality, so we must begin by showing parents respect and begin to earn their trust.

Begin by looking at your schools’ customer service toward each customer group. How do you welcome prospective parents, newly enrolled parents and students, existing parents, and new staff members? What is their initial impression of your school and your culture? These interactions—whether online, over the phone, or in person—must be consistent with your desire to get parents engaged in their child’s education. 

Customer service breaks down barriers

If your customer service levels are lacking, fix it quickly. If that means training your staff in the customer service standards expected at your school, make sure your next few months of professional development training does just that (and include all your staff, not only teachers). If you are interested in on-site customer service training for your staff, we can help with that, too.

Need some ideas to improve your school’s customer service levels? Here are a few articles to get you started:

The following are some ideas that will help with your customer service, as well as inviting parent engagement:

  • Create a welcome packet for new families. PTO Today has some great welcome packet ideas, but the basics would be to provide the types of information new parents would need to know to be informed while being welcomed into the fold. It could be a single sheet or a fancy brochure, but what matters is what it says and shows. Be sure this information is also available from your website, and share it on your social media at regular intervals. Also, ask current parents to share it with friends and neighbors who are looking for a school for their children. Provide your welcome packet to local churches, real estate offices, chambers of commerce, and other community organizations who see new move-ins.
  • Establish a welcome committee. This could be as simple as a phone call to newcomers to welcome them into the fold. The call should not be to ask for help, but to offer support and find out what the parent's interests, needs, and concerns are and offer to provide resources to address them.
  • Plan casual parent-friendly events. When you keep face-to-face events casual and fun, you are encouraging increased participation. These can be a way to overcome fear or negativity by parents whose previous school experiences have been poor. Holding a BBQ, potluck, or ice cream social can provide an opportunity for parents to get to know one another and school staff in a relaxed, friendly environment. These can include parent/teacher conferences, home visits, meet the teacher events, open house activities, family fun nights, bring your parent to school days, game nights, heritage buffets, and movie nights. For many more ideas, take a look at these Parent/Teacher ideas.

Ideas to encourage parents to get involved:

I happen to love lists (check-lists, to-do lists, bucket lists, grocery lists), so here is one for you with some ideas you can implement to encourage parent involvement. Most of them include using your most powerful publication assets—your website and your social media channels:

  1. Video or article parenting series. Develop a series of videos or articles, hosted on your school websites and linked to from your various social media channels, that provide parenting information related to helping children succeed in school. Be sure you use your series to create enthusiasm and provide practical examples. Involve your staff for content, presenters, writers, and video production (you’ll get higher quality content and massive buy-in from staff that will improve the viral spread of your series). Example topics could include: homework helps for parents, where to get help if your child is struggling, helping build your child’s character strengths, reducing barrier to parent engagement, how to help your child prepare for tests, talking to your child, help your child use the internet properly, fun ways to read with your child, how to get involved in your child’s school activities, how to help your child succeed at school, setting your child up for a great school experience, family dinner conversation starters for parents, etc.
  2. Use online surveys to learn parents’ interests. Often we believe we know what our parents' concerns are, but the realities are often quite different. Why guess? Just ask them by providing an occasional online parent survey to find out. You can post these on the school website and use your school social media channels and parent notification systems to invite parents to complete the survey. You can also use creative ways to encourage participation (most completed surveys in a classroom or grade level are rewarded with a pizza party, etc.)
  3. Provide current, engaging website and social media stories. Your school website is your school-controlled media outlet. Are you using it as such? It should continually be updated with age- and grade-specific articles, student and staff success stories, event descriptions, pictures of activities, current event calendars, and relevant social media posts. Important Tip: All of your communications should include the “why behind the what” so your parents understand the purposes and benefits for what happens at your school. This builds trust and confidence and strengthens your school brand.
  4. Post online sign-up forms for easy parent participation. Make sign-up a convenient process for parents by providing forms online through your school website. Whether it is a volunteer sign-up, a field trip chaperone form, a classroom parent interest form, or parent permission forms, make the information available 24/7. It shows parents you are considerate of their time and busy schedules and that you care about their involvement (and value their help).
  5. Invite guest speakers. These can be guest bloggers, webinar hosts, classroom presentations, or for a video you are creating. You can also post them online so those who might not be able to attend could still view them later on your website. Consider using formats like Facebook live, Google Hangouts, or Skype. Every community has amazing resources among their parents. Use those resources and see your parent engagement increase.

School Websites: use them well!

Your school website, used in conjunction with your social media channels and parent notification systems, can help parents engage in their child’s education. Take a look at yours now, and see if it is designed with parents’ needs in mind. Make their needs a priority for your website design and architecture.

  • Dedicated parent section. Create a dedicated area where parents can quickly find the information they need most often. On our schools’ websites, we call this area the Quick Links navigational area, and we dedicate one of the categories to parents. It should include the common forms parents require with links to other pages important to parents. 
  • Website accessibility. Make sure all forms (including attachments and PDFs) are accessible by those with disabilities. This means remediation for forms and website navigation that meets WCAG 2.1 AA standards. Your website should also be responsive (mobile-friendly) for easy access from all devices, including smart phones.
  • Current calendars and events. Keep parents informed with current calendars, events, and articles. Use your social media channels, newsletters, and parent notification systems to remind parents about upcoming events, and link your social posts back to the detailed information posted on your website. Keep them in the loop with all scheduled events, including early release days and time, holidays, testing dates, parent/teacher conferences, kindergarten enrollment windows, and all events that affect parents and families. Use calendar programs that parents can synchronize with their personal calendars on their phones or computers (iCal, Google calendars, Outlook).
  • Highlight successes and promote greatness. Write follow-up articles with images and photos and outcomes on events and activities so that parents unable to attend scheduled functions will still feel involved, informed, and included. Schedule regular highlights that share successes and progress for students and staff. Share your school’s stories and create enthusiasm and school spirit at every opportunity.

