Seamless School Openings Improve Community Perceptions
B.J. Mandelstam
B.J. Mandelstam
Vice President, Business Development for Schools EPA-trained Master of Indoor Air Quality Sodexo

When schools get it right on the first day of school, the entire community wins – students, parents, teachers, administrators, regulators and tax payers. No doubt, administrators aim to have the utopian opening: clean, safe classrooms filled with qualified and motivated teachers and students ready to learn; engaged parents ready to contribute; fully- funded budgets available to invest in resources. Quite often however, operational challenges derail this mission. Derailers may include outdated facilities, safety concerns, teacher vacancies, transportation issues, limited time for training and failing equipment. Administrator time and energy get squeezed, managing these challenges along with other critical responsibilities such as fiscal budgeting and implementing curriculums. In the end, there’s less time for their core mission: student achievement.

These risk factors start to leave a mark on the school, driving down ‘customer’ satisfaction of both students and teachers, impacting their performance. The snowballing continues with parents and students disengaging as they may spend less time at school, potentially impacting test scores. Teachers become frustrated due to less student and parent engagement and the school unfortunately starts to earn a negative reputation. Left unchecked, this reputation morphs into a negative perception in the community, which can result in less investment in the school, teacher turnover and most importantly unsatisfied students.

How can administrators get ahead of the operational challenges that often derail a successful school opening? Start with a diverse, talented and well-trusted team of competent partners that can help your school realize and promote its mission. Additionally, increased demand for space and revenue mean school buildings are being used more today than ever before. A solid plan and project management will keep summer projects on track and support teams working efficiently while investing in the right projects to open schools successfully.

Here are a few industry insights for leaders who opened or are opening schools and plan to sustain a productive school year.

  • Get the Culture Right: There is no one-size-fits-all approach for achieving a culture of shared beliefs and shared behaviors. Really, culture is a blend of art and process. Sometimes starting with the right questions makes the difference in developing the right culture. For example, questions like how are we selecting, recruiting, retaining and training our teachers? Are we setting them up for success? How does a school’s environment feel when you are in a classroom – is there school pride? Do our facilities create the backdrop for creating that sense of belonging for teachers, students and the community? The answers to these questions can guide the development of a culture where students, teachers and the community feel their school is a place where they can convene and thrive together – even over a meal.
  • Communicate openly and consistently: Engage students, parents, partners and community leaders to actively obtain feedback about what is going well and what isn’t from their point of view. Create a safe space where they can speak freely without repercussion. Honest and constructive feedback help identify issues before they escalate into problems.
  • Listen: Productive communication entails both speaking and listening. Effective cultures grow around people who actively listen and incorporate feedback. Being receptive to external sources such as industry experts can really pay off for schools. External experts can give a refreshed view on trends that impact student behavior. For example, numerous studies show the link between the health of a school facility and student attendance and performance in the classroom. Could a facilities management expert help your school assess the health of your facilities to uncover improvement opportunities that could either boost performance or even save budget for reinvestment in other resources?
  • Cultivate Leadership: Professionally fulfilled and autonomous employees with control over their careers tend to be more productive, more engaged and overall more effective. In a recent Gallup poll, approximately 31% of US teachers are engaged in their work, while 56% are not engaged and 13% are actively disengaged. Schools focused on cultivating leadership and offering professional development opportunities have more engaged teachers. In the US, if teacher attrition decreased from 8% to 5% annually, hiring needs would decrease by more than 120,000 teacher positions annually, cutting demand by one-third.
  • Celebrate Diversity: The Department of Education acknowledges the importance of a diverse and inclusive environment for education professionals. The Department adopted three government wide goals focused on workforce diversity, inclusion and sustainability to ensure they recruit, retain and develop a diverse workforce.
  • Utilize Data and Resources to find patterns: School leaders regularly use school-based assessment data to drive continuous improvement and to make strategic decisions. This same data can be used to uncover seemingly unrelated links such as school foodservice operational data being frequently linked to student performance.
  • Market Your Distinctiveness: What is the school’s value proposition, or the promise of benefit intended to attract and satisfy the communities being served? How is success measured? If these answers are clear, the next step is to develop a clear and concise vision that can map all elements of the program back to the school’s accomplishments, conveying a message to all stakeholders in a compelling way. Ask teachers and students to identify and share three things they like about their school and district throughout the school year. Advocacy through word of mouth is one of the best marketers for a school’s brand.

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