How to include the community when making key school decisions

Finding common ground is a difficult, yet essential, task of teacher, principal, and district leadership.

As the 2012 presidential election and the fiscal cliff battle indicates, political division is the new normal. Created to serve as common schools for the common good, public schools are often caught in the crosshairs of opposing factions.

Finding an increasingly elusive common ground is a difficult, yet essential, task of teacher, principal, and district leadership, however.

That’s why the notion of peer, student, and public engagement is gaining such currency, whether through professional learning communities, 21st century learning strategies, voice polls, online surveys, or potluck suppers built around hot topics like safety, new curriculum initiatives, or looming budget cuts.

Technology tools and services are helping school leaders engage key audiences in new and important ways, from starting conversations with constituents via social media to participatory budget processes that seek to get more community voices to the decision-making table.

While free and inexpensive applications are plentiful online, pulling all these disparate tools together can be time-consuming. Plus, freebies and cheap applications don’t always work well on a district-wide basis, and they can threaten network security.

(Next page: How a web-based service called MindMixer can help)

For schools and districts seeking a more comprehensive suite of tools and services to support various employee and public engagement strategies, MindMixer might be a good option to consider.

In addition to the secure online surveys and report functions offered by a number of vendors, MindMixer helps school leaders create, maintain, monitor, and promote interactive websites built around specific initiatives. The service also includes web hosting and access to a MindMixer engagement specialist, who helps clients make the most of the service’s features and automations.

The combination of engagement support and one-site access to functions such as photo sharing, instant polling, and other online surveying techniques seems to give MindMixer an edge over other services I’ve reviewed.

I also like the graphic way they produce survey results. The reports at the end of each topic period include statistics, trends, and demographics. (See for samples.)

Simplifying key data into graphic representations looks easy. It isn’t. MindMixer’s graphic reports easily could be turned into compelling board presentations, press releases, print posters, social media news, and so on.

What’s more, its site administration and organization services are impressive. “MindMixer can be used for multiple initiatives, and the conversations are neatly sorted automatically,” according Lori Reed, regional sales manager, via eMail. “Citizen feedback is arranged by topics, and topics change at your discretion. When topics change, we notify participants so they can join the next round of discussions and stay engaged.”

For more advice about engaging school stakeholders, see:

Smart phones require smart communication strategies

Using QR codes for school communications

Ten tips for using social media in school communications

Another feature I like is that MindMixer sites are designed with mobile users in mind, and people can participate by text, mobile phone calling, and links on social media sites, as well as through traditional websites and local landline phones (with no long-distance charges).

MindMixer also can produce engagement sites in 52 languages, another key factor in building bridges for diverse audiences. Web-hosted on the company’s own servers, MindMixer sites can handle multiple conversations simultaneously, yet can be branded to look like the client school or district.

According to Reed, the sites use Google translators so languages can be determined by the user and “switched on the fly.”

In theory, someone with a good working knowledge of public engagement processes and techniques, as well as online surveying, social media, graphic design, and interactive websites, could achieve the same kind of results—but how many staff members really have all that technology and communications know-how?

Designed to help local government officials engage citizens more effectively, MindMixer takes clients through a range of engagement processes, from framing issues for discussion to idea generation, refinement, and prioritization.

Clients may post educational resources, PDFs, and links to related websites to help inform citizens about important issues. These resources are organized by topic to make access by the public more convenient.

(Next page: The three goals for any public engagement initiative)

Typically, the goals for any public engagement initiative are three-fold: (1) increase transparency; (2) hear from more and different community voices; and (3) generate better solutions to complex social challenges and issues.

Most districts use a variety of tactics to engage diverse audiences in important community conversations and decisions. These can range from small, grassroots meetings to blue-ribbon committees. Choosing the right mix at the right time requires thoughtful and inclusive strategy discussions and a clear understanding of the desired outcomes.

MindMixer helps officials navigate this often rocky terrain through its access to engagement specialists and its community-building service, which promotes engagement by finding existing, online conversations and inserting the school or district site into the conversation. This service might help reach younger and more mobile-oriented audiences, which tend to be more diverse than those seeking information and news on traditional websites.

Given the digital divide, most of us need help engaging diverse audiences and developing strategies that successfully engage voices beyond the white, middle, and upper-class parents and families who most often participate in online surveys. Studies by Pew Research Centers, for example, shows Latino and African-Americans in the U.S. are adopting mobile technology at a much higher rate than traditional websites.

Employers don’t always have the best handle on employee concerns and trust issues, so having an outside party review strategies and data—or even facilitate the engagement process—sometimes yields better and more actionable solutions.

For more advice about engaging school stakeholders, see:

Smart phones require smart communication strategies

Using QR codes for school communications

Ten tips for using social media in school communications

Headquartered in Omaha, Neb., MindMixer is working with about 300 organizations nationwide. The fee structure varies by the length of time the site is active.

According to Reed, most school districts choose annual terms. Pricing is confidential but extremely reasonable; contact MindMixer for details. Fees include the graphic report.

Whether you use MindMixer, online surveys, websites, voice polls, focus groups, small group meetings, advisory councils, year-long public engagement strategies, or other techniques to engage employees, parents, students, and taxpayers, getting more voices heard and more people to the decision-making table—real or virtual—is the only way to find common ground in today’s diverse communities.

Technology can help us keep the public in public schools, but it doesn’t replace potluck suppers, stellar customer service, handwritten notes by teachers to parents about their children, and other key ingredients in a systemic, ongoing communications plan.

To find out more ways to tell your story more effectively, check out the communications resources, tips, and strategies available in archived editions of this column, and through associations such as the National School Public Relations Association—the only group dedicated exclusively to effective school communications and marketing. (See

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

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