[Opinion] Why Collingswood Schools Need An Updated Communication Plan (and what that would look like)

In February 2017, CEAG member Rhodes Mason wrote an email to the Collingswood Board of Education to advocate for the development and implementation of a new district communication plan. 

The Board of Education did do a presentation on June 26, 2017 to lay out their new plan.

There are the aspects of a communication plan that members of the Collingswood Educational Advocacy Group found to be most important. Here are the details of the document that were forwarded to the Board of Education members:

Collingswood Educational Advocacy Group Communication Plan Suggestions

Why the District Needs A More Comprehensive Communication Plan

The Board’s Policies and Regulations state that “The Board of Education believes all reasonable means should be employed to keep the community served by the school district informed on matters of importance regarding district programs, finances, personnel, policies, and operations” (9120 M Public Relations Program).  It is the feeling of many in the community that this has not been a priority.  Presently, the only way to get information about these topics is to attend the Board monthly meetings.  A recent poll conducted earlier this month by the Collingswood Educational Advocacy Group found the following were the main reasons respondents do not attend the Board meetings:

  •         28.6% Childcare
  •         16.7% Schedule
  •         14.3% Work

It has been stated at previous Board meetings that people do not care enough to attend.  This is not the case.  In the same poll, 95.2% responded they would watch a live video feed of Board meetings.  The Board is the steward of our children’s educational system and its actions can affect many people in our community.  Being transparent and open is an imperative.  However, recent events have made this come into question.  Here are a few examples:

  •         May/June 2016: No notification to parents for almost 30 days that the District had disregarded the Memorandum of Agreement in regards to police investigations of discipline issues due to a misunderstanding with Camden County Prosecutor’s office.
  •         July 2016: No communication to the community about the contract renewal of the Superintendent nor making his contract public.
  •        December 2016 Selecting new Board member in lame duck session without public comment.  Interviews were conducted by three Board members that would not be serving in a month.
  •         February 2017: No engagement on public ideas such as rotating school board meetings, biking, open playgrounds, etc.
  •         February 2017: Holding a ‘retreat’ but failing to have it listed on ‘important dates’ on the January Board meeting agenda and mentioning that it was open to the public at the meeting.  It was only advertised in the Retrospect, that is not widely available. Only one public person attended as a result.

To rebuild the community trust in the Board and create a distinctive School District brand, it is necessary to communicate directly with the community.  The perception is that the Board feels the community is adversarial and only attends when they have ‘an axe to grind.’ This could not be farther from the truth.  As stated in Board Policies and Regulations 9120 “The Board directs all district employees to acquaint residents with the work of the schools; to give thoughtful and courteous consideration to all inquiries and suggestions and carefully investigate all complaints; to make parent(s) or legal guardian(s) feel welcome in the school and in the classroom; to cooperate with parent organizations and other groups of residents seeking information or offering assistance to the schools.”

To comply with Board policy, it needs to modernize its communication methods and have a more detailed plan on how it is going to engage the community.  The 2020 Vision – Creating a Clear Path to Success that is posted on the District’s website states:

“WE BELIEVE that education is a partnership between students, families, school, and community;

THEREFORE, we will build strong partnerships with our stakeholders based on trust and open communication and engage in planning and decision-making to achieve mutually agreed upon goals.”

We the community could not agree more and to take positive steps to helping the Board and the District fulfill its Core Values and Belief Statements, would like to introduce a more formalized plan than found on the District’s Strategic Action Plan for Communication/Public Relations.  After researching other District’s Communication Plans, it is clear the Collingswood District’s plan was not fully developed.  Though the Collingswood Strategic Action Plan states “We will develop and implement a communications and public relations plan that insures regular and effective communication with all stakeholders,” the community finds that much more can be done.

We are calling on the Board and the District to carefully consider the plan that is being offered in hopes that they can effectively engage with the community.  We expect careful consideration and would like to know at the next Board meeting on what steps it is taking to enacting some of the measures detailed in the Comprehensive Communication Plan.  We hope that you adopt this plan or many parts of it as better communication aligns with your own policies and the District’s own vision statement.  We the community, seek a partnership to help the Board and District better serve our children’s educational needs.  The first step is to improve the channels of communication.  

