Opinion: The Best Way Schools Can Communicate With Parents

3241879_origBy Victor Abalos

The rush is now on for school districts to expand their “parent engagement” programs in an effort to comply with a new state mandate. But if previous parent engagement campaigns in this state are any measure, whatever school districts come up with will fall short and we simply can’t afford that any longer.

School districts must stop relying on passive parent “outreach and education” strategies and look to the marketing world for help, specifically social marketing.

Everyone in education knows that when parents are involved in their child’s education they do better. There’s no disputing the research. And Local Control Funding Formula now requires more rigorous parent engagement by all districts in this state.

But effective parent engagement impacts much more than student achievement:

  • It is the most effective way to combat at-risk behavior such as alcohol/drug use and violence.
  • It is the best way to implement student retention campaigns.
  • It can dramatically impact and improve attendance.
  • It is the best way to explain to parents (and voters) why they should support the district’s upcoming bond measures and any other district initiatives and projects.
  • In fact, there’s no end to what a district can accomplish once it effectively engages with a large segment of parents.

But how do you get parents “engaged” in an effective way? And what is effective “parent engagement?” This is particularly challenging in school districts with a high percentage of poor and working-class families.

Part of the challenge is that just about every school district thinks it already does a good job. Most of the school board members and administrators I’ve talked to will admit they could do better but they expressed satisfaction and sometimes pride in their efforts to productively engage their student’s parents.

But when you look at the research it’s hard to understand that perspective. Many times, it’s challenging to find school districts that even measure the effectiveness of their parent engagement in any meaningful way. They’ll provide numbers of parents that attend meetings as if that alone can tell you anything.

I don’t want to beat up on school districts over this. They are encumbered with so much reporting and measuring and quantifying it’s not surprising this area is a challenge. And during those conversations I’ve had with administrators and school policymakers about parent engagement I’ve always come away believing they genuinely want to connect with parents. But they’ve gotten trapped doing the same thing they’ve done year after year.

That’s why I believe school districts should utilize social marketing strategies to revitalize their parent engagement. I’m sure those words are making some educators cringe. I can hear the critics, “Marketing? We’re not in the business of selling anything!” But social marketing is not necessarily advertising.

Social marketing is the use of commercial marketing principles and techniques to improve the welfare of people and the physical, social and economic environment in which they live. It is a carefully planned, long-term approach to changing human behavior.

“What is Social Marketing?”

The key to social marketing is changing human behavior.

We have all been successful targets of social marketing. It’s why we don’t litter, or don’t smoke, or don’t start forest fires. These were all highly successful social marketing campaigns. Social marketing is a business “science” that relies heavily on research and measurement. It combines marketing and advertising with psychology and sociology. At it’s worst, depending on your point of view, it’s convinced us to buy crap we probably don’t need but at it’s best it has saved lives or at least helped us lead healthier lives.

An effective social marketing campaign works because it relies on proven strategies and tactics and it includes ways to measure whether the campaign is working. Most social marketing campaigns include:

  • A clearly identified Audience and research how to reach that Audience
  • Specific (and tested) Messages – “Your direct participation in your child’s education dramatically improves their chances of success” is only one example.
  • And the messages must include responses to marketing opposition – “I’ve got two jobs. I’m too busy!”
  • A direct Call-to-Action – “Get involved and here’s how!”
  • Proven Tactics connected to effective marketing – phone calls, social media, websites, PR, events, etc.
  • An understanding of the importance of language(s) – some people call this “cultural competence”
  • And especially Measurement – surveys, focus groups, digital metrics, bounce-back cards, etc.

Traditionally, districts have approached parent engagement as “education” or “outreach” which too often involves passive strategies. They rely heavily on the belief that their target audience is just waiting to get this information and poised to take action. That used to work for most schools and it still works in some schools, particularly in higher income districts. But for poor and working class families that is just not true and if that describes your district I probably don’t need to convince you of that.

At the heart of parent engagement is a call to parents to get involved – to change their behavior and stop doing things that aren’t supportive of their child’s education and start doing things that are. Whether its enforcing an early bedtime, to ensure their children get plenty of sleep, to creating a homework space in the home, there’s a long list of things parents can do that don’t necessarily involve attending meetings or going to their child’s school.

Changing behavior is not an easy task. It requires getting an important message through to parents – a message in a language they understand and will listen to – and convincing them to take action. That doesn’t happen in one meeting or after one phone call. It takes time and persistence and the use of effective strategies that you can measure to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. In short – social marketing.

Most school districts are not prepared to develop and launch their own social marketing campaigns. But they already rely on outside support for staff training and professional development, research, IT support, construction and a host of other services. Communications and marketing should be on that list especially when it comes to parent engagement. They simply need to re-direct resources away from out-dated parent engagement strategies to effective social marketing campaigns. Remember, this should not generate additional costs. Districts already have resources committed to parent engagement and the state and feds are moving to provide additional resources.

The next step is the most challenging for school districts. If you don’t have a marketing or communications professional on your staff this is not the time to “make do.” And this is not PR. You shouldn’t ask your Public Information Officer or media person to do this – not if you’re interested in results. Public or community relations is not social marketing. It can, and should, be used in a marketing campaign but it’s not “the same thing.” If you didn’t know that, then please consider that evidence you need help.

Go find experts who have a proven track record and experience with schools. Insist on measurement. Once you have found your outside resource make sure they can demonstrate results. Try some agencies or consultants out first with a small project before committing to an RFP and long-term contract.

Getting thirty parents to an after-school event is a great start. Staying connected to those parents in a meaningful way after the meeting and convincing them to get involved is really the goal.

Victor Abalos is the founder of the JVA Group, a strategic communications/outreach consulting practice based in Los Angeles.

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