At Learning First Alliance’s annual Leadership Council Meeting in Washington, DC, school leaders from districts, state DOEs, school boards, and the business community gathered to discuss managing communication challenges and solutions when rolling out initiatives like Common Core. One of the panelists was Nora Carr, who works as both the chief of staff of Guilford County Schools in North Carolina and is also president of the National School of Public Relations Association. Tech & Learning’s Christine Weiser sat down with Carr to get her tips on how to create and sustain a thoughtful school marketing campaign—during both good and challenging times.
TL: Tell me a little about Guilford County Schools.
NC: Guilford County Schools (GCS) encompasses about 650 square miles. It's a big county that includes urban, rural, and suburban areas. We serve more than 72,500 students K-12 and are the third-largest school district in North Carolina. GCS is a refugee resettlement area, so our students come from 95 different countries and speaks more than 115 different world languages. We have very diverse children in about as many ways as you can look at diversity.
We’re in Phase Two of our strategic plan, which we launched in 2012 and will conclude in 2016. (Phase One ran from 2009 to 2012). The major focus areas of that plan include overall excellence, high standards for all kids, excellence in academics, and focus on the whole child, including character development. The interesting shift for us as we move into this next strategic plan is really an emphasis on personalizing learning—making it truly one-to-one for every child, and how do you do that in a practical way that is meaningful for students and workable for teachers? You need to create an environment that is device agnostic. It's really not about the device or the type of tool that you use but it's really about how we take everything we know about education and learning and then individualize it for every student. This initiative is being bolstered by a $35 million Race to the Top grant.
Using this grant, we bought the Amplify solution and had a great initial launch, but then ran into some technical difficulties with the equipment and the software. More specifically, we were disappointed in the quality, durability, and safety features. So we’re regrouping, and Amplify has been working with us to deliver a more robust tablet that meets our specifications. We’re also leasing, which allows us to get newer technology into the hands of more students. We are staying with the Amplify solution because it meets and and aligns with our goals and also with our staffing patterns. We run a very lean central office. We have 126 different schools. Our resources are very school-based. So, the fact that this solution includes the curriculum, software, management tools, and the professional development still makes a lot of sense for us.
While we certainly never would have chosen to have the challenges that we've had this past year, in some ways, we've been able to make very good use of the additional time. Our staff has continued to work on the whole aspect of professional development and truly personalizing learning, of infusing that into the curriculum. In some ways, it's taken the focus off the device and onto the curriculum and instructional pieces, which is where it should be.
When we starting running into the glitches, we were very transparent about it. We had a media briefing about it. We sent extensive internal communication prior to the external announcement. We used mass notification systems to send messages to all of the middle school families district-wide. We tried to keep our community informed as we've moved along in the process. I think because we had been working hard for years to build trust within our community, we had built a reputation that whether the news is good, bad, or ugly, you are going to hear it from us first and you can trust that when we share information, it is accurate. This helped us when we made the decision to put the initiative on hold and began working with Amplify to make the needed adjustments.
TL: What would you recommend as some general starting points that a district can use when sharing its stories, whether good or bad?
NC: You can't look at communications as something you do at a point of crisis or when you need to pass a budget or when you have a hot topic like the Common Core. You really have to look at communications as an ongoing effort.
In education, so much of what we're dealing with is very complex, and it's very nuanced. Education issues don’t play well in a sound-bite world. So while you need to be proactive and you should be building relationships all along, you also need to look at communication as an ongoing program of work, not as a once-in-a-while campaign. You also have to find ways to simplify your message and be able to hone in on the things that people really care about. You need to explain education terms and jargon in everyday terms. I think that's challenging to do for anybody who's an expert in a particular field. I think doctors have a hard time doing that for patients. I think teachers and principals and school board members sometimes have a hard time doing that for parents. But we've got to find ways to bridge those gaps.
TL: What if you are a small school that can’t afford to hire a PR professional? How do you train the staff you have to find that sound-bite opportunity?
NC: First of all, I think everyone who's in education needs to be an ambassador for education and for our public schools. It's a shared role. I think more districts and schools are starting to realize this. If you look at your competition, such as charter schools and private schools, they typically have somebody designated for this. They might be called a “parent liaison” or “community outreach director” or “fundraiser.” But basically, there's a public relations component to all of these roles and districts are going to have to rethink this model. We need to start funding communication positions, and then make sure that these positions are placed high enough in the organization to be able to have real impact.
I also think that leadership needs to start with the principal at the school level and then also with the superintendent and top administrators at the district level. If you don't have expertise in this area, you need to pursue professional development. You can certainly do that through the National School PR Association. This is a great resource with lots of tool kits and resources.
The education profession, particularly K-12, has to get a lot more sophisticated from a communications standpoint. You just can't rely on what you learned along the way. It is a more sophisticated process and it takes more knowledge and expertise than it used to. School leaders need to recognize that and get the help they need.
There is extensive research about what works and what doesn't in communications, marketing, and public relations. There are some great models in business and industry. We need to apply those success stories to what we're doing in education. Ask colleagues at other districts that have a public relations person if they would share some information. That is one of the wonderful things about education—we are happy to share those resources. Check out the Institute for Public Relations; they have great write-ups about current literature and research in what works and what doesn't.
I think we accept that data is important in determining and driving instruction and looking at what we're doing from an operational standpoint, but we haven't quite gotten to that point on the communication end yet, and we need to. Data can drive communications, as well, and inform it through surveys and public opinion polls. Find out what awareness levels are there before you put together a communications program, and how that awareness changes afterwards.
Most communication goals are aimed at three things:
1. Creating or increasing awareness about something like the Common Core, for example.
2. Shaping some kind of opinion about that topic.
3. Creating a behavior related to that topic. So, in the case of Common Core, based on my community’s opinions, will my district adopt it or will I go to my state legislature and tell them to abandon it?
You also need to keep your communication clear and concise. It takes time to take complex issues and make the message simple. The best thing a district can do is to hire someone who can do that for you. If you can't afford that, try to share the responsibility. Work with teachers; work with parents. Sometimes you have parents who are very skilled in this. Bring them in. You can never have too much knowledge and expertise.
We have to learn how to market schools and build communications capacity in ways that we never had to do before. I think educators are a little uncomfortable with that. But they have more knowledge than they think they do; they just need to rethink their messaging. For example, take all this stuff you know about instruction and how kids learn and start applying it to how you communicate. You would never tell your teachers to use just one form of instruction, yet often we use just one form of communications, such as a memo or letter, and then wonder why we’re not getting a better response. Just as kids access information and learn in different ways, so do adults. We need to address all those different ways adults access and experience new information and ideas when we communicate.
Share those great PR moments with your families and peers. If you're having a virtual open house, tell the community about it. When the choir sings, that's a PR opportunity. Any time you have parents come into the school, take one or two minutes to promote what you're doing or share information on your Web sites or mobile technology or social media. Get other people engaged. Find your biggest advocates and empower them to tell your story. You've got to be willing to trust people to help support your efforts.