A Sample Plan Was Created

Collingswood School District Comprehensive Communications Plan

 

The Collingswood School District is committed to open, honest and ongoing communication with our stakeholders. We understand that maintaining a two-way conversation with stakeholders is essential for building relationships. These relationships are the foundation for a strong school system.

This communications plan was designed to establish a comprehensive and integrated communications process for effective communication with all stakeholders. It aligns with the district’s Strategic Action Plan for Communications and Public Relations and builds upon its objectives.  The goal for the Comprehensive Communications Plan is to improve the district’s transparency and grow community involvement. The plan is a working document that should be reviewed on an annual basis by the Board of Education once this draft is agreed upon by the Superintendent and the Board of Education. It should be a basis for the district’s accountability, as well as for providing a framework for future source and budgetary consideration. The Comprehensive Communications Plan is intended to do the following:

  1. Implement a communications program that directly helps the district achieve its strategic goals.
  2. Foster strong relationships with district stakeholders.
  3. Provide focus and direction for messages/methods in support of the district’s goals.
  4. Enable the district to present itself accurately to audiences.

 

Internal Audiences

  • Students
  • Certificated Staff
  • Support Staff Employees
  • Principals
  • Administrators
  • Board of Education

 

External Audiences

  • Students
  • Parents
  • Taxpayers of the District
  • Senior citizens
  • Business leaders
  • Media
  • Parent-Teacher Organizations
  • Civic leaders/organizations
  • Legislators
  • Religious leaders
  • Social workers/fire/police/first responders
  • New residents of the District
  • Neighboring School Districts
  • Residents without children in District schools
  • Prospective residents of the District

Desired Behaviors and Attitudes

Through the implementation of this plan, the following desired behaviors and attitudes are the focus:

Internal Audiences

  • Take pride and ownership in the district.
  • Keep informed of key issues.
  • Work as a high-performing organization whose employees respect customer feedback.
  • Exhibit District’s values of ‘excellence in teaching and learning.’

 

External Audiences

  • Feel involved and engaged in their public schools.
  • Exhibit community pride and trust in schools and the district.
  • Support the Collingswood School District through active participation.
  • Support the Collingswood School District through monetary measures.

 

Communication Goals

  1. Develop and maintain positive, collaborative relationships with all stakeholders to strengthen support for the Collingswood School District.
  2. Utilize a variety of media to maximize awareness and support of the district’s goals, objectives, and programs.
  3. Establish an effective employee communication plan to improve internal communication and employee engagement.
  4. Achieve coordinated communications, both internally and externally, regarding safety issues and crisis management.
  5. Maintain a proactive media relations program to enhance the district’s image on local, state and national levels.

The following resources will be used to evaluate and measure the effectiveness of this communications plan:

  • Staff survey
  • Community survey
  • Website hits and traffic reports
  • Media coverage
  • Community feedback
  • Patron Insight surveys  

 

The district can more effectively provide consistent and unified messages by identifying and managing all communication avenues. A multifaceted approach to overall communications helps ensure greater impact of messages. The following list details the internal and external communication channels Collingswood School District should consider:

 

Communication Channels

Communication Vehicles: Electronic

  • District Web site
  • Collingswood E-mail
  • School Web pages
  • School Newsletters
  • Video media
  • School Messenger Phone System
  • Social Media: Facebook & Twitter

 

Communication Vehicles: Print

  • Collingswood School newspapers
  • The Retrospect
  • School Newsletters
  • Brochures
  • Targeted mailing lists

 

Communication Vehicles: Personal

  • Interpersonal
  • Superintendent Advisory Council meetings
  • School Forums
  • Key Opinion Leader luncheons
  • Rotary Club
  • Administrator meetings
  • City: Mayor and  Commissioners

 

Communications Goal #1

Develop and maintain positive, collaborative relationships with all stakeholders to strengthen support for the Collingswood School District.

