First #NationalSchoolWalkout Offers Communications Lessons for School Districts

First #NationalSchoolWalkout Offers Communications Lessons for School Districts

Wednesday, March 14 was a historic day in the world of education. While coordinated demonstrations among college students are somewhat common, this was the first time in which K-12 students joined together in a large-scale, nationwide protest.

Regardless of where you stand on students’ rights to protest and the issue of gun control, the fact that the event was possible in the first place is incredible. It showcased the power of social media to allow students from all over the country to coordinate a major protest with less than a month of planning.

Using the hashtags #Enough and #NationalSchoolWalkout, and the influence of existing groups associated with the Women’s March, national protest leaders were able to reach student leaders at individual schools. There perhaps was not a public high school in the country that did not see at least some students protest — even if they faced disciplinary action for doing so.

How did school districts handle the walkout?

In the days and weeks leading up to Wednesday, we saw school districts take very different approaches. Some, like the Needville Independent School District in Texas, made clear that they would suspend or otherwise punish students who walked out of class. Others openly supported their students exercising their First Amendment rights and turned the event into a learning opportunity. Many other districts allowed students to take part, but only if they followed strict guidelines and did not violate school policy.

In our current political environment, school leaders can feel that, no matter where they come down on student protests, they are likely to alienate parts of their community. By prohibiting protests and forcing students to remain in class, a district could violate students’ First Amendment rights. Conversely, allowing protests may lead to complaints that a district is taking sides or enabling disruptions to the learning environment.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that school districts took heat for both allowing protests to take place and issuing suspensions for students who participated.

More student protests planned

March 14 presented unique challenges to school leaders. It was a learning experience for others as they approached a large student demonstration for the first time. It’s important for us to understand, however, that Wednesday was likely just the beginning.

Over the next month, there are two more protests planned that may affect students. The first is March for Our Lives, led by survivors of February’s shooting in Parkland, Florida. While this demonstration, taking place on Saturday, March 24, will be focused on Washington, D.C., organizers have encouraged students across the country to march in solidarity. In Wisconsin, there’s a protest planned for 10 a.m. on State Street in Madison.

Planned for Friday, April 20 is National School Walkout, which looks to be similar to the March 14 protest. Students are encourage to attend school, but then walk out of class at 10 a.m. This event takes place on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting in 1999.

Tips for preparing for the next protest

With all the momentum behind organizers of these recent demonstrations, student protest is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. To that end, we recommend that school leaders be prepared for them and work with students to ensure demonstrations move forward as seamlessly as possible and with few disruptions to the learning process.

Below are some quick tips:

  • Speak with student leaders: In many cases, there will be a handful of students or a student group leading the protest. Get in touch with these student leaders and meet with them in the weeks and days leading up to the planned event. Explain that the school/district supports students’ rights, but also must ensure school remains a safe and positive place for everyone — including those who choose not to participate.
  • Know all the details: Again, working with students, find out the day, time, location and all other details relevant to the protest. Organizers must be upfront about their plans if the school is to allow the demonstrate to take place.
  • Communicate often: Reach out to your key stakeholders, including parents, students, staff, school board members, law enforcement agencies and community members. Send a letter home to parents, post information to social media and your district website and be available for interviews with the news media. Be open and honest about how your school or district plans to handle the protest.
  • Outline clear ground rules: If a protest will be allowed, make sure all students know your school’s code of conduct. Make clear that if any of these rules are broken, the students involved will be disciplined appropriately. Informed students are less likely to accidentally violate school rules.

In many ways, managing student protests is a new issue for school and district leaders — and it’s one that can be difficult to navigate. By effectively preparing, communicating openly and understanding students’ rights, schools and districts can find the right balance.

3 Things School Leaders Should Know About Telling the Truth in Difficult Times

3 Things School Leaders Should Know About Telling the Truth in Difficult Times

“No news is good news.” It’s a common saying, but not one that ever makes it into an organization’s mission statement. Regardless, it has been said in many boardrooms, likely as often as common mission-statement words like “integrity” and “character.”

Navigating a crisis situation is never easy. But, as a school district, you can manage these situations more easily if you have a plan in place.

