Wide Audience Communication in Schools

There is not a singular tool that can be universally prescribed as the best to reach a wide audience. It truly depends on the purpose of the communication and the audience receiving the message. One must look at their communications from the various points of view in their community because “perception is more powerful than reality” (Warner and Mathews, 2009, Dealing with Perceptions section, para. 3).

COMMUNICATING SCHOOL MESSAGES TO A WIDE AUDIENCE

There is not a singular tool that can be universally prescribed as the best to reach a wide audience. It truly depends on the purpose of the communication and the audience receiving the message. One must look at their communications from the various points of view in their community because “perception is more powerful than reality” (Warner and Mathews, 2009, Dealing with Perceptions section, para. 3). There are three solutions to consider: mass-text-messaging systems, web-page builders, and my most preferred option (and likely the most used option) school learning management or classroom management systems. There are ‘best of’ lists for recent years provided by Business News Daily (2020), Wilson (2020), and Softwareworld (2020) respectively. Technology both has and has not improved the way in which stakeholders are communicated with, effective use comes down to the user. Often, technology creates one-way communication, contrary to the goals of an educational system; “the two-way flow of ideas and accurate information is essential to school improvement” (Kowalski, 2011, p. 23). Technology may create the illusion of better communication, because the data that is shared efficiently and gives families and students a window into the day-to-day progress of the student; this is an important piece of the communication chain as Kowalski (2011, p. 23) points out that “school administrators are accountable to the public” and “the public has a right to information about schools.” However, human to human communication over the phone, video conferencing, and in-person conferencing remains the most effective communication, though this can be difficult to do in large groups; it allows for two-directional and symmetrical information to be exchanged. Technology options have dramatically changed in the past ten years, since the publishing of Kowalski’s (2011) research. Regarding the best tools (over methods) for communicating to a wide audience, there are three options to discuss for education today. 

First, mass-text-messaging: In a school system where poverty is high and families cannot be expected to have regular access to a computer, a mass-text-message system may be the most beneficial. Families in poverty, earning less than $30,000 per year, are more likely to have a phone at a rate of 71% over a personal computer at a rate of 54% according to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center (Anderson and Kumar, 2020). Additional considerations for school administrators should be the rate of poverty in the United States. The amount of children in poverty increased, from 1995 to 2001, from 20% to 28% respectively (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2004, p. 169 as cited by Kowalski, 2011, p. 31). Further, “in the last decade, this rate has risen from 18% in 2007 and 2008, peaked at 23% in 2011 and 2012, and returned to 18% in 2017 and 2018.” (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2020). In a school system with a wide range of home-languages text-messages may be also beneficial, messages can be sent out in groups with the preferred language selected. The home language is an important consideration for administrators. Kowalski (2011, p. 32) notes that large populations of immigrant students have reshaped the school system; schools already strapped for resources have additionally had to customize portions of the education system to accommodate the needs of these students in regards to time, money, and legitimate attendance. This tool is effective for quick short messages relating to school operations; links to web-content can be included for more details. Similar to the connections made through mass-text-messages, email messaging (perhaps for a school newsletter) and social media tools such as Facebook and Instagram can be accessed through smartphones to distribute school messages. These too can be linked to a school website. Tufts University (2021) has compiled a listing of the top platforms including Twitter, Snapchat, and LinkedIn for communications along with user guides that emphasise connections and the ease of access. 

For a general population, in an average school district, a Management Information System would be the one singular tool that I would most rely on as an administrator because it has so many functions within the system. These systems vary in use and pricing, examples include Google Classroom, Schoology, Class Dojo, PowerSchool, ManageBac, Canvas, and Seesaw. Kowalski (2011, p. 135) does warn that the system selected does limit the effectiveness of the public relations efforts based on the functionality of the system. In general, these systems provide on-line learning options, messaging to parents and students through email, documentation and retention of demographics, homework submission and grading, as well as other features. The benefits of these systems include the ability to communicate to general groups, classes, and individuals. Many include language preference integration so that communications are automatically translated to the target home language. They also can help users to track their individual information with the school and give the school access to global data about their population and performance. Teachers and administrators can even use some of these tools to track, manage, and support good behavior in schools. This would be a significant benefit to teachers as they communicate with both students, parents and other teachers. Not only would it have the potential to improve the school community but it may increase school attendance retention. Negative student behavior often results in school suspensions, expulsions, and grade retention levels; the No Child Left Behind Act allows for students to transfer from “persistently dangerous schools” in favor of “safer schools” (Kowalski, 2011, p. 33). Tracking the data could support the communications with state and federal departments regarding the safety of the school. These systems are no better than the data put into them and how they are effectively managed. While they are powerful tools, they are continually being updated and users (teachers, students, parents, and administrators) need to be educated on the updates. Kowalski points to the “information literate educator,” one who can form questions about information needs, identify where to find the information, access the information through computing systems, evaluate the information, organize the information in a practical method, integrate information into an existing database, and use information to solve problems (Doyle, 1992, as reported by Kowalski, 2011, p. 134). In the workplace, and certainly the classroom, of today, information and technological literacy is nearly a given which is why this powerful tool would be my first choice tool. 

