5 Key Partnership Groups for School Leaders

A trusted school leader exemplifies Connection when he or she “has quality contact and interactions with [all stakeholders].”[1] The responsibility of Visibility is largely connected to the school leader’s involvement in Public Relations (PR). Visible leaders have quality contacts and meaningful interactions. They establish positive relationships with stakeholders and maintain a shared commitment to fulfilling a school’s clearly defined mission and vision. In practice, what does this look like? Visible leaders intentionally build Connection through partnerships with key groups of stakeholders – within the school (i.e. faculty, staff, and students) and without (e.g. parent groups, community groups, etc.).

“A school is not an island. Rather, it functions in a complex context that must be addressed if the school is to be highly effective… partnerships are required to effectively run a school, and these partnerships necessarily extend beyond the boundaries of the school to the community at large.”[2]

Consider the following partnership groups in which school leaders demonstrate visibility marked by Connection – supporting higher levels of trust.

1.Parent/Teacher Associations

In an earlier article, I addressed the challenges and issues associated with formally organized teacher associations; much the same can be said regarding parent or parent/teacher associations/organizations (PTAs or PTOs). If the PTA is formed to address grievances and arbitrate disputes, then the group is founded on the premise of distrust. Trusted leaders work diligently to remove the need for such PTAs. When these groups form to mobilize and encourage parental interaction in the school in healthy and supportive ways, such as in supporting student learning, then PTAs can be very meaningful and valuable.

“In schools all across the country, appropriate parental involvement has been shown to improve the educational process and the educational outcomes for students. The key is to keep the involvement appropriate.”[3]

When parents organize into a formal political organization, this leads to PTAs that expect to be decision-makers and change-leaders in the school. This is problematic – especially if the parents are not professional educators and possess little to no expertise in research-based educational best practices. Some PTAs address this situation by creating ratios of parents vs. teachers in an attempt to ensure individuals are involved who do possess the expert knowledge needed to make informed decisions related to education. This remains problematic, as the critical piece missing from these groups is expertise in school management. Professionally trained school administrators are rarely invited to participate in PTAs. As noted earlier, these groups are founded on an assumption of distrust of administration. With these types of organizations, it is a formidable task for the leader to keep all parties focused on the highest priorities of the school; but if they do exist – then that is their task.

Appropriate levels of parent involvement center primarily on supporting student learning: helping teachers facilitate broader learning experiences than those available within the classroom. Parents can support teachers in connecting learning with real life (e.g. sponsoring field trips to their work place; serving as guest speakers; identifying and/or providing unique and specialized resources related to service learning).[4]

Another area of appropriate parental involvement is supporting teacher success. This can take many forms – from leading teacher appreciation activities to sponsoring PD initiatives. PTAs that focus on supporting student and teacher success foster vibrant and healthy relationships that build trust.

Finally, appropriate parental involvement always includes quality contact and interaction with school leaders. PTAs that intentionally build opportunities for frequent communication and even partnership with school leaders provide opportunity for leaders to establish deeper Connection with stakeholders.[5]

2. Neighborhood Associations

Partnerships with community groups can be a great asset to the school to provide a well-rounded, even holistic, learning environment for students. However, these partnerships must be managed with a certain level of buffering, as these outside groups may be organized around agendas that may or may not support the school’s priorities and values.

The school leader is the visible embodiment of the school’s mission, vision, and values in these partnerships. The level of quality Connection and interaction with neighborhood associations builds trust in the school, and its leader, only to the extent that the school leader maintains consistent representation of the school. If the school leader’s interactions with these associations diverts into personal representation of themselves, then the level of trust diminishes.

3. Advisory Groups

The use of Advisory Groups or Task Forces is one of the most successful strategies in school management – both from a leadership and a PR perspective, and can support levels of student achievement.[6] These specialized small groups, typically hand-picked to address certain topics, are extremely effective in assisting school leaders to navigate through a wide variety of issues; providing stakeholders a voice – but not necessarily a platform for all stakeholders to chime in. Simply because an individual is identified as a stakeholder, does not mean he or she should have an equal voice on all issues.

Actually, although significant stakeholders in the overall quality of a school, parents are not stakeholders in all decisions that are made in a school. This is not said to diminish the significant role parents play as stakeholders. Instead, the purpose is to reassure school administrators that it is sensible and prudent to remember that every person with a stake in the school’s operations does not have equal stake in every aspect of running the operations. The ability to understand this concept and to communicate it to all stakeholders is of paramount importance.[7]

Regular visibility (i.e. quality contact and interaction) with advisory groups and task forces provides a beneficial ripple effect for school leaders with stakeholders. When the leader meets frequently with small teams focused on working together on specific tasks; and the leader develops trusted relationships; then, each group member leaves this interaction able to represent the leader to others in their networks of influence. This contributes to greater Connection and level of trust, without literally meeting with all stakeholders.

4. Alumni Associations

Although greater benefit is seen at the university level, the significance and value of maintaining a connection with K-12 school alumni, through intentional visibility and quality interactions, is important. Alumni often become a driving engine for supporting everything from school admissions, to student engagement, to capital development – especially in the international school setting.[8] In addition, understanding this alumni relationship is important for every member of the school community to consider, not just the school leader.

“[Alumni] development is the job of everyone responsible for the education of the school’s students, from the parents to the board members, from the development director to the cafeteria manager… The principle here is simple: Good feelings translate into donor support. Bad feelings translate into donor avoidance.”[9]

A large number of private independent schools and universities could not continue without substantial assistance from donors; and the vast majority of these are alumni of their schools.[10] Therefore, it is of vital importance to do everything possible to engage alumni in fulfilling the school’s goals and vision.