Helping parents get and stay engaged, even when they might be hesitant or fearful, will help them help their child succeed. And helping their child reach their potential is what all parents want. Use all communication channels, including your website, social media, newsletters, and parent notifications to help parents support their children. When you do, everyone wins—especially your students!

Additional references: NEA Policy Brief, 100 Ways for Parents to Be Involved, Parent Engagement Trends, Effects of Parental Involvement on Minority Children’s Academic Achievement, Parental Involvement and Students’ Academic Achievement, Parental Involvement in Education

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When Tragedy Strikes at Your School
2019-05-21
Road sign with the words Are You Ready?

It’s the kind of news we never want to hear—a tragedy has struck. Unfortunately, in our world today, the news media daily reports the reality of violence, accidents, and death, and our schools are not immune. 

A few years ago, I sat in a large audience in Arizona listening to the inspiring and heartbreaking story of Alissa Parker. Her daughter, Emilie, was one of twenty young students fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary. One of the images that still remains in my mind is the moment she described after finally leaving the area where she was waiting for news about her daughter. Exhausted and beside herself, she made her way past throngs of media to her car. What a long walk it must have been. As I listened, the struggle between free press and privacy for those involved in such crises was all too real.  

As a school administrator, there are three important mantles incorporated into your role in your school community:

  1. You are a leader.
  2. You are a communicator.
  3. You are a protector

When disaster strikes at school, be it a shooting, suicide, fatal injury of a student or staff member, or accident, these mantles weigh heavy. As you respond to tragedy and its aftermath, it is important that you—as a leader, communicator, and protector—have prepared yourself in advance to respond to the known as well as the unknown in the crisis. 

While we typically avoid dwelling on tragedy, remember the old proverb that says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Take time now to examine how you are doing in the preparation and prevention department and perhaps what you could do better. 

How you choose to respond to tragic events involving your school community will determine whether your community views the school as a focus of healing and comfort or one of anger and blame. Schools must not be passive when it comes to responding to crises involving their school community. 

In this blog, we will look at specific principles to help you, as a leader and communicator, prepare for an unthinkable tragedy at your school. 

Four Components of a Successful School Crisis Communication Plan

What is your current protocol and communication plan as a school administrator for communicating with your school community and the media? We hope it includes the following.

Notebook image with blank response checklist

  1. Reach out immediately to families directly involved in the tragedy and maintain open lines of communication.

    When multiple students at your school are directly involved, it may be more complicated to honor the diverse wishes of each family. In such cases, it may be beneficial for able family representatives to consider the families’ various needs and help find common solutions.

  2. Consider the diverse audiences you will be facing, and adjust your message accordingly.

    Grieving staff, students, and families should take precedence over all other audiences. Others from outside of your school community will grieve and want to help in some way, so give them ways to be involved without overstepping. Don’t forget your role as protector, and protect those under your leadership.

  3. Use prudence when balancing the news media demands with those of students, families, and staff.

    The media will undoubtedly do all it can to get the story. School administrators who have faced tragedy on a large scale would likely agree that you will have more control over the way the story is covered if you cooperate rather than fight the media. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) offers valuable advice on dealing with the media in the midst of crisis.

  4. Give place for your school community to find purpose and comfort.

    Healing is an important step after tragedy. Find ways to create physical or living memorials, depending on the circumstance. Planting a tree, establishing a scholarship, or producing a special program (for example, suicide prevention initiatives, head injury prevention, mental health programs, etc.) are some of the ways you can help your school community through the healing process. 

Guiding Principles of School Crisis Communication 

It’s impossible to conceive of every possible scenario your school community may face in the future. As schools around the country and the world share their stories of what they learned in the midst and aftermath of their tragedies, we will likely see common threads of guiding principles that help establish the school as a source of comfort and open communication. 

In Phi Delta Kappan, a professional journal for educators, two school psychologists worked with a professor of psychology to share their insights into how schools heal after a tragedy. The article asserts that it is crucial to be prepared before a crisis occurs and states, “It is not a question of if, but when, a school will be required to respond to a crisis.” 

Image of road toward recovery

The article advises the following principles for effective school crisis communication: 

  • Schools must be proactive, not reactive, in responding to tragedies.

    Knee-jerk responses are unprofessional and do not contribute to a strong school public relations, nor a healthy school brand. By having a school crisis communication plan as part of your emergency plan, you will help foster trust within your school community.

  • The way you respond immediately to a crisis directly influences long-term recovery.

    Many of our schools focus on encouraging students to make the decision to be drug-free long before they are offered drugs or alcohol. Why? Because we know having a plan in advance makes the hard decisions easier later on. In the midst of a crisis, there is little time to hem and haw about school public relations, the media’s place, support services, etc. The time to decide where you will stand in a crisis must be set long before it arrives at your door or in your hallways. 

  • Offering mental health support to the school community requires a balance of community and school professionals.

    When Thurston High School in Oregon experienced a mass shooting in 1998, the community rallied around the school offering support while being cautious about replacing school professionals who knew the students and would be there over the long-term. The community offered the school support from various community agencies such as churches, the Red Cross, the police, and county mental health professionals. The school district worked with over 200 counselors. This event prompted the community to support the hiring of the first school resource officers on high school campuses in that area of the state.

  • Schools must be prepared to meet varying reactions within the school community—not just for the short-term but also for the long-term following a crisis.

    A crisis team created at Thurston High School daily debriefed and evaluated the situation. School administrators took steps to reach out to students’ families, notifying them that their student may have seen a traumatic event and that the school was offering crisis responders to help. Voice messages were left and letters were mailed that included information from staff members with facts about the event and a detailed plan of offered support at the school for the coming days. Certain procedures added to an effective, smooth return to school activities. Students and staff were evaluated and supported following the crisis.

