Before you Send That Email, Tweet, Record That Message…

Person plugging their earsCrises are incredible opportunities to use communication to strengthen relationships with stakeholders.  In the midst of COVID-19 and the drastic changes to the educational landscape, I’ve been watching my fellow California School Public Relations Association and National School Public Relations colleagues rise to the challenge to inform parents, staff and the public about school closures, free meals, distance learning, mental health tips and resources, community resources, and ways that their staff are going above and beyond the call of duty.  And, in some cases, superintendents and support staff are being thrown into implementing crisis and ongoing communications tactics in ways they never have before.

They’re also competing with an onslaught of communications from businesses and other organizations that are also communicating what they are doing to keep customers safe, business and product delivery options, and well-meaning free approaches to keep children, teens and adults entertained, in good health and more.

It’s enough to saturate any audience member.  This also creates the real and huge risk of audience members tuning and checking out, scanning information quickly, and missing the important details.

Now, more than ever, it’s imperative for communicators to lead their organizations in strategic communication planning and implementation.  This process is a cycle of the four step PR process: Research, Planning, Implementation, Evaluation.

More communication is not better.  More tactics won’t help you reach your audience members. Targeted, strategic, well-messaged communications and tactics are what will allow you to be effective in reaching your audiences, and continue to increase and retain audience trust, and ensure your audience members are doing what you want them to do.

Because I will assume that you have already implemented your communications tactics, we’re going to begin with Evaluation, which is the fourth step in the 4-Step PR process.  Typically, you’ll start with Research.

Step 1: Evaluation

I know it seems odd to start with the final step of the 4-Step PR process, but as I previously mentioned, this is a cycle. Most likely, you’ve already implemented the first three steps, but you probably haven’t had an opportunity to come up for air and evaluate. Evaluation is answering the questions “How have we been successful?” “How can we do better?” and “What do we need to adjust moving forward?”

Here are a couple of examples of what to evaluate: 

  • Environmental Scan: Evaluate where your organization is in this crisis.  Most likely, your schools have been closed for at least one week, and distance learning plans are in place, and possibly implemented. Ask yourself whether daily (or twice daily) communications are still necessary, or if you can reduce communications to 2-3 days per week.
  • Engagement, Click Throughs/Opens, Phone Message Logs: Review your social media engagement, email click throughs and open rates, and phone message logs.  What patterns do you see? Are you seeing a dip in email open rates and click throughs later in the week?  What questions are being asked on social media?  Are your videos being viewed? What kinds of comments are being made?  Take note of what seems to be engaging people the most, what questions need to be answered in FAQs, and other data that will help inform your future communications.  Also, anecdotal feedback from audience members can be incredibly valuable.

Step 2: Research

Research essentially defines the problem. From the evaluation process, what problems have you uncovered?

  • Who do you want to REACH? Are you reaching your audiences effectively, or are there holes?
  • What do you want them to DO? Are your audiences acting/reacting in the intended ways from your previous communications, or do you need to provide clarification and/or other communication avenues (i.e. Setting up separate Facebook or Twitter profiles for answering IT questions from parents, staff)
  • What messages do you want to communicate to each public that will encourage desired behavior, increase knowledge and change attitudes? Review your previous messages—are they working, do they need to be tweaked?

Step 3: Planning

The Universal Accreditation Board outlines a 10-step PR plan (which I also use with my clients) that will work for any situation.

  1. Goals: This is a state of being that you want to accomplish through your communications. Example: “For every audience ABC School District audience member to clearly understand what they should be doing during COVID-19 school closures and how the District will support and serve as a resource for families and employees.”
  2. Target Audiences or Publics:
    • Who needs to know or understand?
    • Whose advice or support do we need?
    • Who will be affected?
  3. Objectives for Those Audiences:
    • Objectives are shorter term.
    • Define what behavior, attitude or opinion you want to achieve from specific audiences, how much to achieve and when.
    • Think in terms of the awareness, attitude or action you desire – the end result.
  4. Strategies
    • The road map or approach to reach objectives.
    • Do not indicate specific actions.
    • Use verbs such as demonstrate, collaborate, etc.
  5. Tactics: These are the specific activities conducted to implement strategies of a program.
    • How you will use your resources to carry out your strategy and work toward your objectives.
    • Examples: Meetings, publications, news releases, websites, billboards.
  6. Activities: Specific activities required under your tactics to carry out strategies.
    • Informal plans often jump from objectives to activities.
    • Vehicles or channels you will use to communicate are listed here.
  7. Evaluation
    • How will you know if you are reaching your objectives?
    • Measurement? Observation? Opinion? Feedback?
  8. Materials: What do you need to implement/execute your tactics?
  9. Budget:ƒ Out-of-pocket costs, staff time, volunteer energy, transportation, images, materials, fabrication, etc.
  10. Timetable and Task List
    • What does what and when?
    • Work backward from deadline or forward from start date

STEP 4: Implementation

Implementation involves actual messages sent through the communication channels and tools you will be using, and includes monitoring tools for execution. And then, once you have implemented your plan, then you will come back to evaluation.

