Terry Abbott of the Houston (Texas) Independent School District had to do it. Instead of crossing his fingers hoping the press wouldn't catch wind of the bad news, which some district spokespeople might have done, the district's press secretary immediately publicized an investigation into alleged cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test in February.
"We announced that and what we'd do about it," says Abbott, a former news wire reporter who served as press secretary under former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige when he was superintendent of HISD. Officials fired two elementary school teachers and demoted a principal who allegedly helped students cheat on the math portion.
A few days later, the district's police officers arrested a man spotted leaving a Houston high school carrying a loaded gun. It was later discovered he had ammunition and drugs in his car, parked in the school lot. The public would have been oblivious to the situation if it were not for Abbott's call to make it public.
"It was important news about school safety," Abbott explains. "We wanted the public to know what had happened and what we had done about it. Quick action by the HISD police officer stopped that man from perhaps returning to the campus at another time and hurting someone. It also sent a clear message to anyone else who might have been thinking about bringing guns and drugs to a campus that we are constantly watching out for that kind of security problem and will act on it."
While Abbott's main job is to tout the good news of the district, good, bad or ugly news is worthy. The more school officials tell the news, honestly, as to what's going on behind school doors and on school property, the more information will disseminate throughout the community, gaining trust and in turn, making it easier to pass bonds, build new schools, and even sell homes to families.
It's All Good
Good schools--meaning impressive test scores, championships in athletics and high graduation rates--equal high property values from New York to California. At Bay Shore Public Schools on Long Island, officials have a list of "reachable moments" to improve public perception of schools.
One example given is to use real estate profiles, which is the official list of homes being bought and sold, create a database, and welcome new residents into the area. In California, Walnut Creek School District is now the driving force behind an expensive housing market. And in Santa Clara County in northern California, the median home price is $615,000, which people are paying in part because of the schools.
And publicizing the so-called bad news alerts parents and community members that school officials are aware of problems and fixing them. In the end, it's all good, they say.
"If you make a mistake, admit it," says Gay Campbell, president-elect of National School Public Relations Association. "It's part of what you'd do in any human endeavor. I'm not into positive spins. I'm into telling the truth. Make sure you do the best by the kids, pointing out both sides of a story. Getting a balanced, fair story in the end can't hurt you."
Abbott adds that districts must tell their stories. "Most media coverage will tend to be negative, and that's just the news business," he says. "We all know by working at school districts that many more good things happen than bad things. It's about finding those stories and telling them. ...The more you tell the public about the good things, the more they will appreciate it and get involved."
Getting The Story Out
Abbott, a former journalist, would be the first to say he sniffs out positive stories and when negative news rears its ugly head, he finds experts and officials to balance it out, showing the positive side.
Not only are former press people good in such positions in schools, because they know what reporters want, but also formal training on a national field benefits hundreds of communications directors.
The NSPRA, which has about 2,000 members, builds relationships that foster support for schools, according to Campbell, also communications director for the Everett (Wash.) School District. Such an organization is necessary, Campbell contends, in part because society has become so hectic and families so disconnected that no longer are students coming home and explaining their days as to what's going on in school.
"Any time you have a staff person or superintendent belonging to our organization, or any time you have central staff take on the job to involve the public in the schools, it has to pay off for school districts," Campbell says.
Getting the good word out requires research as the first step. Communication requires answers to what people need to know, how they get their information, what channels they use, and how they want their information.
A good place to start is conducting a communications audit, Campbell explains. On the NSPRA Web site, the audit essentially reviews what and how the district is communicating to the public, including to Board of Education members, business people, parents and students. Outside auditors, who will interview key people, such as business leaders and parent leaders, make recommendations on how the district can improve communication.
"It's hard for us to see the reality of what is happening," Campbell says. "People tell us what they want us to hear, but outsiders see the real truth. I want to hear the brutal truth of what I need to be doing of how to reach people so they feel they have ownership of the schools otherwise we can't expect them to support schools."
The district can then develop a targeted communications plan, Campbell says.
In Lawrence Township (N.J.) School District in Mercer County, just outside Princeton, every lead secretary in the seven schools, which include 40 percent minority and 48 first languages, has been formally trained by NSPRA members, in terms of how to elaborate on media releases and how to work with the press.
Superintendent Max R. Riley holds regular meetings with newspaper and television reporters to give them leads on stories or tips on upcoming events that may surface in the future. He also meets once a year with editors of the three local newspapers to answer questions and discuss what's coming up in the next year.
In one example, Riley says he'll track down the district's "outstanding primary grade teachers" to tout the early literacy program to the press.