    Recognizing that traumatic stress may adversely affect academic performance, behavior, and mental health over time, the crisis team sought to recognize the needs of individual students and offer the proper support where needed. It’s clear that some students and staff members may develop severe challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder and require longer-term help. To help proactively combat future issues, schools are open to providing counseling and mental health services on campus with the expectation that staff and students will take advantage of their services. Schools in this situation can help by offering staff and students ways to utilize healthy coping strategies. Creating a database to monitor student and staff needs may be beneficial. Offering parent resources online or in person builds school public relations.   

  • Sensitively seek for a “new normal,” rather than foster a strict “move on; get over it” mentality.

    It can be comforting to return to the regular school routine. There can be a delicate balance, however, between sticking with the routine and making accommodations following a tragedy. School health professionals can help find this balance. Thanks to grant funding, Thurston High was able to hire two counselors trained in trauma support for three years.

    Memorials, living or physical, can support recovery and progress towards a “new normal.” Adversely, memorials can divide a community. Consequently, schools should be proactive in establishing guidelines on memorials (note: this link will download the PDF “Memorials: Special Considerations when Memorializing an Incident” provided by NASP), taking into consideration the situation involving the death as well as other sensitive matters.  

Will You Be Prepared If Tragedy Strikes? 

Alissa Parker co-founded Safe and Sound Schools, whose mission is “to support school crisis prevention, response, and recovery, and to protect every school, every student, every day.” The organization strives to provide research-based education, resources, and tools to support schools in their efforts to provide safe learning environments for the youth of this country. Safe and Sound Schools offers workshops, trainings, conferences with experts to bring all stakeholders together to improve school safety.

Will your school be ready to bravely and compassionately face the community as well as take steps to appropriately give place for the media? It will take a brave school administrator to courageously and carefully stand as the face of the school during the difficult times. If you do not take this route, however, what will it cost you and your school? 

Your school community needs you. In difficult times, they will look to you and expect a response. Will they find in you a school administrator who is not afraid to talk about the hard topics and communicate compassionately to the various audiences of staff, students, and families?

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It Isn't About the Nail
2019-05-14
blond girl drinking tea with a nail protruding from her forehead

Have you ever analyzed what it is about great books or movies that make them moving or memorable? You know, the ones you think about for days after you’ve finished them? If you’re like me, did you wish the book would never end because you loved having those characters in your life? Or, did you watch the movie three times and discover something new each time?

The reason these stories are so compelling is that, as humans, our brain loves a story. It is the natural way our mind works. Whenever we receive disparate bits of information, our brain gets busy turning information into a story because it is how our mind makes sense of information. 

There is also another aspect of the well-told story that attracts us. It is our intuitive identification with the story’s protagonist (hero). We vicariously live through their experiences, learn with them, experience joy, terror, or bravery with them, but without the consequence of death or pain or other experiences our hero endures.

Are you or your school leaders reluctant heroes?

school leader wearing superhero cape

One of the compelling aspects of great stories is what writers and directors call the story arc. The story or narrative arc is about a reluctant hero who is challenged to solve a problem to get what she wants. The next stage in the arc is our hero trying to achieve those wants, but failing each time. Finally, at least for the timeless stories, our hero is forced to realize that what she wants isn’t what she needs. If our hero is a true hero, she will accept this significant change and go after the need instead of the want, recognizing it as a better long-term solution to all her problems. The hero’s character evolves and improves. That is one reason you know a hero from a villain; the villain will never change.

This is a common dilemma in K–12 education today. Many school leaders are focused on maintaining the status quo (as the reluctant hero) because they believe they know what they want and those wants, when satisfied, will solve all their problems. They don’t recognize that meeting their needs provides longer-term and more rewarding results. 

Improvements can't happen in the status quo

Often this belief is based on “what others are doing.” However, doing the same thing we’ve always done (or what our peers have always done) won’t bring about change and is also the definition of insanity. Change is hard. Taking risks is hard. Causing disruption is hard. But improvements can't happen in the status quo.

What are your wants versus needs?

Have you ever seen the video called “It isn’t about the nail”? If not, check it out. The video’s purpose, while directed at communication challenges (arguably between males and females), is a hysterical clip about what I’m describing here about wants and needs.

It's not about the nail

In the video example, our troubled young woman is trying hard to express her “wants,” but her companion is trying to tell her about needs instead. If she’d only address her needs, it would take care of her wants. But alas, she is committed to having her wants heard at this point.

Of course, there is a time and place to vent about our wants. Been there; done that. Just ask my husband! However, this article isn’t one of those times.

So, what are the typical “wants” for many K–12 school leaders? Most of us would agree that we want:

  • Students to reach their learning potential
  • Parents to value and appreciate our school’s contributions
  • Communities that support our work
  • A staff who trusts its leaders; parents who trust their teachers
  • Publics who respect our profession and value our contributions to society (and pay us accordingly)

What’s the nail? It is all the things preventing us from getting what we want. Often, most of the things we want, or think we want, we believe are outside of our control. 

  • We want parents to support us so we can educate their children. But, we can’t force them to engage, even though we know it will help their children succeed. 
  • We want to be treated with respect because we know those who are respected have more influence (in areas like laws, accountability, public support, standards, and more). However, we can’t demand respect, and our side of the story seldom gets told. 
  • We want to be trusted, but influences outside of our control can erode that trust (i.e., poor examples from others get shouted about in the media and become accepted stereotypes, disengaged parents who do not carry their half of the load and who undermine our efforts, mandates and bureaucracy that make getting the job done even more challenging)

So, we focus instead on the nail. We talk about the nail. We complain about the nail. A lot.

What is the alternative, you ask? When you’re tired of venting, it might be time to focus on needs instead.

What are our needs and how are they fulfilled?

We need to focus on the areas within our control. What are those?

