As school district leaders look to improve stakeholder relations, some superintendents are experimenting with a tool more commonly associated with tech-savvy students and teachers than administrators: the blog.
Speaking at the American Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in New Orleans in March, Superintendents Clayton Wilcox of the Pinellas County Public Schools in Florida and Mark Stock of the Wawasee Community School Corp. in Indiana explained how they are leveraging blogs in their own communities to communicate with parents, foster support for important programs, and keep parents and students apprised of issues affecting their schools.
In an age when school district CEOs find themselves torn between their desire to interact with the community and the need to work behind the scenes, administering programs and making sure educators are meeting district goals, the two leaders said blogs are an effective and largely underused tool that, when used properly, can greatly improve a superintendent’s relationship with stakeholders.
“We still use traditional media. We still use the business tools–eMail, applications like that,” said Wilcox. “But the blog seems to be a place where we can raise public consciousness. It’s a place where we can take the temperature of the community … [and] where we have an ongoing dialog with people.”
Wilcox and Stock agree that blogs are a very rich forum for communication. Thanks to the online format, school leaders can use their blogs to integrate video clips, pictures, graphs, charts, and other visual clues to drive home important concepts. Whether the topic is school construction, student achievement, or year-end budgets, they say, the use of multimedia can play a critical role in the presentation of ideas.
Despite the evolving nature of these tools, they say, superintendents don’t have to be “technophiles” to be effective bloggers.
“Blogging really is about linking,” explained Stock. Thanks to the vast array of information and content freely accessible on the web today, superintendents don’t have to spend a lot of time creating their own content. Rather, all they have to do is locate the content online and link readers to it, said Stock. That’s precisely why blogs make such an effective tool for superintendents, he said; they enable supes to demonstrate their affinity for technology without devoting a lot of time or resources to learning a new skill. From a back-end standpoint, blogs don’t necessarily mean a lot of extra work for school IT departments, either, they said.
In Pinellas, Wilcox worked with the local newspaper to create and underwrite the district’s current blogging tool. In Wawasee, Stock reportedly started with a free blogging service that he signed up for online.
But while it’s easy for superintendents to launch their own blogs, the technology does present a number of potential problems that administrators need to be aware of.
For one thing, they said, administrators need to decide if the blog is to be a natural extension of the school system, or the property of the superintendent. This distinction is important, because it affects how the blog will be used and what content and issues should be addressed, said Stock.
In his case, the district requested that he put a disclaimer on his blog stating that the opinions expressed were his own and that they did not necessarily reflect the beliefs or ideologies of the entire organization.
Deciding how much latitude to give stakeholders in terms of feedback and posting also constitutes a challenge. Though one of the advantages to creating a blog is that it opens up new lines of communication between the superintendent and the community, there is a fine line between encouraging constructive feedback and allowing community members to dictate the content and tone of the blog.
“It’s really been the rise and demise of my blog on several occasions,” said Wilcox of community feedback. “In the early days, we really had the Wild, Wild West. We let people post anonymously to the blog site.” But there was problem: “People were just vicious,” he said. As the attacks got more heated and began targeting school district employees on a personal level, he said, the district had to shut down the blog temporarily to reconsider its policies.
“I think it’s just one of those things where, when you get out in cyberspace, you’ve got to be … careful what you ask for, because you just might get it,” he said.