Oct 31 2006

Building Bridges

Educators need to reach out to parents and the community to build strong schools.

Catherine LaCroix

AMONG THE MANY ROLES EDUCATORS must play, being a diplomat to the local community may be the most challenging. But without consistent communication with parents and relevant community stakeholders, schools lose a vital part of their core.

Students are connected to the community and while “it takes a village” may seem trite, it’s a message that’s on target. Yet building those valued bridges to the wider community appears to be an ongoing issue for many schools.

What’s the best way to accomplish that? According to Sue Ferguson, chair of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education (NCPIE), a Fairfax, Va.-based organization that fosters partnerships between families and schools, educators need to take the first step. “Some schools reach out to the community and want an active interface going on at all times,” she says. “That’s because the principal has had some training or has the right instincts and makes sure that his or her staff does too. Many teachers reach out and work with families, but if you want it done on a schoolwide basis, that requires strong leadership.”

Eileen Kugler, president of Kugler Communications in Washington, D.C., and author of Debunking the Middle Class Myth: Why Diverse Schools Are Good for All Kids, found out firsthand that strong leadership was key to overcoming a potentially volatile situation.

When her children were ready to go to secondary school, she began hearing some negative things in the community about Annandale High School in Annandale, Va., where students come from 85 countries and speak 40 languages. However, people in the neighborhood who had children in the school had good things to say about it.

“As it turned out, the school was a wonderful place for my kids,” she recalls. “I felt it was worth fighting to build support within the community.”

The following year, the school’s leadership was put to the test when a fight broke out along racial lines. “The principal had an open community meeting about it,” says Kugler. “The meeting was well attended and [the principal] said, ‘We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure this school gets on the right footing. We’ll keep you informed.’” That approach impressed many in the community, and the principal kept his word.

The next fall, Kugler got involved in an outreach campaign to bring accurate information to the community. “A lot of people didn’t think highly of the school after reading the media accounts of what had happened the year before,” she says. “They weren’t hearing any of the positive things.” So Kugler began a campaign the way she would with any client: She created a strategic plan to go into the community and spread the word about the school. She looked at what the parents needed to know and what was the best way to reach them.

“The most important audience was people with young kids who were afraid and were moving out of the neighborhood,” she explains. “We felt that if they talked to people who already had kids at the high school, they would understand what was really happening.

“We held meetings and had parents talking to other parents about the realities of the high school. We went to the elementary school where these parents were comfortable and showed that we were willing to share information on their territory, so we had better results.”

According to NCPIE’s Ferguson, Kugler took the right approach. “It’s important to bring together a representative group and figure out what the community needs,” Ferguson points out. “It’s also important to encourage teachers and staff to get into the community, since there are some parents who don’t want to come to the school. Yet it’s important that parents know they are welcome at any time. If you’ve been in a school that’s family-friendly, you can really feel it.”

Building Communities Online

From school events to parent association meetings, many school districts communicate with parents via e-mail, phone messages and the Web. Communication in multiple forms generally gets the job done, most educators say. “That offers a tremendous opportunity to school systems to consistently have their message available to people who are their consumers,” says Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Pinellas County Schools in Largo, Fla.

Providing access to everyone is critical. “[The Web] is becoming our preferred method of communicating, but there are many folks in this community who are not tech-savvy or don’t have a home computer,” he points out.

That hasn’t stopped Wilcox and his team from making the district’s Web site the main source of information on district schools. “With 115,000 K-12 students and 35,000 adult learners, we’re able to brand our communications through the Web,” he says. There’s a huge online user base in the community: About 60 to 70 percent of parents are using the district’s Web site, Wilcox says.

Accessing grades online has also become popular. Warren Township High School in Gurnee, Ill., uses a Web-based, password-protected report card site that offers access to student records. Parents are issued a password by the school at registration, and that allows them to view grades for current classes, assignments that make up those grades, attendance for the past two weeks, teacher comments and other features, including school bulletins, meal balances and online course registration.

But that doesn’t replace direct communication. “You can’t think that everyone will always go to your Web site, since people have different information-gathering styles,” Wilcox says. “Some overlap will always be necessary. We can’t assume that if we put it [on the Web site], everyone will read it. It’s best to use a blend of communications to reach all parents.”

Judy Hurwitz, parent-community coordinator at Russell Sage Junior High School in Forest Hills, N.Y., works as a parent liaison, a recently formed civil service position in all New York City schools. Hurwitz has found that using tools like the programmable message system, SchoolMessenger, has helped her communicate with the parents of the school’s 1,200 students. “It’s more effective than sending notices home [with the children] that parents may never see,” she says.

Working as a parent advocate, Hurwitz regularly sits in on meetings with parents and teachers as part of a support system that’s brought positive results. “Many of the parents are very happy with the program,” she says.

Hurwitz has seen some improvement at the end of the second year of the liaison program. “The parents are getting accustomed to having a parent coordinator and will rely on us more and more as time goes on,” she says.

It’s an ongoing process, author Kugler says. “If you want to build strong diverse schools, you need to rethink how you’re going to build community support. For us, it took a year or two to build support.”

A decade later, Annandale High School was viewed as a model school. “Within a year or two, you can change a community’s view of a school,” Kugler says, “but it’s a continuing process.”

Catherine LaCroix is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.


When reaching out to the community, follow these guidelines:

Do view the Web as one element of a larger communications strategy.

Do blend communications strategies: Face-to-face conversations, phone calls, online communication and e-mail messages can help to cover everyone you’re trying to reach.

Do create specific areas on your site for parents, teachers and students.

Do keep navigation intuitive and easy to understand.

Don’t consider the Web and other forms of electronic communication as panaceas.

Don’t post a complicated document without search capabilities.

Don’t post sensitive information without password protection.

Don’t use complex graphics that take a long time to load.