  • We need to earn trust and respect. Complaining we don’t have it already (even when we deserve it) is just focusing on the nail. We need to take the friggin’ nail out of our head and deal with the problem, which is our failure to earn trust and respect. It is all about effective communication, transparency, and relationships. It is also about meeting the needs of our customers.
  • We need to provide evidence for support. We see myriad reasons to command respect each day, but do our publics see it? No, of course not. We need to pull back the curtain and show them a glimpse of the great things happening within K–12 education. We do that through strategic communications, customer service, and school public relations and by marketing our successes. We must show evidence that we meet our customers’ needs.
  • We need to build relationships. Trust and respect are tied to relationships. We strengthen our relationships through honest public relations, excellent customer service, and current, timely communications that provide the reasons behind what we are doing and the benefits provided. We then become the go-to resource for answers because we are trusted. We build relationships with our customers as we meet their needs.

You may have noticed that each of these common needs falls under the umbrella of communications. This is also the topic of the above video but in a humorous way. However, it wasn’t outcomes-based (well, other than the temporary result of a more peaceful marriage). 

The kind of communications I’m referring to is under the school leader’s direct control. So, stop thinking about your wants and start doing something to meet your customers’ needs, and you’ll find you are now meeting your school’s needs and have become your own story’s hero. 

It’s all about communications!

I hope you are getting a glimpse of the power you can wield by making effective communications a priority. Don’t assume anyone outside of your own head will see or understand your perspective or appreciate your intentions. It is your job to communicate this information. 

Of course, being honest about the strengths and weakness of your school is imperative. You must continually work to strengthen any areas of weakness, whether it is staff training, parent engagement, or curriculum. And being transparent on your improvement goals will always work in your favor.

However, it is your areas of excellence that you’ll build your communications around. You’ll target the customers who want what your school has to offer and help them recognize how your school meets their needs. 

To use yet another storytelling example, anyone who has ever taken a writing class is told to “show don’t tell” if they hope to be believable. This is true for leaders too. What can you show?

  • Show evidence of student success. Whether in academics, college acceptance, scholarships, vocational skills, inclusivity, student safety, character building, life skills, or any other focus important to your audience, be sure to provide evidence of your school’s strengths.
  • Share relatable solutions. Every customer is trying to have a need (or want) met, solve a problem, or create an opportunity. Show them how your solutions meet those needs through caring staff, integrated technology, effective curriculum, etc.
  • Build trust and confidence. To establish your school as the experts, worthy of trust and confidence, you must show proof in the form of stats, stories, and testimonials. You must also share the rationale and reasoning behind your school’s offerings (the why of what you do at your school).

The school communications delivery model

To get your school’s needs fulfilled, you must first show your customers you can meet their needs. You communicate that information with every action and every interaction you and every person at your school makes. From the level of customer service provided by your receptionist and the way you write the school website content to the images and content posted on your school social media and the marketing and public relations strategies you create, you are either helping your school meet its needs, or you are failing to do so.

This can be done step-by-step, over time, or you can create a strategic communications plan up front to reach your goals faster. You can begin with website content, social media, public relations, customer service, or marketing your school. However, start by focusing on your customers' needs and the outcomes within your influence.

What do you gain when you meet your customers’ needs? 

  • Trust from parents, which makes your staff’s jobs easier and more effective 
  • Confidence from students who know you are committed to each of them
  • Belief in the expertise and dedication your school delivers
  • Standing and respect that attracts quality staff, motivated students, and public support

So, remember. It isn’t about the nail. It is about what you can do to make the changes you hope to see in the world (or at least for your school).

P.S. Not sure where to begin? Give us a call and tell us what your “needs” are, and we can recommend a starting point for your school. Call Jim at (888) 750.4556, Option 1.

Oh, and here are some more ideas to focus on your needs (and those of your customers):

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How to Tell Your School's Stories
2019-05-07
chalkboard with the words Those who tell the stories rule society by Plato

You hear it everywhere: “Tell your school’s stories.” You even recognize how important it is. You understand how impactful a story is on influence and understanding. You know how meaningful stories are to you personally, so you recognize the power a well-told story has on our culture, our history, and our attitudes. 

But, how do you go from understanding the value of sharing your successes through storytelling to being able to do it? That’s our topic for today.

Creating a story-gathering and storytelling culture

If you have teachers who teach literature and writing, they know the steps necessary to create engaging narratives. So, recruit those experts to the cause of becoming a storytelling school. They not only know how to craft stories, but they will understand their value for influence and understanding. These folks are also a great resource to provide some professional development training for all of your staff on the how-to, why, and when for storytelling. Done right, this type of training can be fun and engaging for all your staff and improve school communications and school branding both internally and externally. 

Also, consider using students as authors. A good segment on writing nonfiction narrative can produce a talented crop of writers for your storytelling school (and provide the students with their first crack at publication). Students are also great resources for discovering great story ideas that support your school’s mission and goals. They are privy to experiences your staff might not know about but support your storytelling purposes.

You want to get as many people involved as possible because gathering those powerful stories is critical.

There are so many wonderful successes happening in your school and your classrooms, but if you don’t become aware of them, they can’t make an impact on others. 

When story gathering becomes an integral part of what your staff does, they will soon see great stories all around them. As you begin to use those stories in your communications, marketing, social media, and website content, you’ll see effective branding, convincing marketing, and trust-building communications—a good thing for everyone, especially your students.

The power of storytelling in school marketing and communications

With a well-told story, we help others see things in a new way, create new relationships, change a law, or inspire a change. In your school’s case, you can help parents experience and relate to similar dreams they have for their children. You can help a highly-qualified prospective staff member see how our school would be a good fit for their skills. You can inspire parents to engage in their child’s education and support your educational efforts. 

A well-told story is irresistible to us because we are biologically and neurologically wired to connect with stories. It is the way our brains make sense of our world. When we don’t have answers, our mind will automatically begin creating a story to explain what it doesn’t understand. We see and hear stories everywhere, all day long. When we go to sleep, our mind continues to tell itself stories all night long. Stories help us make sense out of life.