Here are 3 things all school district leaders should know about crisis communications:

1) The rush to judgment is a sprint

The news cycle is 24/7. I know that from working in newsrooms at 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. Today’s news consumer demands content now, and in the event of a crisis in your schools, you must be prepared to communicate so that your stakeholders do not go elsewhere for the information they’re seeking.

A few years ago, I covered a school district crisis situation. Student safety was not in question, but school integrity was. The circumstance was so unique that it generated public interest to the point of becoming a lead story. The local media had enough information to report, but the school district was not communicating with anyone. We didn’t hear a word for more than 24 hours.

By the time the district did communicate with stakeholders and the media, it was overwhelmed with damage control. The 24 hours of silence allowed inaccurate social media rumors to fill the vacuum. What would have been a one-day story about an unusual incident became a week-long report about trust during a crisis.

School leaders must be ready to take control of the narrative before someone else does.

2) Forethought before the flashpoint

As the previous example illustrated, it’s important to stay ahead of — or at least keep up with — the news cycle.

There could be eyewitnesses on social media telling their version of your school district’s story. They could be broadcasting live on Facebook or Periscope.

How do you counteract that? With a plan.

School districts that are prepared to communicate in a crisis have a process they can enact at any moment. This typically involves a team of communicators, with each team member responsible for a different aspect of crisis communication.

One team member will gather facts, while another will determine what should and should not be shared with the media right away. Another will monitor social media for possibly inaccurate stories and prioritize the list of contacts you need to reach immediately.

A good crisis communications plan will also include a timetable. Review past crises to gauge how quickly you need to share information before you run the risk of someone else telling your story.

For example, your plan might state: “Once we learn the facts, an accurate social media post must go up within 10 minutes. From there, we have 30 minutes to communicate directly with parents, school board members and the media.”

It’s important to note here that you do not have to have the answer to every question when communicating during a crisis — especially in the early stages. Share what you can as quickly as possible, and make sure your stakeholders know that you will share more once you are able to do so.

3) The transparency payoff

During a crisis, you will likely be concerned about protecting your students and staff, making sure they’re safe and limiting disruptions to learning. Those are the priorities. You can do all of those things while keeping stakeholders informed.  

By communicating effectively during a crisis, you will forge a strong bond with parents, staff members and other community members. Engaging them during difficult moments makes them feel as if they have a seat at the table and that their voices are being heard.

And here’s the payoff. Not only will there be trust during a crisis, there will be a shared confidence when the mood is calm. That gives you the opportunity to present the school district’s vision about instruction — or any other issue — with a greater sense of trust between you and your community.

They will come to trust that you are giving them the information they need and want when it comes to their local public schools.

Jerry Gallagher is an associate with the Donovan Group. He assists schools and districts throughout Iowa with needs related to communications planning, crisis communication and referendum planning. 

School Finance Communication: Asking the Right Questions

School Finance Communication: Asking the Right Questions

This is the third article of a three-part series on communication about school finance. If you haven’t already, we invite you to read the first and second articles in the series.

I always find that when communicating about budgets and attempting to create messages, it’s helpful to answer three simple questions. These include the following:

1) What’s the problem?

It’s important to outline the challenges that are being created by Wisconsin’s school finance system. Remember, most community members don’t have master’s degrees in education, so you have to keep it simple. You also have to be direct, transparent and honest as you can be as you define the problem.

However, it is always important to provide some background information that informs community members about school finance.

2) Why is this important?

One of the challenges of communicating during challenging times is that it is difficult to get the attention of a public that has more than enough to worry about. After explaining the problem, explicitly explain why it is important. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that school leaders intentionally raise the anxiety level of an already-anxious public. Instead, simply explain what is at stake.

3) What is being done to address the problem?

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. But what’s even worse than sharing bad news is when people are surprised by the bad news. When explaining what is being done, don’t automatically go to the worst-case scenario or use the threat of cutting a popular program to get community members’ attention. Instead, explain what is being done to address the problem directly.

Always keep in mind that schools are about kids—and real people are affected. Don’t come off as being clinical or detached. Be authentic and real.

4) What’s next?

Finally, explain the next steps in the process. Use this opportunity to tell community members how they can learn more and what they can do to help. I suggest always having three things for people to do, such as going to the district website for more information, attending a meeting or an upcoming listening session or contacting the governor or state legislators.

