Community Connections

It Goes Both Ways

The days of using the internet as merely a one-way supplier of news are over. With social media tools encouraging a back- and-forth exchange of information, parents, alumni, and other stakeholders can participate directly in the life of their school.

When Matthew Slaughter stood before a roomful of staff, community members, and former and current students at Minnetonka High School to receive the Distinguished Alumni award, the honor was not only his, but belonged in part to the effectiveness of a coordinated, integrated, multipronged online communication strategy.

Slaughter, associate dean of the MBA program and the Signal Companies Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, grew up in Minnetonka, a suburban city about eight miles outside Minneapolis. He reconnected with his old high school through the Minnetonka Alumni Association’s website, where he submitted his profile and provided updates on his career and personal life. The communications staff of Minnetonka Public Schools monitors the alumni page, as well as other web-based sources, looking for opportunities to recognize the successes of its former students and bring them back to the high school to describe their experiences.

The days of using the internet as merely a one-way supplier of news are over. With social media tools encouraging a back- and-forth exchange of information, parents, alumni, and other stakeholders can participate directly in the life of their school.

“Our district staff identified him,” says Janet Swiecichowski, Minnetonka’s executive director for communications, “and then we followed up with high school staff, asking, ‘Do you know him?’ They said, ‘Oh yeah, he comes back and visits all the time.’”

The district invited Slaughter to be honored at an alumni luncheon at the high school. There, he spoke of the well-rounded education and strong language arts background his hometown schools provided. “He’s a great point of pride for our community,” Swiecichowski says, “and one that we may have missed out on if it weren’t for our online communication efforts.”

Those efforts have centered on the alumni page, but are now extending out to the full slate of social media hotspots—pages on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn—as Minnetonka moves forward with amendments made to its strategic plan in 2008 that call for stepping up the use of online tools to engage the community and alumni.

What Minnetonka and other K-12 districts have figured out is the great lesson of the web 2.0 takeover of the last decade: The internet works much more powerfully as a two-way street than it does when information flows in only one direction.

“Today’s web is more than an electronic bulletin board,” says Peggi Munkittrick, senior director of product strategy at State College, PA-based Schoolwires. The company has developed a website and community management system that integrates a district’s online communication effort via a single, unified platform, using surveys, forms, blogs, and other features to bring a district in closer touch with its constituents. “As web 2.0 technology evolves,” Munkittrick says, “and as social media gets incorporated into more and more websites, a growing number of districts are taking the interactive route.”

Minnetonka was helped onto that path by a 2002 voter decision to provide the school district with technology funding over a 10-year period (the initiative was since renewed). That dedicated funding stream has enabled the district to expand its communications to such online tools as websites, podcasts, and video. The district is now in the midst of crafting a plan for the strategic use of social media technologies, Swiecichowski says, laying out what it intends to accomplish.

To date, usage has been strictly passive, monitoring what local media outlets are saying about the district on Twitter and elsewhere online. The hope is to commence tweeting this spring, when the plan goes before school board members. “As soon as they indicate that they’re comfortable with the plan we’ve proposed, then we’ll be ready to go,” Swiecichowski says.

But just keeping an ear on what’s being said on Twitter and other blogs has been constructive for the district. Recently, from reading the conversation online surrounding the resignation of a school administrator, Swiecichowski says the district learned that parents and community residents assumed the resignation was related to student conduct. “It had nothing to do with any of our students, but the rumors were out there,” she says. “Technology makes it so much easier for a district to listen.”

And to be heard. The district crafted a response to set the record straight, which was then posted online by the same media outlets that were hosting the inaccuracies.

It was the kind of involvement in the community that wasn’t attempted when
districts simply used the internet to distribute school news. But it’s now a standard way of doing business among K-12 districts that want to stay current. “We used our technology tools to hear what was going on, and then made a clear statement directly addressing the main issue,” Swiecichowski says. “It was very effective.”

This level of effectiveness, however, doesn’t come easily. Developing a strategy for using various web 2.0 media to get information to and from your constituents can be a cumbersome effort, requiring much more consideration than when district websites were mostly a useful place to post the cafeteria menu.

What’s needed, first off, is a careful
delineation of personnel, according to Peggy Buffington, superintendent of the School City of Hobart in Hobart, IN. “We’ve had to redefine who is doing what in relation to our website and information delivery,” she says.

