As parents have more choices regarding where their children go to school, some districts are beginning to view students and parents as “customers” — with surprising results

The idea of treating students, parents and the school community as customers isn’t an entirely new one, but it’s still one that makes some school leaders balk. After all, schools are institutions of learning, and traditionally, they have not been thought of as businesses.

But with the growth of charter schools and online schools, parents have other options to explore if their child’s school does not meet expectations — and when students leave, so, too, does funding.

And in an effort to increase parental engagement and ensure that parents and community members feel as though they are part of their children’s school, the newly-passed Every Student Succeeds Act includes multiple methods to increase parental engagement, including expanded accessibility, regular two-way communication, and enhanced parent and family engagement policies.

Some district leaders are taking action to make sure their students, parents and community members know that they are respected and valued.

Companies such as K12 Insight are meeting school districts halfway, helping school leaders forge strong relationships with teachers, students and parents.

Using Engage, a survey tool, and Let’s Talk, a communication management dashboard, K12 Insight arms school districts with the communication tools necessary to solicit feedback from stakeholders and to track progress in addressing that feedback or answering questions.

In Indiana’s Fort Wayne Community Schools, Superintendent Wendy Robinson knew the district needed to change the conversation it had with teachers, staff, parents and students.

Next page: 3 ways the district boosted communication and made stakeholders feel they are valued

“In the beginning, we were the only game in town. You treated people right and maybe some parents weren’t completely happy with you in some situations, but they didn’t have options,” said Robinson.

Along with a national focus on schools having increased competition from charter schools, Indiana has a well-funded and well-organized school voucher system. Parents now have options.

“Our district believes that one of our core goals has to be that we figure out ways to communicate with our parents and community members, because we value them,” Robinson said. “We have to start out with the basic belief that if you don’t value parents, students and community members, they won’t stay with you. They have not have better options, but if we don’t treat them with respect, there are other options.”

Those other options shed new light on the issue of how to treat school students, faculty, staff, and parents.

“When you think about the fact that we’re not the only game in town, and the fact that we do value people, students and families, then the fact that if you look at [school] from what a customer would want, it’s a whole different lens,” Robinson said. “It’s not that just because we’re here, they’ll come–we better make sure we can communicate, communicate, communicate and listen to our customers’ feedback.”

And that dedication to communication is part of what makes the district’s approach successful.

“To me, the most important part is that they have to see what we take action. We may not always give them the answer they want, but don’t ask questions or don’t provide opportunities for feedback if you’re not going to do anything with it. When you see the value of people and know they have other options, you treat them as valued customers who stay with you, that in a nutshell is the basic philosophy,” she said.

Robinson outlined a number of strategies the district created with K12 Insight to ensure district parents, students and community members know they are valued and integral to the district’s operations.

1. Inform internal and external communities.

The district used a variety of Let’s Talk! approaches to survey teachers, administrators and district staff and act on that feedback to let everyone know they are listened to.

“We had a new state-mandated evaluation process, and we used our K12 Insight tools to have teachers give input during development about what the new model would look like. In the first years, we surveyed teachers and made adjustments to the system based on that. The first thing is to instill this need to be customer service-oriented with your own people,” Robinson said.

2. Make it easy for parents to be involved using different accessibility approaches and by putting materials in different languages.

“We hold parent-teacher conferences twice a year at the secondary level, and we are getting 95-100 percent attendance by parents. We have tech-based systems where parents can check in on a daily basis about homework and grades,” she said. “I think the thing that schools sometimes foret is that there’s not just one way to do something. We have 30,000 students, more ethan 85 different languages spoken, and we do a lot of translating. You can’t tell someone they are valuable if your communication isn’t in a language they can understand.”

3. Model at a district level and it will trickle down to the building level.

“Teachers know we’re going to survey them on major initiatives in the district. Every year, each school does a climate survey of students, parents, teachers and staff members. What gets measured gets done,” she said. “As superintendent, I cannot be the image of customer service. I have to model it. I have to be a part of whatever processes are in place. Customer service is not an event; it’s a 24/7 part of your job description. If parents don’t see us as welcoming and focused on their children and trying to address their needs, they take their child somewhere else.”

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura