Three Professionals Participate in Planning Meeting
Tips for School & District Administrators

5 Great Ways Schools Can Engage the Community

By Brian Gatens

Three Professionals Participate in Planning MeetingWhile much of our attention focuses on day-to-day academic and social events at our schools, it is important for school leaders to make time for our larger community. These often-unnoticed citizens hold tremendous sway over our schools’ public perception and overall support.

Finding ways to engage with the community is essential, especially if you’re planning significant changes at your school. Here are several strategies that will prove successful:

1. Organize a curriculum fair and open house

Create a unique opportunity for the community to see the high-quality work your school is addressing through a curriculum fair or school open house. Rather than shut yourself away from the public inside (sometimes) imposing buildings, you will develop a strong connection to your community by demonstrating your school’s good deeds in an inviting setting. Teachers should provide examples of their best work and prepare themselves to speak about the goals and objectives of their classrooms.

2. Send an email newsletter

Using both a commercial communication service and our in-district technology, I publish a weekly email communique using this formula:

  • Big Picture (10 percent) — broad ideas and strategies about schools. This may include articles from major news publications or websites, or general parenting strategies. This recognizes that community members appreciate learning about education and social issues that extend beyond the school.
  • Recognition (10 percent) — highlights of the school community. News of successful charity drives, academic honors and sports team success reminds the community that great things are happening at their school. This helps to foster a forward-learning, growth-oriented school culture.
  • School Information (80 percent)  — important coming events. Upcoming school-specific events like grade reporting, conferences and school activities are all interesting to the community. It’s important to recognize that your audience is a lot of busy people managing competing interests. There’s too much information clutter in today’s media-soaked world, so I respect my readers’ time by limiting my information to the most important topics.

3. Engage with civic groups

Make it a point to engage with civic organization such as the Boy Scouts, local business clubs such as the Rotary and the Kiwanis, and recreational sports leagues in town. Developing partnerships with these groups will help to solidify your school’s cultural role in the community. Don’t hesitate to attend a fundraiser or awards banquet if the opportunity arises.

4. Go to nonschool events

Attending a nonschool event tells people you care for the entire community and not just your little part of it. This lets you engage with citizens through informal conversations and sets a positive tone for future, and perhaps more formal, conversations on community matters. Good examples of these events are nonschool sports games, community art exhibitions and showcases, and civic events.

5. Use social media to create genuine engagement

Don’t overestimate the impact of social media. Sharing information with the community on a website is no substitute for engaging with the community in real life. Sure, Facebook and Twitter can be great for keeping people up to date, but it’s a superficial interaction that shouldn’t be mistaken for engagement. Social media should be the venue to redirect people to opportunities for deeper, in-person engagement.

Today’s society requires schools to combine traditional and newer strategies to keep everyone in the larger community engaged and interested in their local school. The community expects school leaders to be publicly accountable and transparent, which makes it imperative that we take an active role in establishing the public narrative and perception of our schools. Using all these strategies will help spread the good word about the school culture we work so diligently to promote.

An educator for two decades, Brian Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, New Jersey.  Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.

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