First order of business: Who’s the webmaster?

For Hobart, it’s Buffington. She oversees the district’s web communications, serving as a conduit to individual schools. “I have a good pulse on what’s going on within the district,” she says, “so I usually feed the information to the administrative assistants.”

Buffington uses the web not only as a means of getting stakeholders’ feedback, but also to engage them in school issues, including critical budgetary matters. A few months ago she uploaded a PowerPoint presentation to the Hobart website that outlined the various state and local budget
issues facing the district, and then converted it to a PDF file for ease of use. She included her e-mail address in the presentation so parents and community members could respond, and invited all readers to attend an open online forum where the
issues would be discussed. Buffington saw an opportunity to get warm bodies to attend school board meetings and district forums.

“When they see in black and white what implications these budget reductions will have on the schools and their teachers, students, and programming, they’re more apt to show up at the meetings,” she says.

Needing to fill four school principal vacancies, Murrieta Valley USD put up a poll on each school’s website asking users: “What are the most important qualities that the principal must possess?”

To direct constituents to the website, Buffington sent out e-mail alerts to parents that notified them of the budget presentation and upcoming board meeting. She included hyperlinks to the PDF and encouraged parents to communicate their concerns. Responses soon started coming in.

“I had parents contacting me to tell me they appreciated the information, and asking how they could contact their legislators,” Buffington says. “Others wanted to know how they could support us, and let us know they were coming to the [next] meeting.

“By the time we got to the school board meetings, parents were saying, ‘Wow, I really understand this stuff now.’ Having that kind of feedback is simply invaluable, and
not always attainable by traditional means.”

Karen Parris, media and communications specialist at California’s Murrieta Valley Unified School District, has used a similar tack to get her district’s parents involved in important decision-making. In the past year, Murrieta has needed to fill four school principal vacancies, three due to retirements and one to head a new middle school. Through her district’s mass notification system (Blackboard’s ConnectEd) Parris placed phone calls to parents to let them know that their views on the selection of the new principal at their school was desired.

To generate that input, the district ran a poll on each school’s website asking users to address two open-ended questions: What are the most important qualities that the principal must possess? What are other important qualities to take into account when choosing a principal?

The poll drew great response, Parris says. “The replies ranged from single words—caring, educated, nice—to pretty in-depth recommendations.” Murrieta’s human resources department turned the feedback over to the principal selection committee at each of the schools, which incorporated it into the final hiring recommendations passed on to the district superintendent. “That’s something we never could have done without technology,” Parris says.

Only three years ago, such progressive,
integrated use of online communication tools wasn’t possible for Murrieta administrators. To that point, their relationship with their constituents was all give and no take. Correspondence was entirely one-way, occurring through a single website that was updated only occasionally. “We had no way to make quick updates to the site or to get messages out fast,” says Stan Scheer, superintendent of the growing district, which comprises more than 21,000 students spread over 19 schools. “The site wasn’t at all interactive, which prevented parents and other individuals from sharing their input on important issues.”

In 2007, Scheer and his team implemented the Schoolwires platform to allow the district to make more productive use of its communication efforts. It didn’t take long for Scheer to start seeing the value of the investment. “Website and community management became a central focus for us,” he says. “In fact, our site became the place for parents and community members to go find the information, resources, and services that they needed.”

Parris, whom Scheer assigned the task of heading up Murrieta’s online communication initiative, says the district has made liberal use of the system’s polling feature to involve parents in a number of issues and processes. “We have used surveys on our website in several different ways,” she says, including one last year in connection to a 21st century learning program for the high schools. The district also asked parents to weigh in on what should be incorporated into Murrieta’s strategic plan.

“We even did a survey, ‘What do you think should be the mascot at the new high school?’” Parris says, noting that the district got a little more feedback than it bargained for. “That was a bit much,” she says with a laugh. “A ram was ultimately chosen—it was one of the suggestions. Ugh, we got so many.”

But all in all, Parris says, interacting with the community online has delivered valuable feedback to district administrators and taught them an important lesson.

“It really gives you a sense of how well people think you’re doing, no matter what the topic is. If you give them the opportunity to answer an open-ended question, they’ll use it to express how they think the school is doing or the district is doing. It’s very informative. It’s amazing, people do really want to be heard.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of THE Journal.