Strategy 1A: Engage the community in two-way communication.

Action items:

  • Facilitate connections among community stakeholder groups and district administrators: religious leaders, business groups, and area legislators.
  • Rotate Board of Education meetings to other district schools to show support and grow community participation.
    • Offer babysitting programs for all Board of Education meetings.
      • Currently offered for PTA meetings.
  • Proceed with community forums and engagement through Town Hall meetings.
    • Address public ideas such as biking and open playground.
    • Garner community commentary for Board initiatives. 
  • Expand on external key communication initiatives and share information to promote education with the empty-nester group.
  • A good school District helps increase home values.

 

Strategy 1B: Develop more electronic communication tools to provide information for all stakeholders.

Action items:

  • Maintain active e-mail lists of key communicator groups.
  • Promote Board of Education meetings through its own and district’s websites.
  • Implement and maintain social media tools.
  • School messenger calls for all upcoming Board of Education meetings and major district news.
  • Utilize “Remind” app for reminding stakeholders of meeting dates.

 

Strategy 1C: Build and maintain partnerships with business and community leaders.

Action items:

  • Provide district representation for community-led meetings: Borough forums/meetings, business partnerships and senior citizen groups.

 

Communications Goal #2

Utilize a variety of media to maximize awareness and support of the District’s goals, objectives and programs.

Strategy 2A: Use electronic, print and mass media tools to promote awareness and interest in the district.

Web

  • Implement and maintain social media tools.
    • Get more support for Collingswood Public School  Facebook and Twitter accounts
      • Only 887 following FB page and 1003 following on Twitter
        • Need to investigate why more students and parents are not following
      • Make sure that all events, announcements, etc. are posted in timely fashion
    • Have teachers post weekly information on own Facebook and/or Twitter on what classes are working on that week.
        • Seems some teachers are actively doing this but does not seem consistent.
    • Create new website just for school district and Board of Education.  
      • Current one does not work well on mobile with crucial links to agendas, schools, etc. are not visible.
        • Seems confines of Collingswood.com website is limiting.  Consider templates that perform best on mobile and web.
    • Post all Board of Education meetings agendas, meeting minutes, presentations, etc.
      • Agenda will be posted one week prior to Board meetings
      • Minutes will be posted no later than one week after Board meetings
        • Minutes should detail each Board member’s comments
        • Minutes should detail any community questions and Board responses
      • Add Board biographies and committees they are appointed on.
  • Produce District Report Card online and coordinate electronic, video and print channels.
  • Develop a process to collect/communicate the results of survey data.
  • Train key personnel for effective use of district website using content management strategies.

 

Video

Work with High School’s A/V program and community members to help record engaging video content for stakeholders

  • Broadcast video/media through social networking on Facebook, Twitter and website of all Board of Education meetings.
  • Produce video/media of Collingswood School District special events to support internal communications.
  • Create video/media (informational and educational in format) for release on website.
  • Utilize instructional video/media to build awareness at the school and district levels.

 

Print

  • Evaluate current media buys by BOE for publishing legal notifications.
  • If providing strong electronic communication, only need to do minimum requirements.  
  • Publish details about Collingswood School District to increase parent knowledge of involvement opportunities within the Collingswood School District.
  • Publish Collingswood School District news to reach patrons with messages targeting key goals and district finances.

 

Media

  • Conduct media training with principals.
  • Maintain updated news releases on the Collingswood School District website to continuously update the constituents about district initiatives and programs.
  • Distribute fact sheets of district goals and objectives to media and update the scorecard report during the school year.
    • Media channels should include newspapers, electronic publications, radio stations, and television stations such as NJPen, NJ Courier Post, Channel 10 NBC, Channel 6 ABC, Channel 3 CBS, NPR radio, etc.

 

Strategy 2B: Develop a process for tracking, monitoring and responding to concerns.

  • Research and define a process to effectively manage concerns from stakeholders.

