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    The Importance of Community Engagement in a Strategic Plan

    October 19, 2023
    by Peachjar |

    “Community engagement is a critical cornerstone to any strategic communications plan,” remarked Matthew Jennings as he opened up the discussion with Dr. Lindsay Whitley of Cumberland County Schools. So, that raises the question then, how do we (as a school district communications team, or school PR professionals) engage with families and community partners to ensure the success of students? 

    For Cumberland County Schools, that starts with a strategic plan. According to Whitley, it is a living document that his team uses daily. This plan proved to be a collaborative process from the beginning; including parents, stakeholders, employees and teachers alike. Truly listening to the people impacted most by their decisions allowed them not only to create a space for engagement, but to efficiently provide their community members with resources they need. Dr. Whitley noted that often, as their data has proven, families and community partners have a desire to engage with their school communities but do not always know how—or where to start. 

    Much like Lesley Bruinton in this episode of Peachjar Extra Credit, Cumberland County Schools expresses the importance of leveraging data in an effective communications strategy. Data, when used and gathered correctly, can inform decision-making and lead to more engaged community members. Analyzing data also allows districts to ensure they are using their resources wisely and providing offerings to community members that are actually helpful. Communications strategies are never a one-size fits all approach, so leveraging data from your community allows you to truly serve them in the best way possible. 



    Committing to Data-backed Change 
    • Cumberland County Schools participates in monthly audits
    • They collect data from virtual and in-person sessions to inform future sessions and determine areas of opportunity. "To get our students to graduate and thrive, we cannot do this work alone."—Dr. Lindsay Whitley
    • They act quickly when information is presented to them and only conduct surveys with the intention to act on responses, should that be necessary. 
      • If a certain location is not working for families or if there is a need for more child care in order for parents to attend events, they immediately try to implement something to change that to better the participant experience.  
    • They have also continued to keep an open mind when collecting data, understanding some responses may shock them. 
      • "After the pandemic, we thought parents would be tired of virtual and were about to end virtual sessions but after conducting a focus group, families said they want both- [they wanted] flexibility." 

    Standing Firm in a Strategic Plan

    • Dr. Whitley shared their strategic plan is a living document that they use and refer to daily. 
    • They created their strategic plan by including the community members their communications and schools impact the—enlisting the help of families, employees, and stakeholders.
      • Through their research, they found out that families, community partners wanted to be engaged with the school system but do not always know how. Thus, Committed Community and Cumberland Family Academy were born! They are able to provide informational sessions, social emotional well-being resources, and more. 
    • Part of their strategic plan was creating a user-friendly, one-stop shop for families and community members—making it easier for them to get plugged in. 

    Leveraging an Ambassador Program and Working With Various Community Partners

    • Cumberland County Schools thinks of their family ambassadors as an extension of their communications office. They work with school principals to identify parent leaders in their community and meet each month with those ambassadors. 
      • They have found success in a more organic, peer-to-peer model. At each meeting, parents are connected with district staff and provided information on a variety of topics that they can then use to inform their households, but also to share with other parents. 
    • They lean on various community partners—including the local Chamber of Commerce—to share various resources. Cumberland County Schools actually hosted a "Gathering of the Village" event where they invited business owners, retirees, faith partners, and more to come together as a community alongside the school district.
      • That event lead to community members signing up for volunteer positions that were previously in need of support. 
    • EXTRA CREDIT TIP: Learn more about ambassador programs and how other districts recruit community members and parents to be community champions here. 

    Leaning into Marketing 101: Redundancy and Repetition

    • When it comes to driving traffic to their resource site and getting the word out about various campaigns or events, Cumberland County Schools chooses a more traditional approach.  
      • From press releases and automated messages to billboards and digital ads, they cover their bases. Again, focusing on feedback from their community about where, when, and how they wish to receive information. 
        • AND the photos they use for billboards are actually students of Cumberland County Schools — after all, what proud parent does not want to see their child on a billboard?! 

    In the wise words of Ray Kinsella, “if you build it, they will come.” Similar to that Field of Dreams quote, Lindsay commented that providing high quality opportunities for families almost guarantees a good turn out. At the end of the day, school districts and school PR professionals have a heart for serving their communities—and what better way to do that then to listen to their feedback. Listening to community members’ needs, such as event times or locations that work for them, allows district staff to make informed decisions, which lead to better participation and more effective service to students and their families. 

    Dr. Whitley summarized it well with this mantra—“Nothing about me, without me." Information provided to parents should be timely and actually helpful, enabling and empowering them to succeed with the resources provided. If you have made it this far and are excited to implement practices similar to Cumberland County Schools, we leave you with this good news—when in doubt, just ask. If you do not know where to start, or wonder if your current offerings are helpful to families and community partners, provide a space for them to share their questions or volunteer time. You may be surprised by the response! 

    Categories: School Districts