Remember, this is a process and a cycle. But it is effective, and it works.

If you haven’t implemented this approach previously, it will likely feel cumbersome to go through these steps, particularly if you are already feeling overwhelmed.  However, this will become like second nature once you’ve gone through the process.  You will likely uncover ways to be more efficient and effective in your work, as well.

Have questions? Need clarification?

I’m always happy to hop onto a call to help answer questions and guide you through the steps.  Feel free to contact me at 916.673.8868 or hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net. We’re in this together and we’ll get through this together.

 

 

 

A Special Note About Being Open for Business

Open for business signWhen I opened Sounding Board Marketing & Communications 10 years ago, I always intended for my business to provide mostly virtual services to my clients.  During this time of school closures, I’m still providing the same, strategic and creative services for my clients so that they can stay connected with their district’s families–employees and parents–through all of their communication platforms. As a parent of three and wife of a his teacher, I am on the receiving end of the messaging being sent by my children’s school district and I’m on the observing end watching my husband find ways to connect with his students.

Whether you need content development for messaging, a roadmap for communications for the next few weeks, or ideas for keeping schools and teachers connected with families, I’m here to help.  As always, my mission has always been to help educators strengthen their relationships with their stakeholders, and never before has this been more important.

Feel free to send me an email at hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net or give me a call at 916.673.8868 if you want to talk through your communications, or if you need a sounding board for ideas you’re already considering.  I’m here when you need me.

All the best,

Heather

#BetterTogether: High and Low Tech Ways to Stay Connected With Students, Families

Fellow educators—well, we’ve certainly had a fun couple of weeks, right?  It’s an understatement to say that the coronavirus (COVD19) has rocked our worlds.

Virtual High FiveWhile you’re still in the midst of determining how your schools can continue to deliver education to your students, staying tuned for more emerging details (including how long your schools will need to remain closed, whether standardized testing will proceed, etc.), and feeding your most needy students, there is something that will remain constant: your relationships with your students.

First, while parents are in the process of learning how to home school their children, as educators, you are likely grappling with a number of emotions, and the first is probably missing your students.  While scheduled school breaks offer a needed reprieve from work duties, and leave you feeling energized when you return to the classroom, this unexpected (and undetermined) break has likely filled you with some anxiety, possibly some depression, mourning, and has also taken away a huge part of your daily purpose. All of these feelings can sap creativity and drive, and my hope is that the ideas I’m offering in this post will help inspire you and bring a little spring back in your step.  Whether you’re a school principal or a teacher, your relationships with your students is what is at the core of why they succeed, why they want to be lifelong learners, and why you’re an amazing educator.

How do you keep relationships with students going when schools are closed?

I’m going to spend the next few weeks curating some of the best ideas that will likely emerge across the nation, but I wanted to share some ideas with you now, in case it may help with your current efforts.  And, because your parents and students have varying access to the internet and computers, I’m offering both high and low tech approaches.

Something to note: A lot of parents have smart phones…they may not have computers or wifi, but in a survey that I did of a high poverty district in California, 95% of the parents had smart phones.  Based on comparing notes with other school communication colleagues, this number is consistent across the state.  So, at the very least, most parents have some kind of access to online technology, but it’s also important to keep in mind the other 5% who do not.

Keep following this page for updates, and check in on my social media pages for more ideas.

Low-tech ways to stay connected with your students

  • Call them!  A personal telephone call is a great way for your students to get a personal touch from you, and for them to hear your voice.  It’s also a great way to check in with parents to find out if they have access to computers and wifi to determine ongoing tech needs.  If you’re comfortable, ask your students to give you a call, if they need to talk.  You may have some students who are in home or life situations who found school to be a necessary escape, and may need to have that check-in with you. Also use this as an opportunity to remind students and parents about community and district services that are available to provide food, health and other services.
  • Write them a letter: As long as mail delivery continues, writing your students a letter will be a wonderful, unexpected surprise in their mail box.  Check in with your school site or district regarding mailing the letters or getting reimbursed for your personal costs.
  • Email: A weekly/biweekly email to your students and their parents is a great way to stay connected.  Provide them ideas for continued learning and share some fun things you’ve been doing at home.

Hi-tech ways to stay connected with your students

  • Videos: Consider using video to do the things with students that involve you at the front of the classroom—for TK and kindergarteners, this could be your welcome time (weather, counting, letter of the day, etc.) and reading a story, for lower grades, this could be providing directions on art work/a project, reading a story, explaining math concepts, etc.  For middle and high school teachers, this could be some of your facilitated learning approaches and explanation of concepts. PE teachers, this is where you’ll rock: do a virtual dance party, show students how you’re staying active while school is closed, demonstrate the proper way to lift weights…the list goes on.
  • Video chat: For group video conferencing, SkypeHangoutsHangouts Meets and Zoom are good free options. Consider scheduling smaller group chats to keep the chat environment manageable. Ask your students to send you pictures, videos so that you can share them out with each group. Here is a list of a number of tech tools that will help with presentations, collaborations and chats: https://techagainstcoronavirus.com/