When it comes to communicating about schools, the most complicated and most important issues are school finance and the budget. School leaders are right to embrace the challenge, working together with board members and administrators to form a common set of messages and clearly defined plan to communicate.

While we can never know what will happen in the future, we do know that budgets will continue to be a topic of much conversation in the future. Embrace the opportunity to engage.

–Joe Donovan

School Finance Communication: The ‘Gas Station Principle’

School Finance Communication: The ‘Gas Station Principle’

This is the second article of a three-part series on communication about school finance. If you haven’t already, read the first article.

Not long ago, I was filling up my tank at a local gas station the night after a long and contentious board meeting at which the budget was the central agenda item. I saw a board member from my school district. As the board member was filling up his tank, another community member came up to him, introduced herself and, in a very friendly way, said, “Can you tell me about the school district’s budget?”

The board member, who appeared to be dressed for a meeting, took a deep breath and went into what amounted to a three-minute soliloquy about budget challenges and the different and very complex options available to the board. The community member, who seemed to have some basic knowledge of school finance, became clearly lost when the board member uttered the words “negative tertiary.”

To be sure, the conversation ended poorly, with the community member confused and feeling that the details were being hidden from her. The board member seemed frustrated that he could not convey what he felt were critical points about the district’s budget.

The moral of this story is that there is a need to communicate very clear and compelling points about especially complex issues like school finance. I call this the “gas station principle.”

Be ready to communicate

The gas station principle calls for having three to five ready-to-communicate ideas or messages on various important issues. Put another way, if you had an opportunity to meet individually with every member of your community, what are the three or four points you would want them to know and understand about the budget?

This is no small task. Keeping everyone, including board members and administration, on the same page is critical to ensuring that community members understand the challenges and are engaged in finding solutions.

Certainly, standing by the pump at the gas station is not the best time to communicate about something as important or complicated as school finance, but being prepared to have that conversation can help.

In our next post, we look at how we can develop these messages by asking ourselves several key questions.

Next: Asking the Right Questions

Joe Donovan

School Finance Communication: Early and Often

School Finance Communication: Early and Often

This is the first article of a three-part series on communication about school finance.

There is a universal truth when communicating about education: nearly everyone has an opinion because nearly everyone has attended school. But if it’s true that everyone has attended school and therefore is well informed about what school is, the same is certainly not true when it comes to school finance and district budgets.

Let’s face it—when engaged in school finance communication, it can be very difficult to get across the concepts involved in a way that makes sense. In many cases, learning enough about school finance to communicate about it requires adopting a whole new language and wrestling with new and exceedingly difficult financial concepts. This leads to a complete inability to communicate what Wisconsin school finance is to anyone who does not already understand it.

Even among those who understand accounting and business finance, the complexity of the Wisconsin school finance system is enough to bring sweat to the brow of the most seasoned CPA or CFO. For those of us who have tried to explain school finance to people who know finance, we understand how challenging it can be.

But with all the changes that have taken place over the past several years, it is even more critical that school leaders engage their communities about school finance—especially the challenges for your district due to state-level changes.

When it comes to school finance communication, there are some important principles to remember, some hints to keep in mind and the need to be strategic in our efforts.

Meet my mom

My mom is like a lot of community members. She is in her eighties. She loves public schools, but is not as engaged with them as she once was when her three children attended them. And, while she generally feels that her tax dollars are well spent, she is also concerned about taxes. She is also not a school finance expert.

My mom’s problem with school finance is that she cannot believe it can be all that difficult. This is a person who is smart and engaged—she helped my dad run a small business for decades. How hard can school finance be?

My mom, like many other community members, gets frustrated when school leaders use complicated terms or acronyms to describe school finance concepts. She figures they must be hiding something behind this language.

The key to communicating about school finance is doing so in a way that my mom—and other community members like her—can understand.

To do this, school leaders must first educate.

Important facets of the school finance system must be broken down to allow community members to understand and become more engaged. While my mom and other people like her do not want or need all the subtleties and history of school finance, a good understanding of the central pieces of school finance (such as what a revenue limit is) is critically important to communicating effectively.

For many school leaders, this may seem impossible. While I agree it is a huge challenge, the key to communicating about the budget and its impact is to first create a level of understanding about what school finance is.

