Social Media | In Print

How Districts Create Community Connections with Social Media

These days you'd be hard-pressed to find a public school district anywhere in America that hasn't made technology an integral part of its strategy for enhancing classroom learning. But when it comes to harnessing the power of technology to communicate with constituents--not just parents and students, but all members of a community--many are lacking.

That is beginning to change, as more districts realize that in an era of constrained budgets, communicating in a clear and engaging way with stakeholders about everything from the district's overall education vision to scholastic and extracurricular success stories can go a long way toward enlisting broad community support, financial and otherwise. And although face-to-face communications are as important as ever, technology provides a vehicle for reaching more people, more often.

"Districts should be using technology for communications much like they want schools to be using technology for instruction--as a seamless part of their approach to doing business," says Ann Flynn, director of education technology and state association services for the National School Boards Association.

"If local districts and school boards don't tell their story, someone else will--and it might not be the story they'd want to be told," says Mark Willis, assistant executive director for the Georgia School Boards Association, a leader in promoting web- and cloud-based technology tools to help local school boards make their work more transparent and easier for the public to engage. Initially developed by and for the GSBA, eBOARDsolutions is now a private company that offers products used by more than 180 local and state boards of education, state agencies, and other associations in 15 states.

Unfortunately, Flynn says, even when it comes to the most basic technology communications strategy--district and school websites--the approach is often antiquated. In some cases, districts will invest in a website solutions provider but not in the human infrastructure to develop a strategy tailored to the district's goals, or to regularly update the site.

"A lot of these templates have a place for a superintendent's message, and when you go to the site and click on that section, it will say 'under construction,'" says Flynn. Others make it difficult to communicate with board members, administrators, and even teachers by not enabling users to search for staff, or not listing e-mail addresses.

But that is not the case everywhere.

At Klein Independent School District in Klein, TX, for instance, the district website prominently displays a rotating series of photos that link to news releases. The photos are changed multiple times each week, providing readers with incentive to return to the site on a regular basis. A smaller image, which changes each time the page refreshes, showcases school activities such as student artwork and service projects. The site's menu is divided into three sections--Parents, Students, and Community--to facilitate easy navigation.

In the Peoria Public Schools District (IL), there were concerns about making the website the linchpin of the communications effort, given that the community it serves is highly mobile and mostly low income. Two years ago, the district's website had sparse information--board policies and contact information, but few updates. Working with Schoolwires, a company that offers web design, hosting, and consultation, the district began a concerted effort to draw people to the site, populating it with everything from board meeting minutes, policies, and calendars of events to surveys and news of achievements.

The results have been dramatic: an average of 80,000 visits a month, from a district with an enrollment of only 14,000 students. "Now we get calls from parents when information isn't on the site," says Chris Coplan, the district's director of public relations. The consistency of the look and feel of the sites from school to school within the district helps to ease the transition for students and parents changing schools. Emboldened by its success, Peoria has begun to implement additional technology communications initiatives.

In Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD north of Dallas, the district targets members of the real estate community, in part by directing them to a section of the district site called Why C-FB? "We know that, for prospective families moving into the area, their real estate agent is often the first contact for information about the schools, so we want to make sure they are informed about our programs and the high achievement of our students," says Angela Shelley, the district's director of strategic communication services.

Flynn makes the point that the district web site must go beyond providing information to facilitating interaction. "The web is no longer a flat piece of brochureware," Flynn says. "You can't just post your school lunch menu and think you've done your duty." At a minimum, she says, districts must make it easy to electronically contact staff. But many are choosing to go much further--posting surveys, encouraging a dialogue by leaving space for comments, and venturing into social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Social Approach
In Geneseo, IL, Superintendent Scott Kuffel of Geneseo Schools uses his own blog and the district's Facebook page and Twitter feed to share news, showcase programs, and invite a dialogue with members of the community. "We realized about five years ago that we needed to ramp up our web presence and be more proactive in meeting people where they now communicate," Kuffel says.

But more than merely a new place to deliver the same messages, Geneseo has sought to use the platforms to engage community members and seek input. Kuffel posts surveys and raises provocative topics in search of feedback--and the traffic that comes from keeping things interesting. "People like to know you really care about what they think," he says.

Klein ISD has recently stepped up its social media presence, posting "good news" stories on Facebook and inviting public comments. In the first year, the posts drew more than 3,000 "likes." At least one tweet a day is posted on Twitter, ranging from the cafeteria menu to news on a spelling bee or history-day event. The district recently hired a videographer and has begun posting on YouTube, whether it's an anti-bullying training program for teachers or a description of its international business program.

In Klein, parents and other community members are urged to subscribe to a daily e-mail message, KleINTOUCH, that highlights campus events and programs.

The best district sites go beyond standard announcements and calendars of events. "Celebrate the achievements," Flynn asserts. "Make sure the community knows about the good things you're doing." Increasingly, districts are using video to tell their story, including having a humanizing welcome message from the superintendent outlining the district's goals and vision. As smartphones continue to surge in popularity, Flynn notes, districts also need to start thinking about optimizing their web pages for mobile devices and creating apps to enable users to easily access the most salient information on their phones.

Too often, Flynn says, districts confine their communications to people with children in the schools--and then wonder why they lose votes on bond and tax measures. "With the vast majority of districts that are successful in getting funding from their community," Flynn contends, "it's because those districts have done their homework far in advance to build a connection."

In Carrollton, TX, the communications effort focuses heavily on building support with the 70 percent of community residents who don't have children in school. That includes the large population of seniors, many of whom have signed up to receive a weekly one-minute recorded phone call with updates on district-related news tailored to their interests.

And the latest target: parents of young children not yet in school. "We know they have a choice, and we hope they choose our school district," says Shelley. In addition to letting these parents know what Carrollton-Farmers Branch offers, the district is striving to become a valuable resource for parenting and other tips. A new section called Future C-FB offers such information, and the district has also begun targeting young mothers through the social photo-sharing website Pinterest. As part of its social media strategy, Carrollton-Farmers Branch also targets alumni and local businesses through Facebook and Twitter.

Geneseo's Kuffel suspects the digital strategy has contributed to support for some of the enhancements his district has sought, including successful drives to raise private funds for a softball complex and a trailer for the high school marching band. Moreover, he notes, "When we keep people aware of important programs, it means that if we ever need financial support through something like a tax referendum, the case we're making is not new to people."

"We have excellent public schools in Klein, but people in the community are typically hearing about failing schools across the country," says Judy Rimato, the district's assistant superintendent of communications and planning. "We are trying to change that conversation by educating the community about the programs in our schools and the success they're having academically and in character development."