How to take on AYP failure–and succeed

Telling your school’s story has never been easy. How do you capture the delight of a first grader who has just learned to read, or the passion of a teacher who inspires a love of calculus among math-phobic teenagers?

Now, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has brought a new checklist of reporting requirements and jargon, from “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) to disaggregated data and student subgroups. As Ricky Ricardo would say, “You’ve got a lot of splainin’ to do.”

While the philosophy behind NCLB is easy to embrace–who doesn’t want all children to learn at high levels?–boiling down the essence of your school into a few charts, graphs, and statistics is a tortuous exercise for most administrators, let alone parents. We might trust in data, but what do the numbers really mean?

And that’s true even if your school is doing well. If your school is one of the thousands nationwide tagged as not making AYP (see the chart on the preceding page)–and schools with the greatest diversity of students are most at risk in this regard–how do you maintain the trust and support of your parents and community?

It’s not enough simply to post the data on your school or district web site. You need to help people understand the information and use it wisely. You need an effective communications strategy.

For example, are you going to embrace NCLB, do the minimum to get by, or fight against it? Are you going to provide context for the report card information, or let the data stand on their own merit? Are you going to engage parents and community members as allies in improving or defending your school? Are you alerting the media regarding your school’s or district’s AYP results, or are you waiting to respond until the state releases the data?

While my 20-plus years in the business world make me biased toward proactive, rather than reactive, public relations, there really aren’t any right or wrong answers to the questions above.

The key is to think strategically through the issues ahead of time, then make an informed decision about how you’re going to handle communications with your stakeholders–parents, teachers, support staff, real estate agents, business leaders, etc.

For example, if you know that certain subgroups of students aren’t going to meet their target goals, you have a much better chance of framing the issue if you let teachers, support staff, community leaders, and the media know in advance.

First, you can stress the progress your students have made. Then, you can outline the challenges you face and put the data into context. Finally, you can enlist the support and assistance of parents and the community in achieving these goals.

Thus, in terms of a media statement, electronic press release, or web posting, your message might go something like this:

“While we’re pleased that 32 out of 33 subgroups met their goals at XYZ high school, we won’t be satisfied until every child is learning at a high level. That’s why we’re (explain action step for correcting the problem) and why we need (stakeholder group) to join us in this effort by (explain action step you want parents or the community to take).”

More importantly, you’ll want to develop a process and action plan for involving and engaging parents and other stakeholders in the work of your schools. Use the data–the good, the bad, and the ugly–to help your team focus on solutions and results.

Taking a “This, too, shall pass” or “Maybe no one will notice if we don’t say anything” approach almost certainly guarantees failure. Make no mistake about it: This is a high-stakes game in the court of public opinion–not only for your school, but for public education as we know it today.

If you’ve already taken the proactive step of posting information about NCLB and your school’s annual report card on your web site (hopefully on your home page, where it’s easy for parents to find), make sure you cross-reference and link this information to other pertinent web pages and sections.

Many school and district web sites I reviewed for this article have great information about NCLB and AYP–in hard-to-find locations or isolated sections. Take the time to integrate NCLB and AYP designations into existing school report cards and profiles, even if the information isn’t flattering.

Burying AYP data, safety designations, and choice options in an obscure section of your web site–or simply providing a link to the state education department reports–speaks volumes about your commitment to open and effective communications and might foster allegations of cover-ups and obfuscation.

School leaders also need to address communication barriers that might keep parents from accessing NCLB information and choices. Having materials, including web-based information, available in a variety of languages and literacy levels is essential.

Communicating effectively with hard-to-reach parents or extended family members is going to require community outreach and a more personal approach. In addition to the web and school events, many parents will prefer to get their information from the district’s cable television show, the news media, or a community workshop. Just as kids show a preference for certain learning styles, parents like to access information in different ways.

Some parents are going to soak up every detail; others will find the avalanche of data overwhelming. Still others won’t really care until another parent or the news media expresses outrage that their child’s school has been declared unsafe or failing by the federal government. Make sure you address these various communication styles as you craft your NCLB public relations plan.

Web-based resources and templates abound for school leaders grappling with NCLB communication issues. One of the most practical and comprehensive listings is posted on the American Association of School Administrators’ web site (see “Reporting District Data: Resources and Best Practices”).

State education departments and school systems in Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, and other states on the forefront of the accountability movement also are good resources, having already developed report card templates that report disaggregated data, as well as NCLB presentations, fact sheets, sample parent letters, newsletter articles, talking points, and other helpful tools for school leaders and parents. (See “NCLB: Communication Resources,” from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.)

While doesn’t specifically address NCLB on its web site, districts would do well to emulate the nonprofit organization’s school choice wizard and parent-friendly school profile formats and language.

Principals can update or enhance the site’s school profiles (gleaned from state department of education web sites) with information about special programs, parental involvement, school-business partnerships, after-school opportunities, etc. Profiles may be translated in several languages and may be printed easily for those without internet access.

If all of this feels just a tad bit overwhelming, you’re not alone. While many educators embrace NCLB’s philosophy, others worry that the act has simply given public schools new ways to fail.

Political agendas and conspiracy theories aside, it’s up to us whether NCLB becomes a positive catalyst for change, a communications disaster, or one more blip on the school reform radar.

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

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