Consider creating a very brief “School Finance 101” document that includes a glossary of terms. Post it to the district’s website and make it available to those who attend school board meetings. Take the time to present to your local PTA or PTO and keep track of the questions you receive. You can create a school finance-specific frequently asked questions page for your website based on those questions.

Again, community members like my mom don’t need to know everything about school finance, so don’t try to cover too much information. Stick to the basics. Where it’s appropriate to do so, use examples like a home mortgage or personal finance to show similarities and differences between what the average community member must deal with and the situation facing your district.

After providing the necessary background information about how school finance works, it’s important to be clear about what you want to say about it. For most school district leaders, this is just as difficult as explaining what a revenue limit is. Forming a set of clear and well-defined messages about the budget is critical to communicating well.

In our next post, we discuss how you can best communicate the complexities of budget and school finance.

–Joe Donovan

Next: The ‘Gas Station Principle’

Tools We Love: The Donovan Group Tech Stack

Tools We Love: The Donovan Group Tech Stack

It is almost cliché to say it: education and communication are changing so fast that it is difficult to keep up. Central to this change are the tools that are used to engage in communication, to collaborate and generally to get work done. We are often asked for recommendations regarding the different types of communications tools we use—our tech stack–so, here is a non-exhaustive list as of the tech tools we use as of January 2018. Please note that we do not have a relationship with any vendor unless stated specifically.

Project Management

We have been using Basecamp for years. It’s a terrific tool for managing complex projects that involve a lot of different people. While we love the first version, we did not love the second version. We fell back in love with Basecamp with their third and current version, Basecamp 3. We also like Asana and Trello. If you are not using a project management tool to run your projects, you should.

Project Mapping

While we like Basecamp and the other tools noted to manage projects, we do much of our project mapping using Gantt Charts. For years we did this by using Excel spreadsheets, but have recently taken to using Team Gantt. We recommend it.

Team Communication

Staying on the same page with your team is more important than ever before and, like everyone else, we used email for team communication and with great frustration for many years. Last year we began using Slack for internal communication and found it to be very effective. While we continue to use Slack, we are increasingly using the new version of Basecamp for the same purpose.

Website Tools

Your school and district likely have an existing vendor for your website, or you may do web development in-house. But sometimes is helpful to have a separate website for issues such as a referendum or a special project. For simple, inexpensive websites, we prefer Wix, but we also like SquareSpace. If you use WordPress, which we also like a lot for robust websites, consider an inexpensive theme from Themeforest.

Social Media Tools

There are many, many different social media tools out there. We still like HootSuite, but we’ve come to like Sprout Social increasingly as well.

Online Forms and Surveys

We have long used and highly recommended FormSite for creating simple web-based forms and surveys.

Direct Mail

We have used a lot of vendors for direct mail, and we really like the folks at ModernPostcard and recommend them for small projects. Also, for our own marketing, we have been using a Lob for on-demand direct mail.

Copywriting, Editing, and Translation

Need help with writing and editing? ProPRcopy, which is a sister company to the Donovan Group, can help with your writing, and Scribendi, with which we do not have a relationship, is a terrific vendor for quick and excellent copyediting. One Hour Translation is a good source for translation service that, as its name would suggest, is very fast.

Customer Relationship Management Software

As school district communications move more into the realm of marketing, consider using a customer relationship management tool. For years we used big and expensive tools, but these are increasingly becoming unnecessary as inexpensive and easy to use CRM tools enter the marketplace. Consider our favorite, Contactually or CapsuleCRM. When the project calls for a database, we like Knack.

Advanced Marketing Communication

For many years we used Infusionsoft for auto-marketing. But it is a bear to set up and is expensive. While Infusionsoft is easier and less expensive than the very well-regarded Salesforce, we are now recommending two even easier and less expensive tools, SharpSpring and AgileCRM. For the money, Agile is hard to beat. For testing website landing pages, we like Unbounce and Instapage. For a handy tool that helps us find email addresses, we like Hunter.io. Finally, we are all about bringing it all together by connecting APIs through Zappier.

Bonus material

To stay ahead of the communications curve, we are spending a lot of our own professional development time learning basic coding. We love Michael Hartl’s programs along with Codecademy. For simple web applications and prototyping, we are digging Bubble.is, a visual programming tool.

That’s it for now. What have we missed? Do you have some favorites to add? Let us know! Also posted on Medium.