Every school community in America has an important, positive story to tell.
The ingredients for these positive school stories are found in your programmatic strengths, your exceptional teachers, coaches, staff members, administrators, and in the victories achieved by the kids all of this supports. Every school has something. Often it's hiding in plain sight; sometimes, it's tucked quietly away in a teacher's classroom. The crafting and distribution of a positive school story is not something that happens automatically. It takes effort, and it takes a thoughtful strategy. But sharing that story and making sure the community understands what it means to them is worth doing. It is one of the best things we can do for our community as education leaders.
Everyone loves being part of a winning team, and to the extent that we can craft—and broadly share—a positive school narrative, not only our kids but everyone in our community will see themselves as being members of that winning team. That puts a spring in the stride of our kids and our community, but it also creates a framework for how our schools are seen from outside of our community. Research has shown, over and over again, a direct correlation between positive school identity and the overall performance of students, faculty, and staff. It is a worthy aim.
Everybody does better when they see themselves as part of a positive story.
Not all taxpayers have a direct connection to the school. 75-80% of your community is missing your story.
Unless a taxpayer has a child at school, they are virtually guaranteed to NOT see regular school correspondence, whether in digital or analog form. In most communities, school communication reaches only around 20-25% of the taxpayer base—the folks with kids in school. That leaves 75-80% of your taxpayer base in the dark, and that's where negative narratives begin to take root. Social networks, both online and off, will spread negative narratives—truthful or not—like wildfire.
Stories told through the individual lens are far more compelling than those told about a thing. Example: It's not about your new elevator, it's about the 75-year-old grandparent who can get to the 3rd floor now to see the play in which his granddaughter is performing. We use this kind of personified lens to share the stories of triumph, of perseverance, of futures dreamt of and of pasts reconciled. When stories are told from this authentic place, readers are able to invest trust in them and they become genuinely meaningful. Bonus: When young people see their voice given power through story, it changes them and it inspires their peers. This becomes so powerful when that voice resonates across an entire community.
Well told, well shared personified stories lift and inspire.
Referenda passage and other community investments require broad buy-in from district taxpayers.
Taxpayers are under no obligation to fund public education without protest. Anybody who has ever sat through a levy hearing in lean times or has seen a referendum vote go down in flames understands this. The school story you tell and are able to share with your entire community can be the difference between referendum passage and an unfunded need that cannot be moved to a health, life, safety mandate. Having our community's buy-in before we go to referendum or ask for other kinds of support means sharing our positive story before we go to referendum or ask for other kinds of support.
Quality teachers are the lifeblood of our schools and to the extent that we struggle to recruit them, we will struggle to deliver the educational services we are here to provide. Like parents and students and other community members, teachers want to be on a winning team. And other schools are competing to hire them. All things being equal, the school that is best able to communicate its strengths through its shared story will win this competition. Filling those roles with quality candidates means telling a compelling story as to why yours is the credential they want on their resumé. Of course, there are other reasons why teachers choose one school over another, but we like to hedge our bets by telling a better story.
We will always need to recruit strong, well-qualified teachers, and those kinds of teachers will always have options.
We believe in technology, but also in using the right tool for the job.
We're all about smartphones, Apple Watches, and leveraging the latest technology. But there are some crevices in our communities that are beyond digital reach. Research conducted in 2023 shows that fewer than 11% of rural taxpayers are 'meaningfully engaged' in school-based social media. So, in the case of reaching every taxpayer in the districts we serve, we've discovered the right tool: Direct mail. There is no better way to make certain that every individual in your district is consuming your story. When a 24-page, full-color, professionally designed magazine shows up in the mailboxes of your community with a cover photo of a student who works at the local Subway or convenience store, people notice. Everybody notices. Taxpayers notice. That's the right tool for the job.
Frequently, negative narratives take hold in school communities based upon misunderstandings, personal vendettas, hurt feelings, and other drivers that have nothing to do with the good work being done by actual educators inside of actual school buildings. Social media is very often complicit in the spreading of negative narratives, and administrators often find themselves powerless to turn the tide. The old fashioned kind of networks still exist, too. The ones that gather at the local restaurant or coffee shop for breakfast. In my hometown, population 3,300, we used to call ours 'The McDonald's Mafia,' after the group who met there each morning for coffee and gossip. You've seen this. If they've got nothing to talk about, they'll settle on something negative and toss it around like a pod of Orcas with a stray sea lion. Fill the vacuum with positive stories and it all but eliminates the din of negativity.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, in the absence of positivity, negativity will flourish.
Public education needs to defend itself, along with the good it is capable of doing.
As long as we're using physics metaphors, we may as well toss another one in: An object in motion tends to stay in motion until it is acted upon by an outside force. Public education in America is—some would say—under assault. Enrollments are shrinking and State funding, along with them. But there is a story that is being left largely untold. It's like we're in a boxing ring with our institutional hands tied to our sides, just taking the beating without telling our story; without really fighting back. There is nothing wrong with a parent choosing an alternate to public education. That isn't the point. The point is, public education can no longer afford to remain silent in that ring. Private, parochial, and home schooling are all making their stand, telling their story. It's time to tell ours.
"The status quo will do us just fine," said no leader ever. Thirty-five years ago, there were no SmartBoards. Twenty five years ago, there was no streaming media. Twenty years ago, there was no YouTube. Ten years ago, we'd never heard of Zoom. And within the last five years, more startups have been focused on AI than were focused on social media during the Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter launch era. Where will we be tomorrow, next year, ten years from now? We can't know with certainty, but we can be certain it will come about through conversations that sprout from stories. Who will tell those stories? Someone else? Or you. As author Alex Haley famously said, "Find the good and praise it." And that's precisely what we do.
A well-told story can start a conversation and a conversation can change the world.