Monday, August 19, 2019

Raising Your Public School Profile

Modern corporate education reform has, in its own way, helped reveal many things that public education does badly. Teach for America, for instance, probably wouldn't have been quite so widely embraced if it weren't that some college teacher prep programs are inexcusably awful.

And then there's the unleashing of free market forces.

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. Some choice advocates imagine a world in which families just check out the test scores for schools, but if marketing was about quality, we'd all have spent decades drinking New Coke while we watched movies on our Betamax machines. No, charter marketing has been more like the PA cybers that advertised that their schools would make students happier and leave them more time to become sports stars.

But the explosion of marketing in education has revealed another public education weakness-- many public schools really stink at letting the public know what they do.

When I retired, I was surprised at how quickly my former school district became invisible. I knew that being in it every day made me acutely aware of what was going on there, but I was still unprepared for how much the school does not communicate with the community at large.

A cursory check of schools in the region revealed more of the same. Websites that are strictly Web 1.0 (the equivalent of hanging a folder of brochures on a stick at the end of the school driveway). No social media presence (except on snow days). Not even a reliable place to go look up school events.

The problems that ensue are worse than simple invisibility, because nature abhors an information vacuum. I had bosses years ago whose first impulse was always to cover up, and it was always a mistake, not just because of the honesty and integrity thing, but because if you don't put your story out there, someone else will put some other story out there in its place.

Every town has always had cranks and complainers and a rumor mill; now cranks and complainers and gossipers have Facebook. Local media may be supportive, or they may not be supportive, or they may not even actually exist as local media any more.

Meanwhile, choice advocates are marketing hard. Not just the billboards and the advertising buys and the Facebook ads and the pamphlets, but face-to-face meetings. In my little corner of the world, a conservative group sent someone out to speak to the local Tea Party group about how to get out of paying taxes and fund private schools at the same time (aka Scholarship Tax Credits).

It is easy, when you're on the inside of a school district, particularly if it's not a large urban district, to feel as if everyone in the community knows who you are and what you're about. They don't. And that is on you as a school system.

I'm not suggesting that your district establish a big marketing budget; it's pretty damned hard to justify that use of tax dollars collected to finance education, and charter schools should be shamed for it. But you do need to redirect some of your human work hours to making your presence known in your community.

Note: this is doubly true if your administrators don't live in the community your district serves. If your community does not know your school leaders by sight, that will be a problem. Sorry, but they are the people who will attract the most complaints and issues, and there impact on your school's public face can be the difference between "She did what?! Figures-- all I ever hear about her is what she's done wrong now" and "No, I can't believe that. She sits next pew over in church. I see her shopping groceries all the time. Our kids play t-ball together. I don't buy a word of it."

Your school needs to have a presence outside the building. Your performing groups should be out there playing for non-school events. You should be actively looking for events and activities that involve taking the school to someone else's turf, not making them come to yours. And you should raise your profile and visibility beyond that.

Do you have a sharp, focused, pithy slogan? Get one. Hard to raise your profile with a default slogan like "East Egg School District: We have, like, you know, schools and stuff." Is your mascot image a blotchy mess that's a forty-seventh generation Xerox of artwork originally done in the fifties? Update that. Do you have your slogan, name and mascot slapped on every conceivable item that humans can buy, wear, drink from, or otherwise use? That's cheap and easy these days-- get it done.

So what can you do? Someone, or someones, on staff can take some of the following suggestions and run with them:

Maintain a school website with new content put right up front daily, especially big bold announcements of the next event and big beautiful pictures from the last one. Include links to all of your various social media accounts.

Maintain a Facebook account. Post several times a day. These do not need to be announcements; they can be pictures of students or classes, quick blurbs about class projects. Even neutrally professional articles about education stuff.

Maintain a Twitter account. Tweet multiple times a day with upcoming events, lunch menu, class projects. Make up awards (Best Socks Tuesday, Sweetest Cookies at Lunch, Best Interpretive Dance Version of the Periodic Table) and post about the winners (daily is not too often).

Maintain an Instagram account. Take pictures. Post them. My old school used to have a student Instagram club, and it was awesome.

Set up a YouTube channel. Post clips of your performing groups and sports teams (observing pertinent copyright laws). Share them.

Give somebody the job of managing news releases. It should not be an outside hire, but someone who is already in your system, preferably a teacher. Something should go out to local media at least once a week (if you have any).

All of these should be managed by somebody inside the system. First, because they already know what's going on, who's doing what, etc. Second, because the inside knowledge and relationships will mean they can do this without having to pester staff and make more work for everybody else in the building.

Yes, you'll have to manage the legalities of using student images. And no, none of this will gain traction overnight. And yes, maintaining social media accounts on a daily basis can sometimes feel a great deal like drudgery. And depending on your locale and audience, what works will be somewhat hit and miss.

But if you do nothing--well, the inevitable negative stories will blow up and the small positives will languish in obscurity. Meanwhile, your competition is pick pick picking, not just at the families with school age kids, but at the taxpayers who can either support or oppose legislation that will enrich the privatizers (thanks to cyber schools, in some states this is also true in rural customer-sparse areas in which other charters are uninterested). You do not want to wait for the day when yet another ax falls and when you go to the public for help, the childless taxpayers of your district shoot a puzzled expression and ask, "Do I know you?"

The days are gone when a public school system can just sit back and assume that everyone knows what they're doing, what they're about, and what kind of job they're doing. That's not a bad thing--some schools have gotten lazy about it. But they can't afford to stay lazy any longer.

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