The science behind the well-told story

Neuroscience helps us understand the magic behind our love of story. When a story resonates with us (we empathize with a character in the story), levels of the hormone called oxytocin increase. This “feel good” hormone boosts feelings of trust and compassion, encourages us to work with others, and inspires positive social behavior. We also get a dopamine bump, which helps us focus, improves our memory, and motivates us. If you can add a bit of humor and make people laugh, they get a boost of endorphins that will make them more relaxed, creative, and focused.

Stories have the unique ability to create connections between us and others. When we hear a well-told story, our brains mirror that of the storyteller. Our brains react as if we are experiencing this story ourselves because it puts us inside the story. Our empathetic nature and our shared emotions create a connection through the story. 

We are moved emotionally by stories, in some cases leaving us intellectually defenseless. A well-told story can change our beliefs and alter societies’ values. Think about the influence stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on anti-slavery attitudes in the northern states. It is even alleged President Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Are you beginning to recognize the tremendous power of telling your school’s stories to engage, influence, and build your customers’ trust? Check out the enlightening book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called The Righteous Mind or The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall for excellent examples of the science behind story’s power.

Structuring a school story narrative 

Cartoon about storytelling

The basic structure for most narrative writing (whether nonfiction or fiction, short stories or novels) is the same. It is a great place to start when you are deciding how to take an event or an outcome and turn it into a story that will be far more compelling and enjoyable than providing a link to an event on a calendar or a writing a summary of an activity or program on a news page. 

The story type most engaging for school websites, social media, school success stories, and school marketing stories or videos is narrative nonfiction (sometimes called creative nonfiction, fact-based storytelling, or literary journalism). Unlike the typical newspaper or press release pyramid structure—boring and unlikely to keep the reader reading—narrative nonfiction contains most of the features used in fiction that keep our story-loving human brains compelled to continue reading. This proven structure draws us in, grabs us, and holds us there until we know the ending. 

A simplified story structure is like this (think three-act play):

  1. Beginning or exposition. This is when you set the scene by introducing the characters involved, the setting, and the timeframe of your story. You are providing the who, when, and where part of the narrative.
  2. Middle or complication. This section introduces the events or activities where you expand upon the challenges or complications. Present the problem here. Schools always have a purpose that drives the delivery of any educational experience or training it provides, so describing the problem it resolves is critical. 
  3. Ending or resolution. You tackle the problem, resolve the complication, and make the benefits apparent. In some narratives, the outcome isn’t a happy one, but in most of your school stories, they will be (or the benefits gained still outweigh the goals failure).To show this in a bit more detail, a typical narrative arc (or story arc) includes six stages and looks like this:

To show this in a bit more detail, a typical narrative arc (or story arc) includes six stages and looks like this:

Story arc diagram

If you aren’t sure this structure is a proven one, pick a favorite story and look at it against the story arc model. Even successful TV commercials fit this pattern, like this Coca-Cola commercial. You’ll see each stage of the story’s arc in this 60-second commercial. 

Now, it’s your turn to put storytelling into action

So, what is a narrative? It is simply telling your audience a story. It can be written to motivate, educate, or even entertain. School websites and social media are an excellent medium for all three of these goals. For your school purposes, your narratives will be mostly nonfiction but with the goal of engaging and entertaining. 

For example, let’s say you want to share a student success story on your website. Your goal is multi-purpose in that you’ll use your story to attract prospective parents looking for the best match for their child’s particular needs or interests (marketing and recruitment). You’ll also use the story to acknowledge your staff and students for their roles in the success (public relations and showing appreciation). And a success story is also valuable in motivating others (encouragement).

Narrative structure example

So, let’s see how this looks in a practical way.

Julio is a typical, energetic, and outgoing young man with lots of friends. He loves soccer and writing fiction. But, he says it wasn’t always this way. When he first came to Ellsworth Elementary, he didn’t think things looked very promising at all. “I was eight years old when I started school here, and I didn’t know more than a few words of English. I didn’t think I would ever fit in.”

Thanks to caring teachers, encouraging parents, innovative technology, and Julio's hard work, his efforts paid off in an exciting way.

Julio says that besides being nervous about making new friends, he didn’t think he’d ever be able to catch up with his classmates or read at grade level. But thanks to caring teachers, encouraging parents, innovative technology, and Julio’s hard work, his efforts soon began to pay off in an exciting way. 

“Julio was shy at first, but willing to learn,” Ms. Sullivan, his third-grade teacher explained. “So, with his parents’ support, we made him part of the Ellsworth Excellence program. We partnered him with several other students his age, and they worked in teams on an online computer program designed to teach language skills using games and incentives. So, while Julio learned English, the other three students learned Spanish. Soon they were “language gaming” every chance they got, including after school and on weekends. It was great fun. They all learned together and are great friends to this day!” 

Now, only three years later, sixth-grader Julio is reading at an eighth-grade level. He wants to be a novelist someday. He may get his wish since one of his English assignments this semester was selected as a finalist in the science fiction short story category. It will be published in The Madison Majestic, the district’s literary magazine. 

Julio is also a student mentor in the bilingual class offered at Ellsworth three times a week to first through fifth-grade students. He teaches other students to learn a language the same way he did. Oh, and he says he can’t wait to go to junior high next year so he can try out for the soccer team! Go, Madison Mavericks!

Here’s the structural breakdown using the narrative arc:

  • Purpose: student success story (sharing student success and some of our school’s strengths)
  • #1: Exposition/background: Julio, typical 8-year-old starting a new school
  • #2: Conflict/problem: Language barrier, fear of fitting in
  • #3: Rising action: a sequence of events to address the problem
  • #4: Climax: computer games, team playing, fast and fun
  • #5: Falling action: the outcome for Julio
  • #6: Resolution: benefits and how things changed for Julio

Isn’t this more engaging than mentioning your school offers bilingual classes, tries to help every student feel included, or that you use technology in the classroom? Is this more likely to be read than a curriculum goals rubric? Your call, of course. But, I know what I would enjoy more!