Community-building

  • Keep traditions going: Spirit weeks can go home with fun approaches that also engage social media—check out this example from Empire Oaks Elementary School’s PTA:

 

Empire Oaks Spirit Week image

  • Celebrations: Do you celebrate your students at school?  Don’t stop celebrating them because they aren’t there. Here are some ideas:
    • Provide parents some ideas of what they can do to celebrate their children-as-students at home.  Citizenship, helping others, and other character traits should continue to be celebrated, and in the trenches of these transitions, parents may need a helpful reminder that their children love being recognized for what they’re doing well.
    • Ask parents to tell you if their child is excelling at something so that you can verbally recognize them when you send a video or do a group chat.  For older students, ask them what they’ve been doing well so they can celebrate together.
    • Taking a page from the summer reading programs, have your students/parents submit a reading log and recognize students who have read for the most number of minutes.  If you have permission to post this online, put together a social media post recognizing your top readers (Canva is an excellent, easy to use, and free program for this).  You could do the same with math and other subjects.
  • Class Stuffed Animal (good for TK, kinder and lower grades): Well, since the class stuffed animal isn’t going home, he or she is probably feeling a little lonely! Ask your students (with mom and dad’s help) to send pictures and videos of themselves with their stuffed animals, or schedule a stuffed animal video chat with a fun story.
  • A note about high school traditions: I’m not ignoring them, as there are so many incredible high school traditions focused on togetherness—proms, grad walks, senior breakfasts—and your students, especially seniors, are likely feeling deep disappointment about the possibility (or reality) that those events will be rescheduled or even cancelled.  If you’re already cooking up ideas on how your school will be approaching this, please provide those ideas in the comment box, and I’ll also add those ideas to this post.

Note to School Districts: Don’t stop celebrating your schools and staff because of school closures.  Ask teachers, staff to send you pictures, videos of what they’re doing and curate those examples into stories about how your district is continuing to educate and keep your school communities connected.

These are just a few ideas, and I’ll continue to collect more.

Please leave some of your favorite ideas in the comment box or on my social media, and I’ll add them to this post!

 

 

Attendance Campaigns: Why Messaging Matters

Recently,Attendance Campaign I began the process of strategizing a year-long attendance campaign for a K-6 school district client.  I’ve seen a lot of attendance campaigns over the past 14 years since I first began working in K-12 public relations and communications.  And there has been one common theme: Numbers. “You COUNT!”  “Everyday COUNTS!” “Every student COUNTS!” And then there is often some kind of reference to money for schools and attendance.

But, when you really look at the reasons why students are chronically absent, then you’ll understand why this messaging doesn’t really motivate or resonate students or parents, and in fact…it’s really quite tone deaf.

According to Attendance Works:

“Children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent—and face the most harm because their community lacks the resources to make up for the lost learning in school. Students from communities of color as well as those with disabilities are disproportionately affected. This isn’t simply a matter of truancy or skipping school. In fact, many of these absences, especially among our youngest students, are excused. Often absences are tied to health problems, such as asthma, diabetes, and oral and mental health issues. Other barriers including lack of a nearby school bus, a safe route to school or food insecurity make it difficult to go to school every day.  In many cases, chronic absence goes unnoticed because schools are counting how many students show up every day rather than examining how many and which students miss so much school that they are falling behind.

So, why do attendance campaigns continue to use “counts” in their messaging?

Communication campaigns around attendance should and can take a comprehensive approach to address the core issues around chronic absences, and the messaging–and campaign theme–should support this.

Among other things, attendance campaigns should:

  • Utilize relationships within the school community and supportive messaging–not legal sounding letters or automated-sounding phone calls–when reporting chronic absences to families.  This may include identifying ways to utilize two-way communication with families in order to discuss and develop supports and resources for families facing challenging situations that prevent their child from attending school regularly.
  • Provide parents resources and information on available school site health care and facts around regarding when a child should (and should not) stay home from school with an illness.
  • Remind parents of the school’s free and low cost meal options for their child, as well as transportation options.
  • Incorporate holiday reminders and return to school incentives.
  • Use praise, positive, recognition and incentives for attendance improvement and excellent attendance.
  • Connect attendance messaging to messaging about academic achievement and student success.
  • Clearly communicate that each student matters.

 

Did you notice that there is nothing mentioned about ADA (Average Daily Attendance), school funding, numbers…or COUNTING?  That’s because this kind of messaging doesn’t do anything to address barriers to attendance, and only identifies students as numbers.

Let parents know that their child matters, that you care for their child as a whole person, and reassure them that your school will support their child’s needs so that they can be successful in school and life.  After all, that’s what educators are there for, right?

Essential Content That Every Teacher Should Have on Their Website

We are in the communication age—as such, most people will first seek to find information online.

Websites are an excellent way to provide information to parents in a 24-7 format, which saves you time in the long run.

Websites can be a natural extension of your classroom where worksheets can be downloaded, homework information can be posted, reminders and important dates are available, and more.

