BUILDING GOOD COMMUNITY RELATIONS

From Websites, to newsletters, to the notes stuffed in student backpacks, school districts across America are constantly trying to improve communication between parents and schools. This constant communication makes parents feel a part of the school and increases parental participation and support. Current research shows that students succeed when parents become engaged, making this a win-win situation for all. Following that same line of thought, it makes sense to say that schools will succeed when the community becomes engaged. The problem is, most districts only communicate with their community when they need something — like votes to pass a bond issue or a districtwide referenda.

How important is community support? Without the support of the community, public schools as we know them will cease to exist. Even if every parent with a child in school voted“yes,” issues placed on the ballot would lose by a landslide. The majority of people in the community do not have children in school. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2010, families with children will account for little more than one-quarter of all households.

This doesn’t mean that the school-age population is in decline or that we will need fewer schools. Quite the opposite is true. We are talking about another boom — the Millenni-boom. The Department of Education expects the number of school-age children to begin a steady rise again in 2010. An increase of six percent is projected between 2010 and 2020, bringing the total to 55 million students, with another 5 million expected by 2030.

All of these kids will need schools — schools that must be supported by parents and a growing single and senior population. The importance of community became even more evident in a recent survey conducted by School Planning & Management magazine. The survey was of districts that have recently placed bond issues on the ballot for the construction of buildings. The districts represented a cross section across the U.S. — large, small, rural and urban. The one common theme to emerge was that in order for a district to succeed in passing a bond issue, the community must to be informed and involved. The better the relationship with the entire community, the better the chance for success.

There are many ways in which districts can engage the community, ranging from ongoing public relations campaigns, to community involvement in the planning process. The most successful districts develop an ongoing relationship with their community, soliciting their opinions, keeping them informed of issues and showing them good value for their tax dollars spent. Other districts develop business partnerships and offer school-based leadership opportunities to allow community input into school programs and policies. The concept of making schools the“center of community,” by creating joint-use facilities, is once again on the rise. By hosting events on campus, the community members experience schools as they are, not as they remembered them.

A Matter of Perception

We all went to school so we’re all experts. The problem is that many voters have not stepped foot into a school building in the last 30+ years. Most have no real idea of the need or the conditions at their local school. For others, schools are what they see on the outside — sports complexes. Seniors on a fixed income often translate this into wasted dollars. My father is one of those seniors. When asked if he would support new taxes for schools he was quick to reply, “Schools should be for education, and I don’t mind supporting education, but what I see when I drive by the high school are football fields, baseball fields, astro-turf, running tracks and Olympic-size swimming pools.”

Value for Their Dollars

Decisions to vote “yes” come by giving good value for tax dollars spent and creating connections to local schools. If there is one thing that voters demand, it’s school district accountability and a tangible return on their investment. Once again, it comes down to communication. To gauge citizen response, some districts conduct surveys. Volunteers call everyone in the district to get their opinions on what the district is doing, what programs are working and what concerns need to be addressed.

Ongoing relationships are formed with area businesses and the community.

Communication is constant — not just when there is a bond issue on the table and citizens see the results of the investment. Most importantly, a program that includes two-way communication means that there are no surprises for the district or the community.

Creating Connections

The community use of facilities provides districts with an opportunity to become an integral part of the community they serve. Public libraries are now located in the school, not across the street from the school library. Daycare, health care and social services for the community share space with the school nurse. School auditoriums have become performing arts centers for the community. Sports facilities, pools and playing fields are shared with Parks and Recreation Departments and the local YMCA. School cafeterias serve meals to seniors, while others use the gym for exercise. Our older citizens have become mentor, classroom assistant, grandparent and friend to our younger students. Our high school students teach computer classes to the seniors in the community. Residents who see the school parking lots full in the evenings and on the weekends know that we are now taking full advantage of the facilities paid for with public dollars.

Getting the Message Across

For many districts, there is little space for the students, let alone community use. Old and overcrowded facilities are the reality. For them, the key to passing the bond hinges solely on their public relations campaign and direct communication with the community. From printed pieces, to the school’s Website, to districtwide voice mail, their community relations team must ensure that voters know their schools.

Multiple community meetings should be planned. The meetings could be as simple as having a few neighbors in for coffee or they could involve large gatherings at the town hall. Meetings should be designed to solicit input from the community, not just inform or make them feel that they are part of the process. District priorities, options and alternatives should be based on authentic input from the community. These meetings should not be used as a platform to sell a plan that is already in place.

One Final Word

Too often, the only information the community receives when a bond issue is on the ballot is the cost of the bricks and mortar. This is only half of the story. It is our responsibility to inform the public not only of our plans for the building, but also of the impact that buildings have on student success. • Condition — Physical environmental attributes of school facilities play an important role in students’ academic performance, attitudes and behavior. This study demonstrated a positive relationship between upgraded school facilities and math achievement. (Maxwell, 1999 - School Building Renovation and Student Performance, Syracuse City Schools)

• IAQ — Poor ventilation can cause headaches, drowsiness and the inability to concentrate. Children miss more than 10 million school days each year because of poor IAQ.

• Daylighting — Students with the most daylighting in their classrooms performed 15 to 20 percent better on math tests and 19 to 26 percent better on reading tests than those with the least daylighting. (Hershong Mahone Group, 1999 - Daylighting in Schools)

• Maintenance — The depressed physical environment of many schools is believed to reflect society’s lack of priority for these children and their education. (1992 Poplin and Weeres)

• Safety and Security — Crime sprouts from a disorderly environment plagued by broken windows, graffiti and similar disruptions because criminals get the message that no one cares. (James Q. Wilson - ‘Broken Windows’)

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