What types of stories can you share?

According to Shawn Callahan, the author of the excellent book on effective storytelling called Putting Stories to Work, a few of the most useful types of stories you can use include:

  • Connection stories. These are effective for building trust, creating rapport, and providing evidence of character. They are evidence of what makes you or your school staff tick and how you are like them and can relate. They’re often used by school administrators.
  • Success stories. Like our example above, this type provides examples of how problems are solved (the kinds of problems your audience is looking to eliminate) and shares how it made them feel.
  • Influence stories. These stories can change a behavior, introduce new ideas, or dislodge an entrenched view.
  • Clarity stories. Use a clarity story to show the reason behind a decision. It describes future real-life illustrations of the goal.

Next steps

Of course, you’ll need to gather stories (from staff, students, and alumni), write those stories as we’ve described above, and use the stories where they will do the most good and have the greatest influence. For some suggestions for story prompts and where to use your stories, read Telling Your School’s Stories. Then, use what you’ve learned to put the power of storytelling to work for your school.

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Create a Public Relations Plan for your School
2019-04-30

With the current state of public mistrust in the media, and journalism in general, the words “public relations” often don’t inspire feelings of confidence today. But let’s look a bit deeper at the real intention of this thing we all call PR and find out what it is and how it works (or should work).

Public Relations, or PR for short, is simply a strategic process to help position your school in a positive light with your publics. My favorite explanation to help schools understand where public relations fits in the scheme of things is: 

“When you pay others to tell parents how awesome your school is, that is advertising. When you tell parents why your school is awesome and show them how your school can help them achieve their goals, that is marketing. When someone else tells parents how awesome your school is, that is PR.” 

School public relations carries more clout than advertising or marketing—and it’s often less expensive. Done right, that means your strengths are highlighted, your positive stories are shared, and your heroes are applauded. Everyone can root for the winners and is happy to be a part of the winning team (school), which turns into trust, loyalty, and pride.

Why does PR matter for your school?

Public relations, especially in our digital age, is a critical aspect of school communications. Or, to quote Rudyard Kipling, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” 

If your school doesn’t select the words and the stories you share, someone else will. But, you may not like the result. PR is all about choosing how to present your school. It should be done with a strategy in mind. In a perfect world, you promote your competencies and successes while continuing to work on and strengthen your weaknesses.

Typical school public relations goals are to help your customers (parents, students, staff, community members, and alumni) to feel proud that they are associated with your school and to trust in your expertise and experience. You want their support, and they want to be a part of a school where great things are happening. However, the only way they will know about those great things is if you provide them that information. 

Publicity is absolutely critical. A good PR story is infinitely more effective than a front page ad. - Richard Branson

Effective school public relations establishes trust, builds a respected brand, and establishes your school’s expertise. It is a powerful tool in your marketing and communications arsenal, so put it to work for your school.

The challenge for most schools is that they seldom have the staff to dedicate to the tasks required to create or manage a PR plan. However, we’ll show you how to start gradually by creating a plan and implementing those strategies over time until, before you know it, you have a solid school public relations plan that makes a difference.If you care about your relationships with the public, then school PR matters. It includes all the interactions you or your school staff have with the public (in any capacity). It begins with every interaction, including those first visits to the website, phone calls, or the first office visit. It is an ongoing project and part of effective communications. Public relations should be a major focus for every school leader.

Developing a PR plan

There are several steps to getting started, so let’s jump right in.

Step #1: Define your school’s mission

Take a look at your school’s mission statement. Is it still relevant? Does every single one of your staff members know what it is and what their role is in making that mission a reality? It should clearly describe what your school stands for and its values. It should be the guide for the behaviors demonstrated daily by your staff and students. 

This may require that you involve staff, students, and parents in developing your mission statement (if yours needs some work). Avoid jargon. Write it so your goals and culture are clear. Here are some ideas for developing an effective, sincere mission statement. Where is your school going?, ASCD Developing a vision and mission, 5 keys to an effective school mission.

Step #2: Select initial goals

There are a lot of options for public relations and communications goals, but if this is your first attempt at a strategic plan, then be sure your goals are important to your school at this time (something that will provide immediate benefits). Select goals that are realistic and quantifiable. We recommend creating SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic (and results-based), and time-bound. Some examples of common PR goals that produce noticeable, positive results include:

Step #3: Develop a campaign

Any good PR plan is going to have three common elements, an objective, a target audience, and key messages. The objective is the simple, long-term goal for what you want to achieve. This will drive your plans moving forward. Here are a few example objectives:

  • Establish and maintain a social media presence for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram including weekly posts and responses to comments.
  • Gather and promote classroom and student success stories using our website and social media channels.
  • Develop four videos this year to help communicate our mission, vision, and values with evidence of how we apply those values in our school.

Each target audience will have different needs, which our campaign must reflect. Some campaigns will be directed at staff, others target existing parents, another targets prospective parents. It is critically important to identify and understand the concerns and needs of your audience in order to design an effective strategy. This may require focus groups, surveys, or other methods of learning about their specific concerns.

Your key messages are what you want your audience to remember. They should be repeated in all your communication, written and verbal. They help ensure your message’s clarity and consistency. All messaging should be open, honest, and support the communication plan objectives while being aligned with the school mission. Using key messages will give your school one unified voice, which will help you manage your school’s image, brand, reputation, and culture.

Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing. John D. Rockefeller

Step #4: Create deadlines and assignments

Once you’ve selected your campaign goal, drill down to the specifics. You’ve already determined the objective, the target audience, and your key message, so now you need to decide how to deliver those messages. You will use a multi-prong approach and incorporate as many channels as available. This could include your school websites, social media, school newsletters, local media, video, online ads, parent messaging systems, brochures, parent groups, or any other resource you have. 

