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10 Steps in the Right Direction: Starting Each School Year Strong

It's not too late to make a lasting good impression. Whether your school has already begun or has yet to open its doors, there are some important topics that you should address to make sure you are starting each school year off right. Start strong by answering these 10 questions and implementing the recommendations below.

#1 Is school enrollment information available?

Many of your prospective parents will make enrollment decisions over the summer, but others will do it throughout the year. Your registration information should be very easy to find on your website. This is particularly critical for those parents who have pre-K age children getting ready for kindergarten.

Consider adding a link in a Quick Links area on your district office home page, as well as on every school website, called "Why Choose Us" (or insert your school name instead of Us). Make sure you include everything a prospective parent or student is looking for in this handy location. Include: forms they can complete online, the documentation you require for registration, tuition information and available scholarships, office hours, school hours, highlights of school successes, and testimonials from parents and students. Include links to each school's website so they can see the types of activities and events their child would have available. This type of information serves a two-fold purpose: You are providing excellent customer service, and you’re marketing the best you have to offer to parents making important decisions for their children’s education. Do it right and keep it current. It is often the first impression your school will make to prospective parents.

#2 What is your school social media kick-off strategy?

Create a strategy for your school social media platforms. What do parents and students need to know? What do they want to know? (These are often quite different, so address both areas). Include practical information, welcomes, community activities and events, local entertainment, and other local educational events. Highlight stories and evidence of the successes your students and staff are enjoying—as proof that you are achieving your goals and living your school's mission. Always link back to the website where they can find additional information to reinforce your brief social media post.

One of the keys to any successful communication strategy is to keep your focus on your audience needs (not just your needs). So, if all of your posts are reminders of what parents need to remember, you are missing an opportunity. Create posts that will highlight good news, fun stories, creative efforts, service projects, challenges overcome, and lessons learned to include as many needs as possible. Find opportunities to share and ways to encourage and recognize others, and your school social media will become a can’t miss communication channel for parents and students.

#3 What has changed this year?

Since you are in the thick of things, it is easy to overlook the fact that those outside of your school may be completely in the dark. So, be sure to let your parents, staff, and students know what changes have taken place in the past year. This information may include changes in school policies, graduation requirements, testing info, hours, bus routes, menus or pricing, holidays, state or federal policy changes, social media availability, etc.

It could be as simple as a friendly FAQ with a catchy title on your news page that discusses each change. Be sure to post it on your social media platforms and link it to your school's news page. Also, include the "why" for each change as well as the benefits to them and how it will affect them. Whether it is a change in the law, a cost savings, or you are implementing a change that parents or students have asked for in the past, part of effective communication is sharing the rationale for the change. We are all more willing to adjust to changes when we understand why we are being asked to do so.

#4 Who are your new staff?

Make this fun and inviting to read. What about spotlighting one new staff member a week on your website and in your social media? Ask new staff members to fill out a questionnaire that includes some fun questions about themselves as well as ones that will help parents and the community understand what passions and skills they bring to their role at the school. For example, in addition to the standard information like where they graduated or how long they have taught, ask a new teacher why she chose the profession of teaching or which of her teachers had the biggest impact on her when she was a student. Or, my personal favorite, ask her to tell about a favorite incident when she recognized the excitement in one of her students as they learned something difficult or overcame a challenge. Ask her to describe how that made her feel. Be creative so the spotlight isn't a boring old bio but something of a human interest story to which other people will relate.

#5 Are you getting to know your new parents?

During a back-to-school event or on the first day of school, consider offering a location to visit with parents; let them get to know each other, provide them with school information, serve light refreshments, etc. It could be the principal who is available to welcome parents and answer questions if it is during the school day, or include teachers and the principal and assistant principal if it is an evening activity. It is also an ideal opportunity to have parents complete a quick online or paper survey to find out what their concerns and interests are. Informative surveys can help you plan for future projects during the year as well as help you improve your school public relations moving forward. 

#6 Are you gathering stories?

Find and make opportunities to gather stories from staff and students about summer projects—work experiences, trips, competitions, projects. Then turn those into fun stories for the website and social media. This is a great back-to-school communication strategy that you can use for the first few months of each school year. If it becomes a tradition, students and teachers will begin to gather their stories for you. 

