If you’re a regular follower of TrustED, you may have noticed how we often refer to the students, parents, community members, and staff that school districts serve each day as “customers.”
It’s not a phrase everyone is comfortable with. After all, schools are not businesses.
In fact, the challenges faced by the nation’s K-12 schools are far different than those faced by corporate America. The mission of our schools–to protect and prepare the next generation of citizens–is vitally important to the success of our society and democracy.
But the environment in which our schools operate is changing. Competition and school choice, combined with rapidly evolving technology and new approaches to teaching and learning affect how families engage and participate with their neighborhood schools.
As states and school districts alike transition away from the test-heavy days of No Child Left Behind and implement new success measures under the Every Student Succeeds Act, administrators are in search of new approaches to persistent yet evolving challenges, from school safety to parent engagement to teacher morale.
While the approaches differ, one constant has emerged amidst the change: A strong school culture and climate is vital to student and school success.
A customer-focused culture
Recent research confirms why a focus on climate is so important.
A study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research of district-wide data, and surveys of teachers and students at Chicago Public Schools, found that “a strong school climate is most important for achievement growth.” That goes for both low-performing and high-performing schools, researchers say.
The process of ensuring a school climate that is welcoming, supportive, and safe for both students and their families isn’t something that happens overnight. This is where some experts, and an increasing number of education leaders, say a customer-focused approach stands to make a big difference.
Beyond customer service
“It really is about a school and a school district saying we’re going to be client, customer service focused from top to bottom,” says K-12 researcher Dr. Joseph Goins. “Wherever you are in that continuum of those services matters. If everybody were to be focused on that in a school, how welcoming would that feel?”
So what does a good customer experience in schools look like?
For Julie Thannum, assistant superintendent for board and community relations at Caroll ISD in Texas and a past president of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), the key to a strong school customer experience lies in our ability to understand that each conversation between the school and its community is critical to success.
“Remember that each encounter between a school employee and its customers can make a lasting impression,” Thannum explains. “Your employees are either building or breaking your brand promise every time they encounter a customer.”
Over the past several months, our editors have talked with several district leaders who have committed to making customer service a priority in their schools. They do this by training staff how to deliver positive interactions, by implementing new systems for inviting and using community feedback, by measuring the quality of their responses, and using what they learn to make strategic improvements that positively impact their culture and climate.
This month, we’ll share many of those stories as we zero in on this idea of customer experience in K-12 schools, and how a commitment to listening can help you build trust and deliver a measurable Return on Education.
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