References

Anderson, M., & Kumar, M. (2020, May 30). Digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/07/digital-divide-persists-even-as-lower-income-americans-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/

Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2020, January). Children Living in Poverty in America. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from https://www.aecf.org/blog/children-living-in-poverty-in-america/

Business News Daily. (2020). The Best Text Message Marketing Services of 2020. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/15044-best-text-message-marketing-solutions.html

Softwareworld. (2020, December 31). Best Learning Management System (LMS) Software With Reviews & Comparison. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://www.softwareworld.co/top-learning-management-system-software/

Tufts University. (2021). Social Media Overview. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://communications.tufts.edu/marketing-and-branding/social-media-overview/

Warner, C., & Mathews, J. (2009). Promoting your school: Going beyond PR (3rd ed.). (Kindle, E-book)Thousand Oaks: Corwin. 

Wilson, J. (2020, December 16). The Best Website Builders for 2021. Retrieved January 02, 2021, from https://www.pcmag.com/picks/the-best-website-builders?test_uuid=001OQhoHLBxsrrrMgWU3gQF

Effecting Positive Change from Tragic Reenactment

Two students dressed as the shooters from Columbine, 1999, attended Kentucky High School for halloween and reenacted scenes from that horrific day; the students were suspended. Comments on the report vary between praise and condemnation for the suspension. One comment called for the parents of the students to face criminal charges. Other comments called the actions of the school overreach, lacking specific reasoning for the suspension – admitting that the costumes were in poor taste.

Reacting to the reenacted Columbine shooting with a suspension and a statement, the school could have done more to manage and effect positive change. 

Two students dressed as the shooters from Columbine, 1999, attended Kentucky High School for Halloween and reenacted scenes from that horrific day; the students were suspended. Comments on the report vary between praise and condemnation for the suspension. One comment called for the parents of the students to face criminal charges. Other comments called the actions of the school overreach, lacking specific reasoning for the suspension – admitting that the costumes were in poor taste. 

The school additionally released a statement, as reported by Joyce (2018), “”We take the situation very seriously and our personnel are continuing to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding this matter,” Stephens said in a statement. “The students are currently suspended.”” 

This situation, from a public relations perspective, missed the mark. Releasing a statement is one-way communication that leaves the audience without a method of creating dialogue. That is all that the school did. This is shown by observing the comments in the article (Joyce, 2018); people responding to the report clearly needed an opportunity to speak their mind and the school missed a teachable moment. The school could have explained the reasoning for the suspension, Joyce (2018), gives none. Instead, a community meeting or town-hall may have been a valuable step to take. School shootings have long been a worrisome problem in the field of education and there is likely a community member that is apathetic to the topic.  

Kowalski (20011, p. 14 – 16) identities several goals of PR inside of education; three of these goals “encouraging open political communication,” “enhancing the image of the school district,” and “managing information” could have been served with a communication that fostered open-dialogue. There were clearly people upset with the restriction of the students, the school could have addressed freedom of speech in their communications about the incident and why reenacting the violence of an historic school-shooting would be restricted. Stapelton and Murphy (2018) reported on a shooting that resulted in the deaths of two students and the injury of 18 others, from January of 2018, just ten months earlier. The school could have used this halloween incident and suspension to improve the image of the district by promoting school safety. Creating a forum for open dialogue would have helped the school to manage the information and explain the reasoning with the community. 

Joyce, K. (2018). Two Kentucky High School Girls Suspended After Dressing Up As Columbine Shooters for Halloween. Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/us/2-kentucky-high-school-girls-suspended-after-dressing-up-as-columbine-shooters-for-halloween

Kowalski, T. J. (2011). Public relations in schools (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. 

Yan, H., Stapleton, A., & Murphy, P. (2018, January 24). Kentucky school shooting: 2 students killed, 18 injured. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/23/us/kentucky-high-school-shooting/index.html

Missed Opportunities for Safeguarding Students

In 2018 teachers from the Middleton School District dressed as the border wall, presented the statement ‘Make America Great Again’ and coordinated with another group of teachers dressed as Mexican immigrants, photos of both these costume groups were posted to the district Facebook page; later the superintendent retracted the photos and replaced them with a recorded apology.

In 2018 teachers from the Middleton School District dressed as the border wall, presented the statement ‘Make America Great Again’ and coordinated with another group of teachers dressed as Mexican immigrants, photos of both these costume groups were posted to the district Facebook page; later the superintendent retracted the photos and replaced them with a recorded apology. 

