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CGCS 19: America’s urban school leaders focus on customer experience

CGCS

There’s no job in the world quite like K-12 leadership.

I’ve held many positions in my lifetime, but nothing was as challenging–and rewarding–as my time as a K-12 administrator and Superintendent. It’s a unique experience–one that few outside of the K-12 world truly understand.

That’s why when I was Superintendent of a CGCS member district, I looked forward to the annual Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) Fall Conference–a vital opportunity to network with and learn from leaders of the largest urban school districts in the country.

Now, as an advisor to school leaders, the CGCS conference is critical in helping me continue to understand the challenges facing today’s school leaders. This year’s conference in Louisville didn’t disappoint.

Through several days of exceptional presentations and compelling conversations, I learned about the things that are keeping school leaders up at night–and where they see opportunities to improve the experience for students, parents, staff, and community members.

Everyone who attended CGCS will identify different conversations that were most impactful for them. For me, here are five key takeaways from this year’s conference.

1. Student safety a front-and-center concern

I often cite this statistic, because it’s just so shocking: According to a report in the journal Pediatrics, African-American children are killed by guns ten times more often than their white peers. While mass school shootings have taken up much of the dialogue around school violence, we must not forget the chronic threat of violence that many poor and minority students face in and outside school. CGCS leaders are well aware of the statistics and the threats their children face on a daily basis. Many of the questions I heard at this year’s conference around school violence focused on how social-emotional learning might work to both prevent violent incidents from happening–and help students deal with the aftershock of violent incidents they see or even survive.

2. Achieving equity is still a key goal–and a major challenge

Just look at the debates happening in school board elections across the country and you’ll see how important equity–along racial, class, and gender lines–is to K-12 leaders. While school leaders acknowledge some progress in the academic achievement gap between children of color and white students, they also say there’s a lot of work to be done. One question I heard multiple times in discussions at CGCS was How do we provide exceptional academic experiences for ALL students in our districts?”

3. Funding continues to worry leaders at every level

Closing the achievement gap and guaranteeing equity for all students can only happen when educators have the proper resources and support. But as budgets on every level–local, state, and federal–continue to dwindle in many school districts, district leaders are often forced to make tough decisions about their priorities. Many of the leaders I talked to are looking for solutions that help drive operational efficiencies in their districts, so no precious budget dollar is wasted. They’re also looking for ways to improve communications with stakeholders to ensure their priorities align with those they serve. 

4. Districts seek ways to recruit and retain qualified staff at all levels

The recent teacher strike in Chicago was a stark reminder of how important building strong relationships with teachers and staff is, especially as schools face continued budget problems. The latest edition of the annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools found that half of public school teachers have considered quitting their job in the last few years. Sadly, research out of the University of Pennsylvania found that underserved schools lose up to 20 percent of their faculty each year to turnover. And, a report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found that only 18 percent of America’s teachers are people of color. Given this, it’s no surprise that school leaders I heard from were seeking new approaches to recruiting and retaining a qualified and diverse faculty and staff at their schools. 

5. An important dialogue around K-12 customer experience is emerging

While most of the issues I’ve listed here are ones I’ve heard about at previous CGCS conferences, I did hear a new conversation emerging around K-12 customer experience and how it could actually help districts face many of these ongoing challenges. One of the best sessions I got to sit it on featured school leaders from districts like El Paso ISD and Houston ISD in Texas discussing how they are putting a strong focus on customer service to improve community engagement and, in Houston’s case, operational challenges around district transportation.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this conversation around improving the school experiences of students, parents, staff, and community members is starting to be at the forefront of city school leaders’ minds. K12 Insight’s new national study, the 2019 State of K-12 Customer Experience Report, found that school leaders are increasingly prioritizing trust-building, community engagement, and customer service to help deal with challenges like declining enrollments, crisis prevention, operations issues, and many others. But our research also found that many school leaders don’t feel confident that they have the resources or experience to effectively improve these experiences.

Questions I heard at the conference around finding strategies for building exceptional customer experiences reflected this gap between school leaders’ priorities and their perceived ability to execute effective customer service.

One of the key pieces of advice I gave to the school leaders I talked to as CGCS was to take a hard look at your current customer experience strategy so that you have a baseline for improvement. 

My team at K12 Insight has put together a quick self-assessment to help districts compare themselves to our national data. Once you complete the assessment our experts will crunch the numbers and walk you through their recommendations for improving the customer experience in your schools.

Take the self-assessment

About the Author

Gerald Dawkins
Dr. Gerald Dawkins is a former school district superintendent in Louisiana and Michigan. He is currently senior vice president of superintendent and district relations for K12 Insight. You can reach Dr. Dawkins at gerald.dawkins@k12insight.com.

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