“For many, trust is intangible, ethereal, unquantifiable. If it remains that way, then people don’t know how to get their arms around it or how to improve it. But the fact is, the costs of low trust are very real, they are quantifiable, and they are staggering.”
Leadership guru Stephen Covey wasn’t talking specifically about K-12 school districts when he made this observation. But if results from a new national study are any indication, he almost certainly could have been.
The 2019 State of K-12 Customer Experience Report is the first-ever national study to examine the impact of quality of community engagement and the customer experience on K-12 education. A recent preview of the results (the full report comes out in September) illustrated that while school leaders prioritize building trust with their communities, many do not feel confident in their ability to deliver on this promise.
While 90 percent of participating school leaders said building trust was very important to their mission, only 52 percent were very confident in their ability to do this work. In addition, only 51 percent of participating school leaders were confident in their district’s ability to engage parents and community members.
It’s no surprise that building trust is a strategic priority for many school leaders. Facing increased competition, public K-12 school districts are quickly realizing that a loss in student and family trust often correlates with declining school enrollments. Conversely, fast-growth schools say trust is critical to building support for key initiatives.
Trust can also have an impact on student achievement. Researchers Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider recently analyzed more than 400 elementary schools over a 10-year period and found a connection between student learning and the level of trust in a school.
But prioritizing trust and actually building strong relationships with your community are not one in the same.
For many school leaders, the question becomes “Where do I start?”
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for building trust. But, there are some key steps every district leader must take to help create a positive relationship with their community.
1. Measure community confidence
Having a clear understanding of community perspectives is critical. Don’t assume you understand what your community wants or needs—and don’t assume all stakeholder groups feel the same way. Research-backed surveys and inbound feedback are two great ways to gauge community confidence. Provide an easy way for stakeholders to reach you with comments and questions and create a repeatable system to track, measure, and understand that feedback.
Case Study: Rockford Public Schools 205, Ill.
Facing an unratified employee contract and stagnant student performance, Chief Continuous Improvement Officer Kelly Monson and the team at Rockford Public Schools 205 aimed to build a “cycle of continuous employee engagement” for teachers and other school staff. They started by developing a comprehensive employee engagement survey to “go deep” and really understand how teachers and staff felt about their time in the district. After the survey closed, the district was quick to share this baseline data and to use it to develop a plan of improvement for the district.
“When we presented the survey data, we were able to say that we heard everybody and this is what we heard,” explains Monson. “Then we took that information and developed immediate goals. We said this is what we’re going to do, starting today, and then we launched it.”
2. Identify areas of mistrust
What issues are community members concerned about? Do the same topics or themes continually crop up on your school or district social media accounts? Has the local media honed in on a controversial decision or recent school or district misstep? Pay close attention to conversations in progress throughout your district. Consider offering a central location for families and others to provide their feedback and pose relevant questions to their school or the district. Use this feedback to develop strategies for improving community perceptions.
Case Study: Bibb County School District, Ga.
When Dr. Curtis Jones took over as superintendent at Bibb County School District in Central Georgia, years of district mismanagement had bread a deep mistrust between the school district and the community. So, he set out to better understand areas of contention and to create a more transparent school culture. Dr. Jones’ focus on a positive school customer experience was a key driver in the district’s success and one of the reasons why he was recently named 2019 AASA National Superintendent of the Year. According to Dr. Jones, there is now a feeling among parents that the school system is more transparent.
“When I first arrived, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to voice their concerns, because they were afraid of retaliation. I don’t hear that as much anymore,” he says.
Learn how Dr. Jones used a focus on listening to rebuild community trust in the video below.
3. Develop an action plan
Once you understand community members’ perceptions, it’s time to build an improvement plan that addresses their wants and needs. Outline the outcomes and define the steps you’ll take to achieve your goals. Make the steps measurable, so you can track your progress and easily identify areas for growth and improvement.
Case Study: The School District of Osceola County, Fla.
With rapid district growth and an increasingly diverse community, school board leaders at The School District of Osceola County in Florida identified an urgent need for stronger customer service.Through a three-year strategic plan, Superintendent Dr. Debra Pace and her team developed standards to track and measure the school customer experience in four major areas: Courtesy and respect, communication, responsiveness, and environment. A district-wide focus on customer service has helped move the district’s school grade from a C to B and has resulted in continuous improvement in the graduation rate, which hit 89.2 percent in 2018.
“Our board, from the very beginning, also wanted to emphasize that customer service is a school board priority,” says Dr. Pace. “They believe that internal and external stakeholders are our customers, and it’s up to all of us to make sure we’re providing service that is respectful, prompt, and complete in order to ensure that they walk away understanding they are important.”
4. Create a positive brand story
Your school district’s brand is important. How parents, students, and others perceive your schools goes a long way toward your ability to build trust with your community. School leaders rarely think of themselves as marketers—and for good reason. But marketing needs to be part of your toolbox. Traditional channels, such as radio, television, and billboard advertising are a great way to get the message out, especially if you’re losing students.
For a real-world example of this, see step 5.
5. Reinforce the story with exceptional customer experiences
A bad customer experience will almost always put your school or district in a negative light. People are also more likely to talk about bad experiences, which means news of those experiences spreads fast—sometimes too fast. That’s why more and more school districts list school customer experience as a strategic priority, and invest in tools and systems to help bake customer experience into daily operations.
Case Study: El Paso Independent School District, Tx.
Facing shrinking enrollment due to an aging population and sustained competition from private and charter schools, El Paso ISD used marketing to help stem the tide. “School districts aren’t used to having to advertise themselves,” says chief communications officer Melissa Martinez. “In the past, you went to the school because it was the one down the street. Now, parents certainly have that choice. So, we really looked into branding ourselves–and rebranding in a sense.” After three years of focusing on targeted school marketing, Martinez says the district is seeing positive signs of change—especially when it comes to how people perceive the district.
But marketing by itself isn’t enough. “Marketing gets people in the door,” says Martinez. “The customer experience is what keeps them there.”
To ensure a better experience for students and families, the district implemented a new, innovative form of professional development training (lead by K12 Insight) focused on creating positive customer experiences. The aim of the workshops are to model positive examples for faculty and staff and promote a districtwide focus on the customer experience.
So far, Martinez says, it’s working.
“We’ve seen the change already. It’s a much more welcoming environment. Everybody understands now that we want to have that sense of open-door policy.”
For more on the State of K-12 Customer Experience Report, or to sign up for the First Look, visit www.k12cxreport.org. Don’t forget to share your own K-12 customer experience stories using the hashtag #k12cx.