Tips for Success

  • Keep your content updated—this will encourage parents to visit more frequently.
  • Use images and photos to bring life to your website.
  • Let your personality shine through on your website, but balance this with professionalism.
  • Clearly communicate information in a succinct and easy-to-find format

Teacher Website Content Checklist

  • Welcome message (on home page)
  • Classroom Wish List
  • Student Supply List
  • Back to School Night Presentation (saved as a pdf so it can be downloaded)
  • Parent Teacher Conference Information
  • Daily Schedule
  • Classroom Policies and Expectations
  • Teacher Newsletters: Your website is a great place to keep an archive of these for the year so parents can easily re-locate the information
  • Grade and Homework Policies
  • Clearly labeled assignments (and downloadable assignments, where possible). Note to secondary teachers: organize this by periods/courses
  • Important Dates/Events
  • Link to School Calendar
  • Resources (based on the subjects you teach)
  • Helpful Websites

15 Back to School Content Ideas

School is back in for some school districts, and for others, the first day of school is a couple of weeks (or a month) away.  Planning Back to School messaging helps to save your office staff time answering the same questions that every parent is asking, and provides ways to build enthusiasm and excitement about the first days and weeks of school.  It’s a win-win for customer service, too!

Here are 15 Back to School content ideas that you can use on your website, newsletter, and social media–and yes, you should be posting to all three!

  1. Introduce new teachers, staff hired at your site, and any staffing changes
  2. Schedule of welcome back to school activities: when teacher assignments will be revealed, back to school coffee, special reading time for kindergarten students, etc.
  3. Remind parents when the first day of school is, and the beginning and ending time.
  4. Let parents know where to find useful school information: URL for Parent Portal, your school website.
  5. Orientation/Back to School dates–and include the URL to the webpage with this info
  6. Link for Transportation Department. “Find out bus schedules, fees, bus pass application, etc.here: URL for transportation department”
  7. Post first day of school photos!
  8. Back to school night dates, times at your school
  9. After Back to School Night, post pictures and/or video from Back to School Nights (showcases parent engagement, involvement)
  10. Info about free and reduced lunch and a link to the application
  11. Principal’s welcome back message
  12. Alternative Income Eligibility Form: “One simple form could increase funding for your school. Completing this form ensures more state funding for your school so your child can receive more student services!”
  13. A lot of schools have a Cool2BKind Week in the first month of school–share the dates and activities
  14. Picture day info
  15. Safe drop off and pick up tips

Back to school is also a good time to remind your teachers to update their web pages with key pieces of information.  Click here for more tips!

Build Trust, Support Through Great School Bond Project Communication

Today, I’m so excited to launch a couple of awesome outreach efforts for one of my school district clients: one is a bond measure project communication campaign and the other is developing the district’s business partnership program.

I’m thrilled that each of these outreach activities will produce incredible outcomes for this client:

  • Increase transparency
  • Share the district’s story with the greater community
  • Exhibit the positive outcomes of the community’s investment in student learning
  • Engage local businesses in supporting and investing in student success
  • Showcase the value of public schools
  • Increase community trust and support for their community schools

I want your district or school to experience the same outcomes.  As much as I’d love to cover both of these topics in one post, they’re different enough to warrant their own attention.  So, in this blog post, I will provide you some key approaches to consider with school bond project communications—in a later post, I’ll outline the components of successful business partnership programs.

Elements of Great School Bond Project Communications

The first assumption that many school districts make is that if people are curious about school bond projects, they’ll just visit the school district website.  After all, there must be some reason for all of the dirt and construction trucks, right?

Keeping the community appraised about school district bond projects is more than posting pictures of construction updates—the community needs to know the story about what is happening in those upgraded facilities, what outcomes are being achieved, and how students are benefitting from safer, modernized schools.

Here are some key elements that should be included in effective school bond project communications:

Plan Ahead: Effective Communications Takes Planning

  • What big story do you want to tell about your bond measure projects?  Develop story content that supports your broad story, and then map out what stories you want to communicate about your bond projects over the next year and throughout the life of the bond.
  • Take a look at your opportunities to get in front of your audiences—do you have any upcoming events (either district-planned or ones that you are attending) where you can share an update about your bond measure? Map out all of your audiences and potential touchpoints. Be sure to incorporate these opportunities into your overall communication plan.

Take an Integrated Communication Approach:  Don’t Put All of Your Communications Into One Basket

  • Diversify your approach to maximize opportunities for your audience to see your stories.
  • Printed mailers, video, website content, and social media together are key to ensuring that these stories are reaching and being shared by your various audiences. Engage your email communications through providing bond updates in your employee, district and school newsletters.
  • Make sure you’re planning your content topics so that they all weave into a cohesive story about your bond measure’s successful outcomes.

Be transparent: Communicating Key Pieces of Information Builds Trust

  • Communicate the dates when certain major construction activities will be occurring, especially if those activities will impact road or sidewalk traffic, if delays might impact students access on campus, and if noisy portions of the project might affect the community.
  • Post the projects’ timelines on your website and in longer mailing pieces.
  • Make sure that key communicators in your district office and the school sites have talking points and information about the projects so that they can answer questions in person or over the telephone.

