By Brad Hughes
KSBA Member Support Services Director
Happy New Year to school board members, superintendents and other advocates for public education! Now, kick off your dancin’ shoes and gear up your talking points. To paraphrase a famous movie line, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy year.”
Kentucky education leaders who aren’t ready to tell their stories in 2012 are heading for a bumpier year than they may have imagined. Consider these new year evolutions:
• The first tests and results of Kentucky’s new school and student accountability system – a system still evolving, since what is scored (program reviews) will change for another two years
• The first-ever (in most high schools) end-of-course exams in English II, algebra II, biology and U.S. history, with results showing up as a portion of students’ final grades
• The expected replacement of No Child Left Behind’s AYP with Kentucky’s AMO (Annual Measurable Objective) as the yardstick for acceptable school and district improvement
• The statewide pilot of teacher and principal evaluations, which will spark debates during the 2012 General Assembly and all the way down to the classroom level.
Then add in a few holdovers:
• Year two of the new high school graduation calculation, which will change again in 2013 as all states use the national standard of counting how many students earn a diploma in four years
• The college and career readiness data, made a bigger issue by the state Department of Education’s decision to issue first-ever rankings of schools
• The fight to craft a 2012-14 state budget and the resumption of legislative scrutiny of district Fund I balances and contingency funds
• The related district budget process, which again will require boards and superintendents to adopt school staffing and budget allocations before final fiscal votes take place in Frankfort.
Oh, and by the way, for nearly 500 Kentucky school board seats, it’s an election year.
Does anybody else believe now is the time for leaders to start thinking about what they’re going to have to say when these topics pop up at board meetings, civic functions or the checkout line at Wal-Mart?
Plenty of options
Here are 10 ideas to help school leaders get ahead of 2012’s communications challenges:
• Create a 12-month timetable of events such as test results, graduation and observations like Math Month. This calendar becomes a powerful tool in being ready for the remaining proposals.
• Savvy district leaders have discovered that board meetings can be more than simply when decisions are made and bills are paid. Set aside 10-15 minutes early on the agenda for a robust discussion of academic progress reports, new assessment pieces or budget decisions.
• If a topic is too complex to be effectively reviewed during the regular meeting, board members still need to understand it. Schedule a work session and maximize your information sharing by seeking news media coverage or producing a summary of the review to be distributed.
• At least twice this year, the superintendent, the board chairman, a member or some well-spoken staff expert should seek out a chance to be the speaker at meetings of a local Rotary, Lions or Civitan club or the chamber of commerce.
• Ask to be a guest on a radio talk show and spell out an issue for parents, employers or other citizens. If you have a regular radio show, make this one unique by asking for more time, a panel discussion or even a listener call-in show – but keep it focused on your topic, not a free-for-all.
• Critics write plenty of newspaper letters to the editor, so school leaders can’t simply give away this well-read opinion space. If the paper will allow an op-ed piece (typically longer than the word limits on letters to the editor), agree when to submit it so it meets your timetable.
• For districts with CATV options, pull together staff for a “Meet the Press”-type format in which the superintendent can “interview” them on a topic. Promote the airing schedule broadly.
• Meetings with legislators should take place at least annually. Again, be sure to have specifics to talk about, not just general “We need more money” pleas. Valid as they are, you can bring more to the table than tight budgets. And invite the media to cover your talks.
• Some superintendents have gone on the road – sometimes at PTA meetings, other times with special “please come” sessions – to educate parents and others about issues ranging from the new state accountability system to end-of-course exams.
• Put articles about an evolving matter of importance in your print or electronic newsletters, superintendent’s letters or other currently used avenues for getting your message out.
The Last Word
One of my favorite Abraham Lincoln quotes goes like this: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
Give folks the facts about your school system – before someone else helps them make up their minds.
And that’s a message worth getting out.