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January 9, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 9

A Community Outreach Plan for Principals

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      It makes me sad when principals feel that they, or their schools, are detached from their communities. One urban principal described the factors behind his situation: "It's like my school was plopped in the middle of a sea of apartments, and we have no connection to anyone outside our four walls."
      Another common version of this disconnection problem happens when a community thinks of the principal as someone they call only when something is wrong. We have all taken phone calls or drop-in meetings from people we've never met until that very moment. Something has gone wrong, they are furious about it, and they have decided that "I'm marching right in to see the principal." We've also taken this negative input from community members who have no investment or emotional tie to our school. Amass a few of those over the course of a week, month, or year, and your morale and hope may dwindle down to nothing. It feels like the principal is a human punching bag, not the innovative agent for change we had hoped we would be.
      Is there anything a principal can do to stop being everyone's favorite target in the community? I think so.
      Embrace video. Video is a great way to bring the goings-on of your school to the broader world. You don't have to be a savvy videographer to create perfectly acceptable videos; even a standard smartphone can capture casual clips to quickly upload and post. Further, programs such as Screencastify or ScreenFlow can make quality videos seamlessly.
      • Start a YouTube channel. Several years ago, I started a YouTube channel for our school with the intent of posting short videos for our parents with news updates and explanatory information (how parent drop-off and pick-up works, how to sign in your child after an out-of- school appointment, and so on). The channel was well received, so we expanded it to include our student-led video news program. We started creating videos of all sorts of things we wanted to highlight, including seasonal musical performances, events highlighting our diversity and multicultural population, academic achievements and awards, and end-of-year celebrations. Our families can share these videos with family and friends outside our school, which connects grandparents, aunts and uncles, and neighbors to a collective school experience.
      • Create individual staff profiles. A couple summers ago, I experimented with short staff-profile videos. I did one of my own, titled "Profile of Your Principal," and invited teachers to do the same. We shared personal tidbits about our hobbies and families but also addressed why we love working with students and even foundational beliefs about education. Some of our more shy, reserved teachers preferred to film their video with a colleague or team. You might also consider dispersing this type of outreach over the course of a year, perhaps profiling a different staff member every month, with the goal of sustaining it indefinitely. People love stories about other people, so they'll watch—and grow more acquainted with your school and the people in it.
      Address brand killers. You know what makes a community really mad? A teacher taking to social media to whoop and holler about, say, summer break: "TEN WEEKS OF FREEDOM! Love being a teacher!" Or a snow day: "I LOVE snow days!!!! BACK TO BED FOR ME!!! So #grateful to be a teacher to get these days off! Pajamas all day long!"
      When community members see posts like that, while they're heading to their year-round jobs or scrambling to make alternative plans for their children, they get really grumpy really quickly. For reasons big and small, noneducators are poised for resentment when they hear about or see educators having time "off." Even small things like an automated e-mail response saying, "I am on summer break and will not be responding to e-mail. Please try again after August 10," can be received in ways we hadn't intended—as a teacher's disengagement, detachment, or even hostility.
      What you can do is take to social media with a positive message. On a day school is closed, you might tweet on your school account, "Although there is no school today, we look forward to seeing you soon!" If teachers must leave a summer message on their e-mail accounts, you might suggest that they say, simply, "Can't wait to reconnect with you on August 10!" In fact, these occasions can be an opportunity to enhance our brand. Recently, our school was closed for a snow day. My husband, an athletic director, tweeted this: "Athletes! Do you have a neighbor who might benefit from a shoveled driveway? Offer to help out and show what we mean by #ShamrockPride!" He got many retweets and expressions of gratitude from this small display of public service.
      Meet a need. A friend of mine was the principal of a Title I school in a high-poverty area. Students had limited exposure to literacy resources at home. She used Title I funds to create her own mini bookmobile and spent one summer night a week driving in a district van, giving books to any and all students she could find. If they returned the book the next week, fine. If not, fine. Soon they came out to greet her as happily as they would if she were driving an ice cream truck. She added music and opened her windows. When she was profiled on the local news, several businesses donated additional monies to continue her mission. I've seen other principals do similar outreach, working alone or with a team of administrators, teachers, or student leaders.
      The following ideas could be adapted to fit a need in virtually any community:
      • Adult community education. Open the school for a series of classes for community members, taught by teachers or local experts.
      • Spring clean-up day. Host an annual outdoor landscape event to mulch, weed, prune, and plant flowers around the school, hospitals, libraries, or nearby waterways.
      • Food pantries. Communicate with local food banks to determine which food items and supplies are in high demand and host a specific drive for those items.
      • Student role models. With a student leadership group, develop a "road show" to speak to younger students about positive decision making.
      • Community resources fair. Host an evening or a weekend event at which representatives from local social organizations and agencies (e.g., counseling services, municipal services, youth activities such as scouts or recreational sports teams) come to share information with parents.
      • "Sister school." Create bonds with an administrator of a similar school in a different state or country; build partnerships through student writing, online video chats, and community service projects.
      Partner with a local business. Developing a reciprocal relationship with businesses near your school—including, for example, a fitness studio, the arts council, a local computer/technology hub, or restaurants and grocery stores—is a great way to build community ties. I find that locally owned businesses are usually thrilled to develop a connection, especially if they get some free marketing out of the deal. At my school, a popular local sandwich shop provides lunch for our staff a couple of times a year and supplies dessert and drinks for our annual student Movie Night. We return the favor by thanking them publicly and profusely in social media posts.
      Connect with older and younger residents. A principal friend of mine called the director of a nearby retirement home about a potential visit. That one phone call has evolved into a mutually beneficial partnership based on shared respect. Students walk to the retirement home for regular visits, and the school makes the elderly residents guests of honor at school events. Elementary students can read with residents or help them decorate for the holidays. Middle and high school students can provide concerts or other performances or pair up for project-based learning experiences in history, sociology, and social studies classes. I've known other schools that have reciprocal relationships with day care centers or preschools that feed into their schools. Elementary schools can offer parent information sessions on kindergarten readiness. Middle and high schools can create a "buddies" program or provide internships for students who hope to pursue a career in education.
      Take advantage of seasonal opportunities. City officials and local planners are always eager for extra hands at community events, and such events are a great opportunity to market yourself and your school. March in parades. Show up at memorial events. Light the local Christmas tree. Serve at a concession stand at summer festivals. I feel acknowledged and appreciated by the community that surrounds my school.
      I've often heard principals lament the loneliness they feel in their job. I don't believe it has to be that way. Loneliness sprouts and festers when we don't feel connected to others around us, but connectedness is a choice, no? It takes an investment of time and energy, a willingness to evolve in our communication practices, and an approach characterized by creativity and out-of-the-box thinking—but the payoff will be rich and meaningful for everyone involved.
      This is an adapted excerpt from the author's forthcoming book The Principal Reboot: 8 Ways to Revitalize Your School Leadership (ASCD, 2020).

      Jen Schwanke, EdD, is a longtime educator who has taught or led at all levels. She is the author of three previous books: You're the Principal! Now What?, The Principal ReBoot, and The Teacher's Principal. She has written for Educational Leadership Magazine, Choice Literacy, Education Week Teacher, Principal, and Principal Navigator.

      Dr. Schwanke is a cohost of the popular "Principal Matters" podcast and has presented at conferences for ASCD, NAESP, Battelle for Kids, RRCNA, and various state and local education organizations. She has provided professional development to various districts in the areas of school climate, personnel, and instructional leadership. An adjunct graduate instructor in educational administration, Dr. Schwanke currently serves as a deputy superintendent in Ohio.

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