Remember, people are wary gaps in information (which they will seek to fulfill with whatever trusted individual will provide information, whether the information is correct or not) and they are appreciative of transparency.  People are also less likely to complain–when they receive a fair warning of adverse aspects of your projects, or if project delays occur.

Communicate Outcomes—Not Just Processes

Beyond the brick and mortar walls and fancy new equipment, what will the community’s investment in your schools achieve?

  • Capture stories and testimonials about positive student outcomes, safer schools, how modernized classrooms are helping teachers to improve the quality of education, how upgraded technology is leading to improved student outcomes—these are the reasons why your community supported the bond measure, so be sure to let them know the return on their investment.
  • Of course, the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies are a couple of obvious stories, but after the projects are completed, don’t assume that the story is over.  Showcase how the new science labs are being used by your students—and obtain some great testimonials to go along with it.
  • Be current and engaging: before and after pictures are a dated approach—time lapse videos are exciting and will engage your audience.

Remember, communication is about advancing your district’s relationships. Maintaining a strong, positive, and transparent relationship with your community regarding the millions of dollars that they are investing in your schools will pay off in dividends in terms of trust, reputation management, and even helping to secure taxpayer approval on future bonds for your district.

Does your district need assistance communicating your bond measure outcomes?  Contact us to discuss how Sounding Board can help your district share its compelling stories about how your community’s investment is generating positive student outcomes.

Have a blog post suggestion?  We love creating posts that will help you advance your organization’s marketing, public relations and communication objectives . Give us your feedback here.

 

Demystifying the kindergarten experience: Yes, it’s still fun!

kindergarten students

Kindergarten…it’s a time filled with memories of the smells of paste (who wasn’t tempted to eat it at one point in time), imaginary play (house, anyone?), learning how to sit still (I still remember my yarn place on the floor), and listening to stories.  I remember learning how to use scissors, writing letters, and even learning how to read.

Over the past couple of years, a number of stories about kindergarten have made their way around social media—many with a negative slant about the state of kindergarten in our nation, calling it “too academic” and with calls for more “play based learning”. I’m not arguing that play-based learning isn’t important, but such stories bring up images of  five and six year old children sitting in straight-backed chairs, repeating times tables and engaging in rote memorization activities.

As a mother of three children ages 13, 11 and five, I have struggled with these stories, particularly as I interact with younger mothers who have not had experience with the school system yet, and are afraid that kindergarten will suck the joy of learning out of their children.  These stories don’t align with my children’s kindergarten experiences from 8 and 6 years ago (my youngest starts kindergarten next year).

As a marketing and PR consultant for school districts, I also felt like these stories were off base—I have walked through a number of kindergarten classrooms throughout the state of California over the past few years and have found children engaging in art, some academics (for the record, children actually do enjoy learning things like math, science and letters…and savvy and creative kindergarten teachers make this learning fun and engaging), with a balance of play time and lots of social emotional learning time where students discover different ways to manage conflict, make respectful and responsible choices, and learn how to be independent and interdependent in different ways.  This hardly sounds like the stuff that would break children’s sweet spirits or ruin their love for lifetime learning.

Yes, kindergarten has changed over the years, and no, I’m not blind to the fact that every child’s and parent’s story will be different–there will be some who have incredibly positive experiences, and others who have negative experiences…and then there are all the stories in between.

Yet, the PR and marketing consultant side of me desired to highlight positive kindergarten stories from colleagues in districts throughout the state of California. And guess what? Kindergarteners still get to have fun, move around, be creative…and they even get more hands-on learning experiences than we did in school!

Before I provide some great examples of kindergarten classes from around the state of California, here are some tips on how to turn around negative or false perceptions of the kindergarten experience:

  • Create videos of your kindergarteners in action: Video is the best way to showcase the experience of busy and active students
  • Hold a kindergarten parent information night: Rocklin Unified held an excellent info fair for TK and kindergarten parents, and included booths from the school’s library and other services. See the video here.
  • Provide kindergarten parents an opportunity to tour kindergarten classrooms: Parents want to see a kindergarten class in action so they can visualize their child in the classroom.  This can remove the mystery of “what will my child be doing all day?” from their mindset about kindergarten.
  • Appoint a school ambassador to answer incoming kindergarten parents’ questions: Find a current kindergarten parent (or two) and a kindergarten teacher who would be willing to be the point of contact for incoming kindergarten parents.  Although your office staff can answer questions, they don’t always have the comforting voice of someone with recent experience in that classroom.  Also make sure that these people are scanning local social media groups for questions from parents and providing accurate answers.
  • Develop a kindergarten welcome kit: In addition to registration information, include a “What to expect in kindergarten” and FAQ page, along with contact information in case parents have additional questions.  Take a poll of current kindergarten families and ask for some shareable quotes to find out what they wished they could have known about kindergarten, and make sure you include those answers in your welcome kit, as well as some great testimonial quotes.
  • Consider adding a “New Kindergarten Parent” tab on your schools’, district’s websites: Make sure parents feel welcome and can find information easily on your websites–include the info that you would include in the welcome kit, a video, tour opportunities, and contact information.  Include an inquiry form that parents can complete if they want more information or if would like to request a tour.