Now, look at your school calendar to see what recurring events or activities you could utilize to support your goal. Are there synergies you can take advantage of in furthering your goals—like an open house, back-to-school night, awards assembly, or meet the teacher event? Anchor those dates on your calendar and use them to frame your campaign task deadlines. Now make a list of all the tasks involved to complete this campaign, including writing copy, graphic design, photos or images to gather, new articles to write, social media posts to compose, and give them realistic completion dates.

Step #5: Pick your partners

Select those who can help assure your PR plan’s success, and recruit them to your cause. Provide them with the information they need. Show them how they can help and how their help will benefit them or the school. Make assignments and provide deadlines. Then, be sure to recognize their contributions and the success they help to create all along the way (and let others know about their contributions as well). Sharing the glory of a successful PR campaign will go a long way in future campaign recruitment.

These partners can be staff members, parents, community members, or anyone who can contribute. This might be as simple as asking for a testimonial you can use on the website or social media that supports your campaign objective (from students, parents, alumni, staff, etc.). It could be someone who can help you edit a video, create a graphic, or take photos. Maybe it is recruiting teachers who will start gathering their best classroom stories for you to use (including pictures). Help can come from many places, so keep your eyes open for possible resources.

Get everyone on board with your school’s PR efforts

Remember that your school’s public relations efforts are in fact the combined public relations efforts of everyone at your school. From your friendly, welcoming receptionist to your passionate, incredible teachers to your engaging, caring principal and your knowledgeable, outgoing superintendent, make sure everyone is aware that the relationships they build are a reflection of your school and your school culture. 

Everything you do or say IS public relations.

Get everyone on board with your efforts to share positive news and accomplishments happening on your campus with your staff and students.

One of the biggest problems facing our schools today is not necessarily a lack of information or knowledge about what to do to make your school shine and how to do it; it’s finding the time, manpower, and budget to get it all done. Your focus is (and should be) on education; at School Webmasters, our focus is on providing the manpower and experience to help you with the communications and public relations support at a price to fit your budget. So if all of this seems daunting, give us a call at 888.750.4556 or email Jim@SchoolWebmasters.com.

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The Changing Role of K-12 School Websites
2019-04-23
Blocks spelling out the word change

Every year the number of families that have a choice about where their child attends school increases. Not only are public school districts offering parents more choices at their existing schools, but there are more alternative choices as well. There are options like online schools, homeschooling, private schools, and charter schools from which to choose. 

Could the information on your school websites influence parents about the choices they make for their child’s education? It can and does, whether you want it to or not!

Parents traditionally cite academic factors as their most important considerations when choosing a school, but when looking at the choices they actually make, other influences often take the lead. They include values like geographic location, school safety, extracurricular activities, and student composition (including proficiency rates, race, and ethnicity factors) in their priorities. 

One study also shows that parents’ social networks have an impact on their choices (their social circles influence them when they share their own experiences of satisfaction or dissatisfaction). So positive and negative influence matters, even from those who don’t have students at your school.

Impacting school of choice

But how do parents get the information to make the best decision for their child? Sometimes it is by word-of-mouth (social circles, friends, neighbors, family), often it is online research using sites that rank the various school choices by geographic location, test scores, and reviews, or it is your school’s website. Regardless of the source, your goal must be to create a positive impact on how customers perceive your school at each touchpoint.

So, how can your school make a positive impact and influence parents' choices?

  1. Be transparent. Aim to attract those “ideal” students to your school. By that we mean the students whose needs (or their parents’ needs) will be a match to what your school’s strengths are. If you offer great vocational programs, you will target parents/students who are seeking excellent foundational training for jobs in these fields. If your claim to fame is safety or inclusivity or college-bound or athletics, you want to emphasize these strengths to attract parents/students with matching goals and values. 
  2. Be targeted. If you try to be all things to all people, you will satisfy no one. And yes, this does apply to public schools as well. It doesn’t mean you don’t educate everyone who comes through your doors, but every school has a focus, strengths, and some areas of excellence. What are they at your school? When you know that, shout it loud and proud. You will have greater success with the students you enroll when both your school focus and the parents’ goals are aligned. 
  3. Provide proof. Deliver evidence that what you claim to provide as your school’s strengths are, in fact, succeeding. Depending on your strengths, it could be anything from test scores, word-of-mouth testimonials, alumni evidence, scholarships earned, graduation rates, racial or class integration, or just happy, engaged students. Use videos, testimonials, statistics, awards, stories, interviews, or other methods to provide evidence of what you claim. Basically, you must support every criterion that a parent puts as a priority with evidence, either statistic data or with emotional, human-based, proofs. Also, how you display that proof on your website can have an impact on the influence it provides (see Education Week’s How website design can influence parents’ school choices). 

School marketing and brand management

If all of this sounds like marketing to you, you’re right. That is precisely what it is. If you don’t take steps to influence your school’s brand and reputation, you are leaving the outcome to the mercy of others. That can be a big mistake and not something any school leader should allow. Be proactive in all the avenues available to you. Let’s look at a few of those touchpoints:

The information you provide on your school website should meet the needs of each audience

  • School websites. Consider your school website as your personal media outlet. It should be the primary go-to source for information about your school or district. If it isn’t now, it is because you haven’t used it as such, so it isn’t a trusted resource for your community to use. If parents or community members go there and it is difficult to find what they are seeking, it is out of date, it is unprofessional, or it is unengaging, they will leave and never return unless you provide a reason for them to do so.