In Campbell's district in Washington, 4,000 parents are on her e-mail list, which is how those parents want their information. Other parents can get information via literature mailed to them, Campbell says.
Media play a key role in selling stories. If Campbell sends to the press "every little thing [of news] it's hard for them to pay attention to anything." So she must pick and chose her best stories and pitch it to newspapers, radio stations and television shows.
She also has school communications directors acquaint themselves with reporters and learn how they like getting the news, such as via fax or e-mail, or what stories they are most interested in, and if they prefer story tips or stories already written. "How can we help you get your story," is the question to ask reporters, she says. "Personal contact makes the whole difference. You have to build relationships. You build trust. You are telling the truth. You are not dodging them or stonewalling them. You have a reputation for being honest and working with people, doing your best."
"If you try to hide something, the worse it will smell ... and that is demeaning to a reporter," Campbell adds. "You are assuming you can manipulate their minds."
Another must is to know deadlines, Campbell says. While reporters are watchdogs for the public, Campbell and Abbott acknowledge they sometimes conflict. If there is an emergency or crisis, Campbell says her first priority is the safety of the children and in essence, keeping their identities or names under wraps until families are contacted.
Knowing what the community stresses is another key piece of being a good pr person in schools. "Some communities are very focused on student achievement," she says. "Other communities focus on a sense of caring."
It doesn't matter if it's an urban or suburban or rural district, Campbell says, most parents are interested in their own neighborhood school.
Abbott's role goes far and beyond. He makes sure all media inquiries come to his office first. He has lists and recommendations of do's and don'ts with the media. He develops statistics of how many positive versus negative stories are publicized in any given time. He doesn't let the superintendent sit down with an investigative television reporter because "that particular type of interview is usually not designed to be fair", and anyone he allows to talk to the media must use laymen's terms.
Abbott has a "Top 11 (because I can't narrow it to 10) Banned Words and Phrases" (see sidebar). "When talking about the needs of children, you don't need to use education speak and bureaucracy speak. You use the same language as the public uses," he says. "The public does not care about the size of your vocabulary; they care about the size of your heart."
If You Build Trust, Votes Will Come
In Liberty (Mo.) Public Schools, where some students come from nearby Kansas City, a strategic plan is implemented with goals, timelines and go-to people. Jim Dunn, director of communication services and NSPRA president, develops a communications plan, which is part of the strategic plan, created by principals, teachers, and the superintendent.
About five years ago, Dunn, who had been part-time, welcomed a new superintendent and new dedication to strategic planning. They passed out surveys via the Internet to parents to learn how, in their eyes, the schools are doing and if the school district promoted their programs enough. "Since we started this, we now have longitudinal information that shows trends," Dunn says. E-mail and a district Web site disseminates information to a whole segment of the population that was never reached before. "We track how educational programs work and how they need to evolve as society and culture and technology affect our parents and patrons," Dunn says.
Parents informed his district that they want to know from where decisions stem, and not just what is decided but how it is decided. Parents want to be more involved and serve on ad-hoc committees with clear missions and clear time limits.
It's paid off. Over the past five years, the district has grown because of this partnership. In the past four years, two major election campaigns have raised money, receiving 83 percent of the votes--something that "did not happen before we began all of this," Dunn says.
One elementary school has been built in each of the past three years. People in town "will be able to say, 'Yes, I felt like I was heard. I got a chance to have my say. I didn't get my way, but the school people listened to me.' "
As for the bad news, Superintendent Riley in New Jersey says it always lurks. When Riley first came to the Lawrence Township district in 2001, he had a parent who was flaming mad over the dangerous and old elementary school playgrounds. She even threatened to have Riley fired over the lack of competency, even though he was only there three months.
Riley went to one school playground to meet with her. He saw the lousy swings and slides himself and told her he would join a "conspiracy" with her. "We'll replace all the playground equipment in town and go to the voters," he says he told her. The campaign extended all over town and 70 percent of the voters approved a quarter of a million dollars to create a master plan, design it, and install new playground equipment in all of the five elementary schools.
Lawrenceville has some of the most famous professors in the world and they frequently complain about what the district should do with math and science programs. "It's not uncommon for citizens to announce they want a program to change and then create a big furor," Riley says "I'm the most criticized public official in town. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone's main focus is education. I never take it personally. When someone comes in ... I meet them head on."