One way to approach gathering your stories is to ask for the teachers’ help during their first few days of school and make gathering student stories a fun school-wide project. The kids will love to share what they did or what they learned. Ask the teachers to share the exceptional ones with you to turn into a more comprehensive story for the website. To include the human interest side of the story, you could even conduct an interview with the student. Find out why the experience was useful or beneficial or memorable and if there is any connection to their education or how they feel the experience will influence their school year. The same applies to teachers and staff in their various roles.

Look for stories that focus on student achievement (not test scores) in which your school is helping students achieve their goals, learn new skills, and find their passions. Share experiences about your student support services and extra-curricular activities and how they are touching student lives. Stories in your students’ own words can be the most compelling ones to share. To get a few more tips, visit our blog about telling your school’s stories.

#7 Is your school’s website up to date?

Make sure it is current and informative. Take off all old information and out-of-date items. Update staff lists. Is everything included that you are legally responsible to post? Are school hours and bus routes current? Are forms updated? Have you posted a new message from the school's administrator welcoming everyone back? Are calendars updated and the lunch menu posted? Are you including some stories and events on your news page? Remember, your school website is your media outlet, so make sure there is some reason to come back frequently. Is the navigation intuitive and commonly needed information easy to find? Is the website layout attractive and easy to read with plenty of white space to make it enjoyable? Do you include the keywords that people use to find information on your school so when they search for you, your site comes up in their search results? Not having a current website is like having a retail store with no one there to greet customers, answer questions, or even let them in the door. The best school websites focus on engaging and useful information. Effective school websites = excellent customer service!

#8 Are you engaging your local media?

Your local media channels are always looking for ways to keep their audiences interested, so they usually appreciate being kept in the loop. Make it easy for them to share your information. Create a contact list of local print publications, radio broadcasts, local bloggers, chamber of commerce publicist, television and cable broadcasts, and any local print magazines that cover community news. Find out who your contacts would be and how they prefer you contact them. Let them know what kind of information you'd like to provide, and ask how you can best give them the content and background they can use. Include photos (good photos) for every article, press release, or story.

Your goal is to get them to include your news in their publications or outlet, so the easier you can make their job, the more likely you are to get published. In addition to schedules and calendar events, share human interest type stories, which are always a welcome addition in most media channels. Your news could include the successes and challenges your school community has faced. When you produce a video or informational flyer, be sure to send your media contacts a copy. Consider holding a press conference for a newsworthy event, making sure you focus on your media contacts, including them in your good news. Provide them with a press packet (summary of your news and any background information) and contact information to get further details or quotes, and serve some refreshments. Be sure that some of your key administrative staff is available as well. And don't forget to invite your media contacts to events like graduation, awards assemblies, science fairs, music and theater productions, athletic events, and even a prom or homecoming.

#9 Are you developing materials to market your school?

Plan to create some marketing materials for parents that will include the areas in which they are primarily interested. This information will vary, depending on your school and its offerings. But, regardless of your school type, whether private or public, you want to demonstrate, in writing, how your school lives its mission and goals. You'll want to describe your school's approach to student success and show what that looks like. You are trying to let parents see how your school fits with their child’s needs. Using testimonials from current parents or students is an excellent method for helping them envision their own child’s success at your school. Include photos that demonstrate your strengths and provide evidence of the ways you deliver on the promises of your mission or your marketing messages.

Regarding marketing materials with students in mind, consider spirit items with your school mascot or logo or slogans. Select items that your students would use every day. They not only show school spirit but are physical reminders to all their friends and family and are an excellent method of strengthening name recognition and branding.

#10 Is your website accessible to everyone?

There is a lot of focus lately on whether or not your school’s website is accessible to the disabled community. If you haven’t already taken steps to assure that you have an ADA compliant website, do so quickly. Not only are you likely to receive a complaint that can be costly (with attorney fees and compliance issues), but the bad press you will incur isn’t worth the delay. For more information, check out our blog on school website accessibility tips and how to satisfy Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Bring your school websites into line so that your information is readily available to everyone. 

In summary

Yes, that is a lot of steps to implement. But, don’t panic. Just pick one area every month to work on, and by this time next year, your school year kick-off will be welcoming, convenient, and productive—and you will have made a great first impression and built trust and confidence with your community. Good work!

Please share with us what school communication ideas you use to kick off the year well. We’d love to share your successful projects with other schools as well.

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