    Your school website should be the primary resource for potential parents, current parents, community members, taxpayers, staff, and local media to be informed, enthused, and engaged. The information you provide on your school website should meet the needs of each of these audiences. To find out how you can get it there, check out some of these articles by topic: Best Websites for Schools, School Communications, School Marketing, School Social Media, School Public Relations, or School Customer Service. Or partner with the experts who can get and keep you there (that would be School Webmasters, of course).

  • School ranking lists. If parents are looking at ranking lists online (sometimes called school shopping directories), shouldn’t you be taking proactive steps to be portrayed accurately? Is your school’s data accurate and current? Are there areas you could improve upon that would influence your rankings on these sites? Some rankings are out of your immediate control, like test scores, but others are not. Focus on what you can impact. For ranking sites that allow input, you can encourage parents to post reviews that mention the areas of your school’s strengths and successes. Maybe you don’t have the highest number of ivy league scholarships, but you do have excellent graduation rates and alumni who are successful and productive—so that is what you highlight.

    Remember, not all parents want the same thing for their children. So, don’t be afraid to reach out to those with similar values. Take pride in what you do well and share that pride. Some of the school ranking lists (besides the ones in each state’s department of education) are School Digger, GreatSchools, or School Grades. Each ranking site uses different criteria, but test scores are predominant.

  • Customer satisfaction and loyalty. What happens after a parent selects your school? What are you doing to validate their decision and earn their continued trust, loyalty, and support? As we discussed earlier, some of the most compelling influence is from trusted friends and family, so what steps can you take to improve your customer relationships? As with everything else, it often boils down to effective communication as well as customer service. These two areas are the primary job of your school website in a digital age. This requires having a dedicated communications strategy for the parents of your currently enrolled students. It also means developing reliable, consistent website management that supports your communication goals. We’ll go into a bit more detail below.

What makes a good school website?

Aside from the obvious requirements of a school website (a fast-loading, mobile-friendly, attractive design, ), there are the too-often ignored requirements. Let’s discuss them one by one:

Easy to use. Your website must be intuitive so users can quickly get to the information they need. Keep the navigation simple and intuitive. We recommend basic, clearly marked top navigation, and to accommodate specific audience focused needs, we also provide what we call “category” navigation for each audience group, such as parents, students, staff, and community. The category navigation often links to those areas of the website that are commonly accessed information by that group’s areas of interest.

Audience-focused. Some websites, particularly private schools and large public school districts, often focus on one audience to the detriment of another. Many private school websites almost exclusively focus on attracting new students, so their sites are marketing focused, failing to address the needs of parents whose students are already enrolled. Public schools tend to do the opposite and focus on the needs of parents of enrolled students, ignoring valuable marketing opportunities. Your school website is perfectly capable of serving the needs of both audiences (as well as that of attracting quality staff). Consider all of your audience needs, and plan your website accordingly. The audience of school-level websites is definitely the parents of enrolled students expecting to find information that pertains to their children. How does your school-level website deliver? (If you need help, contact School Webmasters.)

Engaging content. Take a look at your website content from your customer’s perspective (or if you can’t be objective, get someone else to do this for you). Is it visually attractive? Is the written content engaging and informative? Is the tone inviting? Is it easy to scan (using bullet lists, sub-titles, etc)? Does it provide content that talks about your audience needs (not just about what you offer, but what they need)? Do you use stories to share real-life examples? Do you use multiple forms of presentation for your content, including videos, social media, quality photos, and testimonials? All of these important areas will provide your site visitors with engaging content, build trust, build a strong brand image, and provide authenticity. 

Online forms. Customer service is one of the biggest advantages of a school’s website. You can make access to information, forms, events, payments, and student information available with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger 24/7, whether you are in session or not. When your customers, parents, vendors, and community can find what they need, complete required actions on their own time and without requiring your staff’s time, that is a big win-win for everyone. So, put it online. That includes providing forms that your school requires for enrollment, job applications, calendars (that they can often merge with their personal calendars with a few clicks), and much more. You’ll be providing excellent customer service and saving your school money and time.

Accessibility. Every year, the percentage of users accessing websites primarily from their mobile devices increases. How does your school website look and function when accessed from a smartphone? It takes some planning and management, so don’t ignore this aspect of your website. Also, speaking of accessibility, remember that the law requires your website to be ADA compliant and fully accessible to those with disabilities (and that includes PDF attachments, online forms, videos, and other 3rd-party sites that you link to for access to required information like grades). 

For more tips on what makes a good school website, check out these articles as well:

How are you using your school’s website?

So, the question is, has your school’s website changed with the times? Is it still a static “brochure” that only gets updated once a year when you post a new calendar or the occasional state-mandated notice? If so, you are costing your school thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars (in wasted staff time), and you are severely limiting your customer service opportunities.

Today’s parents, many of whom seem to have been born holding a cell phone in their hands, expect to be able to access the information they need anytime, day or night, make decisions based on the research they gather, and resent EVER being inconvenienced. You are doing a terrible disservice to your staff and your community if you are not taking advantage of all the services your school website (combined with social media channels) can provide. 

Even five years ago, I would often hear administrators say that their parents didn’t have the internet or cell phones, so their website wasn’t a critical aspect of their communication strategies. I call hooey on that today, no matter where they are located and what socio-economic population they serve. According to Pew, in 2018, 89% of all adults were using the internet. Parent usage of the students you serve is even higher with the usage of 18–29-years-olds at 98% and that of 30–49-year-olds at 97%.

Lifestyles have definitely raised the bar on how school communication takes place in today’s schools. By utilizing your website to its fullest advantage, you will make your job easier, earn higher trust, see increased enrollment, and improve your reputation (while saving staff time and school dollars). It is SO worth the effort. If it seems a bit overwhelming, just contact the experts. We’ll make it happen painlessly and affordably. 

If you aren't currently a School Webmasters' client, we also provide website management services for other CMS providers as well. So, contact us at 888.750.4556 to learn if we provide management and website update services for your platform and stop worrying about website accessibility issues or out-of-date website content!

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