When Paige was Houston's superintendent of schools in the 1990s, he had to jumpstart a system that had become stagnant under former leadership. He turned to the community. "He encouraged us to reach out to communities and build the image of schools," recalls Anne Patterson, sub-district superintendent in Houston, who works with and communicates with realtors on a regular basis. "Every school has a brochure and weekly tours. Rod Paige really opened that door for us. ... A school should reflect the community it serves and the value system of that community and the needs of that community."
When Paige saw the district desperately needed a new high school, given the overflowing classrooms in one school, Paige pushed for a new one. Four years ago, a new high school was opened and behind it, a new middle school was also built. "That was a huge boon to the real estate in the area," Patterson says. "That kind of responsiveness has an impact. When I first came here, people were trying to move out of the district. Now people are trying to get into the district. We're being responsive to what the needs are."
Prime Real Estate--In School
Although Houston is still an urban district with its woes, housing in Houston is on par with suburbs. The only issue, Patterson says, is that a family can likely get a bigger house cheaper in the suburbs.
But Houston offers an array of programs, including a quality performing arts school and health professions school as well as law enforcement training, aviation training and communications training, Abbott says. In academic prowess, Patterson says, "we're on par with suburban schools. Especially when you compare like kids with the same economic background. Many of the Houston students outscore them."
Weekly newsletters on the Liberty Public Schools Web site help 90 percent of local realtors catch wind of the latest goings-on in the district, which boasts high ranking in the nation in major awards for technology, an Association of School Business Officials meritorious budget award, which means the budget is clear and people can understand it, and perfect scores on state assessment tests.
Prospective property owners "will pay a little bit more for a house in Liberty School District because they know that their children will get a really good education," Dunn says. "They are selling homes as fast as they can build them."
And with great communication can come great relationships, with realtors and even developers.
"Many times, real estate agents are the first people to talk about your school districts and it's important they have a fundamental understanding of your school district so they can give new parents and patrons good information," Dunn says. "They can also set the tone that the district is progressive, it's successful, that people learn in the schools and that education is very important in the community. And because they talk to so many people they are good conduits of information. They find out what people are asking and what they want to know about the schools."
Dunn mentions local developer John Ferguson and realtor Charles Small, both residents, who offer support. "When we have bonds and levies, we need organizational support, some financial support and good advice to market our product," Dunn says. "These are the people that help us and they understand what good schools mean for their business."
Upon speaking to a reporter, Small jokes that one of the favorite elementary school principals became an administrator and now the "property value of the [local] subdivision went down because he was so well-liked."
Of course, there is an element of truth in the popularity of school leaders and the link to property. "Probably the number one reason that people will locate in or stay in an area is the school, if they have children," he says. "The quality of life in the community may be second. ... If people are moving to a community and it doesn't have a positive school district and it doesn't have a good reputation they will avoid that property regardless of discounted value or location."
Field Trip for Realtors
Superintendent Riley says the competition for homes is fierce in Lawrenceville, which charges $3,300 in property taxes for the average homeowner for a $163,000 house, due to the district's national awards, particularly the AASA award for success in closing the achievement gap. "Seated as we are, adjacent to Princeton, we're a destination for lots of families and they stand on the lawn and bid when a house goes up for sale," he says.
This past fall, Riley hosted for the first time a Realtor's Tour, whereby for a half day about a dozen realtors boarded a bus and visited the various schools where they met principals and learned each school's niche.
They walked away with a packet of materials, including a CD that has a virtual tour of the schools and boasts the district highlights. ReMAX broker associate Buz Donnelly and a former Board of Education member who put the word of the tour out to other real estate offices, says, "I think the districts should be reaching out to local realtors to keep everyone informed in what is going on. When people are moving to a new town they often ask for a school report. The more information we have the better choices" they have.
The tough sell comes when a family wants the most competitive school district when there are a few in the area, Donnelly explains. The nitty-gritty details will set one district apart. Families with special needs children have seen the beauty of Lawrence Township. "I had several families purchase homes here because of that one-on-one talk and how their child will be handled in the district," Donnelly says. "They meet the special education teams and talk about the Individualized Education Plan and that's important."
And even though the district appears to have all the right stuff when it comes to selling schools, there is always room for improvement and new ways to show off. "We have momentum and we have to keep it up and keep building on it," Riley says. "The same old stuff gets old. We're looking for new stuff."
Abbott explains that while Houston's yearly $1.3 billion budget includes $370,000 in salaries for his office alone, a public relations office is worthwhile anywhere, even in small, rural districts. "I think every district should make a strong effort to tell its own story and make sure the story gets out," he says. "Most districts can find a way to have the type of communication to tell their story. It's a matter of will and understanding in the importance of doing that."
Angela Pascopella is features editor.