Note: Ensure that these resources and opportunities are available to parents a couple of months before kindergarten registration.

Here are some great examples kindergarten classrooms across the state!  Many thanks to Harry Katcher of Poway Unified School District, Jason Scholl (formerly of Los Altos School District), and Diana Capra of Rocklin Unified School District for sharing these examples from their districts.

Hour of Code-Poway Unified School District, Chaparral Elementary

Who knew kindergarteners could learn to code?  Well, when your teacher helps you learn how to use a BeeBot to move to pictures and letters, you get to have a 21st Century hands-on learning experience!

Kindergarteners learning to code

Picture used with permission from the Poway Unified School District.

 

Los Altos School District: Offering an active and engaging kindergarten experience

Check out this video to see how kindergarten students move, create, experience outdoor gardening, lead, and thrive in a nurturing kindergarten environment.

 

 

Rocklin Unified School District: Singing Kindergarten Teacher at Breen Elementary

Winter Hungerford, a Rocklin Kindergarten teacher, engages her students with music. Winter believes strongly in using music to engage all students in learning. She also believes music is linked to improved cognitive function, increased language development from an early age, and positive social interaction.  Click on the picture below to view the video.

Rocklin Unified School District: Valley View STEM Lab for Kindergarteners

Instead of doing self-made science experiments by eating paste, these kindergarten students get to learn about science in their own science lab.  Click on the picture below to view the video.

 

If you have some examples of how your district makes kindergarten fun, nurturing, engaging and an overall positive learning experience for your youngest students, please send me an email!

Launching a Communication Ambassador Program

Ambassador programs have long been a successful approach for membership building among chambers of commerce, churches, and other organizations, including private schools.  The primary reason why these programs are successful is because people are key to building trust with other people–and when people talk with someone they already know, the trust component is incredibly high.  Real people will always trump social media and slick marketing materials–but, those components are important tools to a successful ambassador program.

Important note: While your Communication Ambassador Program may be districtwide, your efforts will be focused at each school site.  Parents–and school site staff–are tied to a specific school, and they will be most convincing and compelling speaking from their direct experiences with that school.  Remember, your schools are what make up your district, and your district will be well-communicated and marketed if its school sites are excelling with communicating through engaged ambassadors armed with great communication tools.

Before You Begin

Get your communication house in order

  • Branding: Ensure that your brand is strong, both visually, in messaging, and in practice.
  • Timing: The worst time to launch your program is in the middle of a crisis, but your communication ambassadors can be an incredible resource in reputation management following a crisis (just make sure that you choose–and train–your participants carefully).
  • Communication Tools: Make sure that you have well written and designed rack cards or postcards for each of your schools, talking points, updated website content, and great social media posts. You want to make sure that every person’s touchpoint with your communications is consistent, well-messaged, and visually appealing.

Set your goals

  • Define what you want your communication ambassadors to accomplish and measurable goals:
    • Do you want to reach your feeder schools, neighborhoods, churches, community organizations, realtors, and your internal community?  Do you want to facilitate a steady stream of parent reviews on sites such as Facebook, Instagram and GreatSchools.com sites, and active engagement on social media?  
  • How will you know you are successful in these efforts: Make sure you define success in each aspect where you want to engage your communication ambassadors.

Decide who you want to approach as ambassadors

  • Parents: Parents are easy to target for some districts–and this may be a huge challenge for others.  Ensure that your parent ambassador base reflects your district population ethnicities, languages, income groups, and cultures.
  • Staff: Staff members’ roles as ambassadors might be different than those of parents, with some cross over (such as talking points, social media engagement,reaching out in the community).  Consult your district’s employee contracts and agreements, to determine whether their role as an ambassador may be considered voluntary or as part of their regular responsibilities.
  • Great communicators: In whatever language they speak, your ambassadors need to be great communicators who are also willing to further your district’s and schools’ messages and talking points.
  • Trustworthy: Remember, these people are an extension of your district and its schools.  When identifying participants (see more information below), ensure that you also understand peoples’ motivations for becoming an ambassador–if you sense someone has selfish or political intentions, steer away from approaching them.

Engage your principals

Your school site principals play a key role in the success of the ambassador program.  Engage them early in the goal setting and ambassador selection process.

Identify participants

A Communication Ambassador is a selected member of the your district’s affinity-building team. Chosen because of their passion for the schools, credibility among peers, connections in the community, and desire to advance the school and district, Communication Ambassadors are instrumental to expanding the reach of the school and district in the community, growing school enrollment, and increasing affinity among parents currently in the district.

Work with principals and directors in your district on helping to identify these individuals.

Invite Participants to a Launch Meeting

Once you have identified your ambassadors, you will want to invite them to a launch meeting. You will want to send a personal invitation to the parent and then call to follow-up. It is important for them to know that they are not committing to this program for life. It is always a good idea to include a description of the communication ambassador program so that the invited participants have a basic understanding of what to expect.

