The back-to-school season is full of excitement, with students, parents, educators, businesses, politicians, and other community members all looking to schools to set the tone for the year. School leaders should take advantage of this opportunity to highlight the great things happening in their school.
To guide their efforts, school leaders can create a comprehensive back-to-school communications plan. Such a plan includes multiple ways of telling multiple audiences (such as families, staff, policy makers, and the public) what is going on in your school, and why (and how) they should support it.
Some question the need to devote precious time to communications. But given the rising role that parental choice and public perception play in education decisions, it’s important for schools to tell their story.
Write Talking Points
Talking points are the messages you want to send: What do you want the community to know?
Your talking points depend on your context. Are you starting a technology initiative you want to build support for? Is the community concerned about safety? Has your school made big gains? Identify the largest challenges and opportunities for your school, and write three to five talking points responding to them. Then add support points for each. Keep them positive, even if they address a negative topic. (Confused about how this looks? Download an example.)
You don’t have to do it alone. Work with teachers and staff, the PTA, or district leadership to develop a common message. Having your entire learning community speak with one voice is very powerful.
Develop a Strategy
Once you have talking points, decide how you will get them out. Commit to three to five activities (or as many as you have time and resources to do well) that can incorporate these points and reach a variety of audiences across your community. Be sure to block off time on your calendar to do this.
What exactly to do again depends on context. Suggestions include:
Write a back-to-school letter to families or rethink what your existing letter contains: Sometimes these letters contain so many logistics that they become too lengthy and uninteresting. Consider writing a short big-picture letter highlighting your talking points and attach a packet with logistical information. Distribute it in a variety of ways, including hard copies in student backpacks, email, social media, and your website.
Send a back-to-school letter to staff: Don’t underestimate the importance of internal communications. In addition to thanking staff for their work, this letter should incorporate your talking points and resemble the message you send families and the community, so everyone is on the same page. Ask staff to support the school priorities, in terms of both messaging and new initiatives. Stress the important role they play in “myth busting” about your school as they engage in conversations in the community—and provide strategies to help them do so.
Invite a policy maker to visit: Let federal, state, or local decision makers see what’s happening in your school firsthand. When inviting them, be clear what you are asking them to come see: Name one to three things you are proud of (such as a language immersion program, updated career/technical education pathway, or the way teachers integrate technology). Be brief, but include information on how this work impacts students, so they know even if they don’t visit.
Write a back-to-school commentary: This could be an op-ed, a letter to the editor, or a blog post that you circulate widely. This helps you connect with members of the community who do not have children in your school and are otherwise not engaged, but may be asked to support your school (for example, by voting for a bond referendum). Make clear your position on an issue—for example, that your school is doing great things or needs additional support from your community.
Create a school fact sheet or revise your current one: This should reflect the story you want to tell. Give community stakeholders easy access to information like your mission, enrollment, achievement indicators, and points of pride (such as awards and key initiatives). Put it on your website and social media, send it to families, share it with the media and community organizations, and keep a stack in the office for visitors. For inspiration, check out district fact sheets from Arlington, Virginia, and Racine, Wisconsin.
Go into the community: Incorporate your talking points, including an ask for support, into a presentation to current and potential business partners, institutions of faith, service groups (like Rotary), and other important community players. If you cannot do presentations, send a short, personalized letter to key community organizations to make connections and continue relationships.
Create a hashtag: If your school community is active on social media, create a hashtag like #[YourSchool]rocks or #[YourSchool]FirstDay (check to make sure it isn’t already in use). Publicize it widely. Use it yourself to share photos and thoughts on the start of school and your talking points, ideally with visuals that support them. Encourage others—including parents, students, teachers, school counselors, and other staff—to use it as well.
Once you’ve developed your plan, execute it. As you do, remember your plan is just that: a plan. New ideas may arise, and some things might not work out—be flexible and take advantage of every opportunity to tell your school’s story.