 

Communications Goal #3

Establish an effective employee communication plan to improve internal communication and employee engagement.

Strategy 3A: Provide training for school communication teams to facilitate communication among staff and community.

Action items:

  • Continue group and individual training for Web content management with key personnel.
  • Continue group and individual training for Parent Teacher Association (PTA)  volunteers to ensure PTA communication is accurate.

 

Strategy 3B: Provide resources for staff members and parent leaders and encourage their use in order to build connections and partnerships in the community.

Action items:

  • Build and maintain the Web pages on the Collingswood School District website that will facilitate information and discussion forums among staff members.
  • Continue to develop and implement new features for teacher websites.

 

Strategy 3C: Increase opportunities for recognition among leaders in the Collingswood community.

  • Recognize student, staff and parent achievement during Board of Education meetings.
  • Recognize student, staff and parent achievement during Chamber of Commerce meetings.

 

Strategy 3D: Provide opportunities and resources to build connections within the district.

  • Create an advisory committee to have regular meetings with the superintendent.

 

Strategy 3E: Work with the Human Resources Department to coordinate clear, consistent messages to staff members.

Action items:

  • Create and implement a staff orientation for the communications plan.
  • Develop a staff orientation video that welcomes new employees to Collingswood and includes key messages.

 

Strategy 3F: Provide ongoing professional development and training for staff members.

Action items:

  • Offer communication training to Collingswood School District administration
  • Continue with School Messenger system and training for new system features.

 

Communications Goal #4

Achieve coordinated communication, both internally and externally, regarding safety issues and crisis management.

Strategy 4A: Develop and sustain relationships with local emergency management officials. Action items:

  • Develop an emergency content feature on the district home page that can be updated by key safety and crisis management personnel.

 

Strategy 4B: Utilize a variety of communication tactics to share information with staff and parents about safety plans and crisis management.

Action items:

  • Work with district nursing staff to coordinate the sharing of information about health issues with parents.
  • Work with the administrative services department to provide crisis information to all staff.
  • Manage and update crisis information on the district website.

 

Communications Goal #5

Maintain a positive media relations program to enhance the District’s image on local, state and national levels.

 

Strategy 5A: Build relationships with media through one-on-one story development.

Action items:

  • Post board minute summaries to website after each board meeting
  • Share information through press releases, briefings and photo opportunities.
  • Invite press to campus activities to cover events.
  • Encourage staff to submit articles and photos to paper

 

Communication Focus Areas

Focus Area: Parent and Community Involvement Goal:

Promote, facilitate, and enhance parent, student and community involvement in District programs and Board of Education new initiatives.

Objective 1: The Collingswood School District will improve the effectiveness of communication with all stakeholders utilizing a variety of accessible methods.

Strategy 1: Foster a culture of optimistic outlook regarding the work and impact of the Collingswood School District within the community.

Action 1: Develop a positive and professional district brand.

Action 3: Regularly maintain and update a user-friendly district website.

Action 4: Communicate with stakeholders using emerging technologies.

Action 5: Use school messenger as a tool for communication.

Objective 2: The Collingswood School District will provide stakeholders a variety of opportunities for community involvement.

Strategy 1: Develop and promote opportunities for community involvement.

Action 1: Promote an annual career day on the elementary and secondary levels.

Action 2: Promote alumni events/receptions (via the website, social media).

Action 3: Support mentoring programs and garner participation from local community members.

Objective 3: The Board of Education will dedicate itself to engaging the community for new proposals and support.

                            Strategy 1: Provide transparency for any new initiatives the Board is considering.

Action 1: Include all new initiatives proposed by District, Board, or community members on Agenda for Board meetings.

Action 2: Be transparent about which Board members supported or did not support new initiatives.

Action 3: Invite the community members to attend and participate in BOE workshops, Town Halls, and forums to foster open dialogue and measure feedback on proposals.

CEAG Board

CEAG Board

A progressive organization: comprised of caregivers and community members interested in discussing issues pertaining to education, students, and their families.