5. The Press/Media

One area of visibility many school leaders wish to avoid is interacting with the Press. However, to establish trust with all stakeholders, the following areas related to media are significant: “Getting the right relationship with the media; managing public relations and writing press releases; coping with crisis and unwanted publicity; dealing with interviews and; integrating media relations into whole school policy.”[11]

The old expression “no news is good news” is true. When schools appear in the Press, it is often due to a negative story or someone’s accusation regarding the school’s programs, faculty, staff, or students. However, there is another key axiom, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.” A balanced approach for school leaders includes actively engaging the Press. This is accomplished by building relationships with local media outlets, in order to have an opportunity to influence how the school’s story is told. Trusted leaders also keep potentially negative issues and concerns contained within the smallest possible circles, to avoid public debates and unwanted notoriety.

A common error made by school leaders, and those they entrust with PR responsibilities, is that of not understanding the various media outlets’ motivation to take interest in stories the school may generate. Gone are the days of local newspapers and news outlets running a story because the subject line features local students. There is so much competition for airtime and print space today. Even small town local media outlets are highly selective in the stories they run.[12] Therefore, schools wishing to drive their story via local media outlets need to consider what motivates the Press to take interest.

Media outlets focus on issues that are of interest to their readers and viewers. Therefore, schools who frame their stories in juxtaposition of local, even national issues, do well.[13] For example, instead of simply generating a press release on how well 11th graders performed on the most recent PSAT exams; frame the story within the context of the national debate over standardized testing – reporting how the school is responding to those concerns and at the same time preparing students to be college ready.

Another common error is using a one-size-fits-all approach to press releases and social media postings. The successful use of various media outlets requires customizing the school’s story to the medium utilized. For example, social media postings for Twitter and Facebook should be limited to no more than a headline with a link to more content – and always a striking image.[14] Press releases should be data heavy and succinctly written, whereas blog postings can be more expressive and detailed (like this one). Again, each outlet must be approached with an understanding of how to best utilize that form of communication.

Also consider the opportunity for Connection with stakeholders and visibility through holding the occasional news conference or open forum. For a news conference, the key is preparation. Even if it takes place during a school crisis, with limited preparation time, it is all the more important to identify the major thoughts and information to be shared in advance – as well as the boundaries of what comments will be made, and what comments will not. Many news conference participants create headlines and controversy by saying more than they should have. The trusted school leader will establish these boundaries before the conference takes place.

Trusted school leaders prepare well and keep a news conference focused on the central issue. For example, a school leader experienced in navigating the potential land mines of news conference Q & A, will frequently use phrases like, “I’m not prepared to address that concern at this time, is there another question regarding (whatever the current issue may be).” Simply being practiced and prepared to provide a short answer that stops the potential rabbit trail and redirects the conversation to the central issue, keeps a news conference focused on the school’s ends and purposes.

As mentioned above, stories that connect with issues the local community cares about are what news and social media outlets broadcast. School leaders, who are gifted at connecting with stakeholders via the press, identify those community issues and frame their story around them. Additionally, personal stories tend to get more press-time than generic or general topic ones.[15] For example, the school may want to tell about winning a regional competition. The story will get more attention when focused on a single student involved in the competition. People are interested in people, not institutions. Tell the institution’s story through the story of its people. Through this approach, deeper connections are made, the school and its leadership are more visible, and the contact made with others through the media will have greater quality – all of which supports a greater level of trust.

©2018 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.

[1] Marzano et. al., School Leadership That Works, 740, Kindle. Note that Marzano, et. al. identify “students and teachers” as their primary focus was on student achievement, but in our context the responsibility holds true with all stakeholders.

[2] Marzano, Waters, and McNulty, School Leadership That Works, 1032-1033, Kindle.

[3] Fiore, Introduction to Educational Administration, 4517-4518, Kindle.

[4] Jami L. Warren, “Does Service-Learning Increase Student Learning?: A Meta-Analysis,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Spring 2012): 56-61.

[5] Annette Munoz Lareau and Vanessa Lopes, “You’re not going to call the shots: Structural conflicts between the principal and the PTO at a suburban public elementary school,” Sociology of Education 85, no. 3 (2012): 201-218.

[6] Barry B. Cohen, “Advisory groups for evaluations in diverse cultural groups, communities, and contexts,” New Directions for Evaluation 2012, no. 136 (2012): 49-65.  Elizabeth Costa, “The effects of advisory groups on student engagement,” Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences 73, (2013): 11-A(E).

[7] Fiore, Introduction to Educational Administration, 4536-4540, Kindle.

[8] Eric Jabal, “Learning from Hong Kong alumni: lessons for school leadership,” International Journal of Leadership in Education 9, no. 1 (2006): 21-44.

[9] Mike Radice, Professional Money Raising for Schools: How to Attract Millions (Seattle, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2014), 493-501, Kindle.

[10] David Weerts and Deni Elliott, “Profiles of Supportive Alumni: Donors, Volunteers, and Those Who Do It All,” International Journal of Educational Advancement 7, no. 1 (2007): 20-34.

[11] Gann and McClellan, Schools in the Spotlight, 10-11, Kindle.

[12] Todd L. Belt and Marion R. Just, “The Local News Story: Is Quality a Choice?” Political Communication 25, no. 2 (2008): 194-215.

[13] Kirk Hallahan, “Seven Models of Framing: Implications for Public Relations,” Journal of Public Relations Research 11, no. 3 (1999): 205-242.

[14] Shea Bennett, “How to Create the Perfect Social Media Post [INFOGRAPHIC]” Social Times, accessed 1 July 2016, http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/perfect-social-media-post-tips/504349.

[15] Ruth E. Page, “Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction,” Routledge Studies in Sociolinguistics, (2012): 240 pages.

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