The meeting should be informal in nature, such as a brunch, lunch or BBQ, and schedule meetings in the morning and evening to accommodate parents’ schedules. The key is to schedule what works best for your district and parents.

Inspire Communication Ambassadors at the Meeting

During the launch meeting you will want to inspire the participants by sharing with them the importance of their role as word of mouth ambassadors. Realizing that they are already in the role of an ambassador, your goal is to increase their involvement intentionally in key areas.

Every communication ambassador will be encouraged to “nudge” two to three friends to consider the district’s schools. In addition, every communication ambassador will help with open houses and mentoring relationships with new families.

Initiate Efforts in Focused Areas

Remember the goals you established? Once you have inspired your communication ambassadors and discussed the roles mentioned above, you will want to highlight other areas of focus. Communication Ambassadors can help you reach your feeder schools, neighborhoods, churches, community organizations, realtors, and your internal community, as well as help to facilitate a steady stream of parent reviews on sites such as Facebook, Instagram and GreatSchools.com sites, and active engagement on social media.

By highlighting these areas, you can ask your communication ambassadors to select an area that they would like to focus on during the year. Then, ambassadors will be able to form teams based on their area of focus to help you expand your reach in the community.

Involve Communication Ambassadors

Once you initiate the efforts of your communication ambassadors, you will need to facilitate their involvement throughout the year. However, make sure that you do not make your program about a bunch of meetings. Instead, the communication ambassadors can be encouraged to be involved in their area throughout the year through personal contacts and team meetings. In addition, it can work well to set up a closed Facebook or Google hangout group for your ambassadors to connect in real-time. You can use this as a tool to encourage their involvement throughout the year.

Need more help?

Need help launching your program?  Sounding Board can help your district with any or all of the steps with this process.  Give us a call at 916.673.8868 or email Heather at hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net.

We like to give credit where credit is due–this blog post was inspired by The Enrollment Catalyst.

 

Tips for Communicating with Families Experiencing Homelessness

The plight of children experiencing homelessness typically becomes front of mind for most people during the holidays.  During the months of November and December, giving trees, toy and canned food drives, blanket drives, and other types of resource collections abound, and many organizations benefit from individuals seeking opportunities for end of the year tax deductions.

Source: EdSource

Students and families experiencing homelessness are on the top of my mind, as well–but, for different reasons.  I am currently working with a school district client that has 25% of its students experiencing homelessness, and a couple of its schools have this rate at 38%.  This experience–joined with an increasing number of homeless children across the state of California, and the families displaced by fires in Santa Rosa/Napa/Sonoma–made me consider whether schools are doing enough to connect and communicate with families experiencing homelessness.  One cannot assume that the district’s regular communication channels will reach parents experiencing homelessness to ensure that schools remain connected to families in crisis.  For this reason, I pulled together several resources to develop these tips for school communicators, principals, teachers and administrators to use when communicating with families experiencing homelessness.  Your district should also have a staff member appointed as the homeless student services liaison, and they may also have additional resources.

Families experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness have unique needs that go beyond those of parents with secure housing. Families need security, trusting relations, positive mental health, and the key supports for functioning such as food and clothing. The key is supporting homeless families in achieving these needs without undue barriers. From a communication perspective, schools can streamline paperwork needed for registration or other input procedures. Further, through collaborative relations with other community groups schools can create effective but efficient channels for referrals or related supports.

Having interactive communication with families in continuous ways enhances this process of meeting needs and empowering families to take ownership of their lives.

Establishing contact with families who are homeless or in other high-risk situations is the initial challenge for educators. Some strategies include:

(1) Interagency links: Having connections with agencies in the community who are likely to have contact with homeless families is a starting point. Referrals, partnerships for training and resource sharing, and other such activities often highlight the needs of families who are homeless or at risk for becoming homeless. These contacts also provide a schema for planning together to meet these needs and to keep the community apprised of these needs.

(2) School and district initiatives: Through staff development efforts, use of school liaisons, school-community awareness activities, and promoting a family friendly school culture—the venue for reaching homeless families is strengthened.

(3) Teacher and staff observations and initiatives: Teachers and other school personnel have many opportunities to initiate contacts with children and parents who are homeless.

Lean on other experts

Source: EdSource

As a principal, you are not expected to be the expert about students or families experiencing homelessness.  Being empathetic and compassionate are two of the best approaches that you can take.  Utilize other experts and seek input from local liaisons, school counselors, and social workers about positive communication strategies and about statements and actions that may be perceived as offensive or threatening to a family experiencing homelessness.

Also, your students and families experiencing homelessness may be living or encountering situations that are not safe.  Talk with parents, students, and staff at the previous school about potential dangers, and develop a safety plan together.

 

Build their Sense of Self

Approach the parent in a way to builds their sense of self. Effective parents also need a strong sense of self. Studies have shown that a strong sense of self encourages nurturing and warm behavior in parent-child relations, which in turns promotes higher attentiveness, satisfaction and happiness in parents, and harmonious lives for both the parent and child.

Unfortunately, homeless parents face many stressors that erode their self-esteem and reduce their ability to parent effectively. Victims of harsh judgment, homeless parents have lost control of their daily ritual, often have a history as victims of violence and struggle with substance abuse. Many homeless parents lack socio-educational skills, literacy skills, economic and psycho-social control, positive parenting role models, and supportive adults.   Homeless parents will often avoid the “school culture” because of negative past experiences or fears related to their homeless situation.

Teachers, counselors, and schools can support parental self-esteem by:

  • Communicating in nurturing, non-judgmental, responsive, caring, empowering ways.
  • Involving homeless parents in identifying their needs.
  • Encouraging parents to stay positively involved in their children’s lives.
  • Working with shelters and other community groups to encourage activities that enhance parent self-esteem and increase community awareness.
  • Fostering a school culture that values parents who are homeless as important people in the learning community through school and district initiatives

Schools can:

  • Provide Adult Education: Provide adult education that enhances parental competence and confidence.
  • Offer Job Training: Partner parents with parent-mentors who support parents gaining new skills, educational and job training, linking them to empowering services.
  • Maintain an Online Log: Maintain secure, private online log records of family needs for teachers to share and report on specific needs they observe.
  • Accept Alternative ID: Allow for alternative forms of identification such as letters from shelters or motel receipts to facilitate quick entry into schools.

Suggested Activities to Engage and Communicate With Parents and Families Experiencing Homelessness

Discussion Group

Build trust through discussion groups with other parents or one-on-one conferencing.

Focus Group

Conduct focus groups with parents and observe the strengths of each parent. Meeting other families allows parents to see that they’re not alone and creates a forum to problem solve as a group.

Storytelling

In one-on-one discussions or group discussion, have parents tell stories about the things they enjoy doing.

Journaling

Have parents keep a journal that highlights their achievements and strengths. Have parents chart their most successful activities.

Guest Speakers

Have successful parents return to tell other parents how the program strengthened their skills. 

Interactive Journals

Service providers can communicate with partner parents through interactive journals which students take from home to school. Interactive journals give both parents and teachers a vehicle to understanding the child’s in-school and out-of-school lives while opening up gates of communication. 

  1. Provide a blank journal for the student.
  2. Ask parents to write notes to the teacher or provider in the student’s notebook on what happened with the child/student at home.
  3. Respond to parent’s notes by jotting down what happened at school that day. Possible notes could include: an interesting insight the student made, positive progress the student is making, an upcoming project that the class is working on, or an upcoming school or community event that the student may be excited about.
  4. Initiate regular “Love Notes” that let the parent know when their child accomplishes a difficult task, masters a specific skill, behaves well in a challenging situation, supports a peer, demonstrates kindness to others, or shows another positive skill or behavior.

Survival Kit

Work with parents to create “survival kits” with parent and child IDs, and school and medical records. Survival kits can help reduce stress when this paperwork is needed for school or other services.

Because homeless or transitional families struggle to keep track of their personal and school paperwork, creating a survival kit of important personal paperwork can help reduce stress for families and social services personnel.

  1. Provide a shoebox or other container for the student to store personal paperwork.
  2. Personal paperwork can include:
    • Documentation of recent medical check-ups.
    • Documentation of immunizations received.
    • Report cards from previous schools.
    • A birth certificate.
    • A social security number.
    • Names, addresses, and phone numbers of family members, both local and those who live in other locations (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, others).
    • A history of schools attended, places lived, friends at each place/school (with contact information), accomplishments in school, accomplishments outside of school.
  3. If student drives a car:
    • Driver’s license.
    • Car registration.
    • Car Insurance.
  4. If families no longer have this paperwork, work with students and families to identify the agencies they need to interact with in order to obtain the paperwork.
  5. If possible, assist families to complete the forms required to obtain the paperwork.

Sources:

Dill, V. (2015). Homeless–And Doubled Up. Educational Leadership72(6), 42-47.

Mohan, C. & Shields, C. M. (2014). The voices behind the numbers: Understanding the experiences of homeless students. Critical Questions in Education, Special Issue, 5(3): 190-202. doi

Swick, K. J., & Bailey, L. B. (2004). Communicating Effectively with Parents and Families Who Are Homeless. Early Childhood Education Journal32(3), 211-215.

Swick, K. J. (2009). Issues and Strategies Involved in Helping Homeless Parents of Young Children Strengthen Their Self-Esteem. Early Childhood Education Journal37(3), 183-187.

Total Number of Homeless Students Enrolled in LEAs with or without McKinney-Vento Subgrants – Total: 2013-14. Ed Data Express: Data about elementary and secondary schools in the U.S.http://eddataexpress.ed.gov/data-element-explorer.cfm/tab/data/deid/5353/sort/idown/

US Department of Education Press Release (July 27, 2016). Education Department Releases Guidance on Homeless Children and Youth. Accessed December 8, 2016 at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/education-department-releases-guidance-homeless-children-and-youth