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Don’t look now, but your last school district crisis was totally avoidable

Imagine: You’re the head of a large urban school district. The Education Department hands down a new policy directive. You act swiftly and with the best of intentions, issuing rule changes for the benefit of your entire community–or so you tell yourself.

All is quiet. You think maybe your decision went off without a hitch.

A month later, seemingly out of nowhere, everything falls apart.

You show up at a board meeting. Nine hundred of your closest friends are there–more faces than you’ve ever seen in your life.

People are up in arms–literally, waiving them in your face. Not everyone disagrees with your choices. But many of them do. All of them, it seems, question your approach. When were the rules first issued? Why didn’t we hear about this sooner? Were you planning to let us weigh in here?

You stand to quiet the crowd. You assure them that your leadership team is committed to listening to and hearing from every perspective.

Too little too late, they protest. Dissenting voices accuse you of being patronizing. Thanks. But what’s the point of seeking our input if the decision’s already been made? The next day, a dozen news headlines skewer your administration for ignoring community sentiment in favor of a personal political agenda. In less than 24 hours, your once harmonious community is fractured and reeling. And you … find yourself on the defensive.

These fallouts happen every day, in school districts across America.

And the worst part? (Or maybe it’s the best part?) They’re almost always avoidable.

As a school leader, you make a hundred decisions a day. For every choice you make, there’s a surprise you don’t see coming. Maybe you don’t hear about it. Or, perhaps you just don’t have the time to think it through. There are sensitivities to consider–things you couldn’t possibly know, or anticipate.

It doesn’t matter how well-intended your actions, you can’t overcome these weaknesses on your own.

But there is a way.   

Lead by listening
Your district does a superlative job getting its message out. Schools have spent years perfecting the art of outbound communication. But it’s the inbound–inviting feedback from parents and teachers and creating a culture of customer care and collaboration–that separates your schools from the competition.

You might think you’re already doing this work. You probably have a contact us button on your website. Parents and community members can pick up the phone and call, or shoot you an email. At first glance, it seems the bases are covered.

But take a closer look. What you’ll find is that most of this work happens in silos. Feedback comes in to one department and leaks back out again. At any given time, the average school leader has no idea how many parents or students are reaching out to the district with questions or concerns. It’s simply impossible to tell whether you are effectively meeting the needs of your community. What’s worse, you have no way of ensuring that every person who contacts you receives a thoughtful and timely response. Closing that loop feels like a fool’s errand.

Some of the world’s most recognizable brands–the Amazons and the Zappos–figured this out years ago. They raised the bar on customer service. If you have a question about an order, these companies tell you exactly where to go. And they guarantee a response. The school choice movement and the rising tide of competition has, for the first time, brought this thinking to public schools.

A handful of educators have managed to stay ahead of this trend.

Consider the Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana. When Superintendent Dr. Wendy Robinson decided last year to cut transportation zones across the district, essentially forcing hundreds of students to walk to school each day, she knew her decision would create an uproar in certain parts of the community.

She wasn’t worried.

Robinson had spent three years inviting feedback from her community on critical school district issues and building reserves of community trust. While not everyone agreed with the policy change, the community embraced it–because Robinson took care to invite feedback and to explain her decision publicly. She did this up front, not after the fact. (Read more about Robinson and Fort Wayne here.) 

As a school leader, you have one of the toughest jobs in America. Customer service isn’t part of your DNA. This isn’t finger pointing; it’s a fact. This is a gut-check moment for all those who work with and in public education. We need to have fierce conversations about how to change the status quo. We need to make customer service and community engagement our No. 1 priority. Because without it, families and students will suffer. And, when they’ve finally had enough, they’ll leave. Nobody wants that.