The situation described by Maxouris and Gray (2018) was initially managed well; however based on the information provided there were many missed opportunities for school improvement and community relations. 

While political speech is typically protected, this case may be viewed through the lens of student safety and wellbeing. The school – and certainly the superintendent  – has a duty first to the students and their wellbeing. Given that this incident occurred in 2018, during the Trump administration, this political topic of imigration control and reform was certainly present in the everyday lives of students, even elementary students. Given that the Middleton School district is composed of 4,000 students (About Us/About MSD, 2020) and according to Idaho Ed Trends (as cited in Maxouris and Gray, 2018), almost 13% of the school’s population is Hispanic. 

The teachers dressed in a way that some parents “described as racist,” Superintendent Josh Middleton described the costumes as “clearly insensitive and inappropriate” and an immigrant rights advocate Beth Almanza commented that the photos were “extremely disheartening” and “heartbreaking” (Maxouris and Gray, 2018). This alone identities the controversy within the community and the potential harm to students. 

Given that there was potential harm to students, the retraction of the posts on Facebook, with the addition of an apology was a good first step in managing the incident. The Middleton School District states that it has a “goal to provide quality education… in an atmosphere safe for growing and learning” (About Us/About MSD, 2020). The retraction satisfies this portion of their mission. However, they also state that the learning should be completed “through the collaborative efforts of our staff, students, parents and community” (About Us/About MSD, 2020). 

The post from the Superintendent Middleton, creates what Grunning (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p. 12) would call two-way asymmetrical communication. It is not collaborative. It does not create a meaningful dialogue between the stakeholders in the school community. The superintendent’s post creates a message intended to persuade the public that the removal of the content was a reasonable response. Members of the Facebook page would be able to reply to the post and comment, though this function in social-media would fall short of symmetrical communication; it is unlikely that “mutual understanding,” as described by Grunning, (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p.12) would emerge from this lone response. 

This response falls short of the full force that public relations can have. The National School Public Relations Association (as cited in Kowalski, 2011, p. 14) defines Educational PR as “a planned and systematic two-way process of communications between an educational organization and its internal and external publics designed to build morale, goodwill, understanding, and support for that organization.” It would be interesting to follow up on the impact that this incident had in the community or if the superintendent was able to spark conversation or further actions in the community that did promote understanding and support for the organization. 

Because the response does not create dialogue or meaningful two-way communication,  the morale and goodwill that could have come from this difficult incident is missed. 

Considering different actions and approaches to only the Public Relations components of the response, the school could have held a community forum to discuss the issue, integrated community voices into the classroom to discuss immigration reform, and discussed the issue directly with the teachers. However, given the bandwidth of working time and attention, this response from Superintendent to internally review and publicly apologize may be all the time that was actually available. 

About Us / About MSD. (2020). Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.msd134.org/domain/32

Kowalski, T. J. (2011). Public relations in schools (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. 

Maxouris, C. & Gray, M. (2018). Elementary School Teachers in Idaho Dressed Up As a MAGA Border Wall for Halloween.  Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/02/us/idaho-teachers-border-costume-trnd/index.html

Teaching beyond Facts…

What does teaching beyond facts mean? I recently read a fascinating article on soft and hard skills in the 21st century. Here is a summary of the article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  

The school system that most adults today grew up with should not be in the classroom of today. The memorization of facts is not the most valuable resource for a student. The analysis and understanding of information – using the information in a way that develops the student and prepares them for the future is more important.

We live in an ever connected world. The future that the children of today face is increasingly changing and complex. To prepare students for the world of tomorrow, a world we cannot fully understand, educators must teach 21st century skills. These skills include Social-emotional learning, Habits of Mind, character strengths and grit. But, these skills are often seen as “soft” or non-cognitive. How does an educator teach them in the classroom. A more interesting question is how does one know when the student has acquired the skill?

Students need to learn literacy and numeracy. These things are still important. Test scores reveal a piece of the puzzle that develops a student. But, teaching a clear skill such as multiplication or letter recognition is not the same as the application of the real-world math problem incorporated with constructing a building or the value that comes with understanding humanity when one interprets and analyzes a poem.

In a 21st century classroom, we distinguish between different types of thinking. We ask questions of varied complexity; from fact to analysis to an application of skills, students must learn to work in a variety of ways: critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration. These skills move the student from the foundations of fact into the potential to apply their “soft” skills in a variety of situations.

What is uniquely different about these skills is that they are continually developed. The school can give each student the opportunity to practice critical and creative thinking, communication and collaboration through project based learning that targets these skills.
The full article can be found at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar16/vol73/num06/Hard-Thinking-about-Soft-Skills.aspx