By orchestrating multiple social media channels, the Minnetonka School District in Minnesota boosts its brand and builds community. Traditionally, school communications have been all about managing the flow of information to the public and then framing the discussion about that information. Even technological advances like robo-calls and mass e-mails still constrained schools to push out information in one direction—say, to announce school closings or publish school test score results.
But in the age of new media, things have changed. Popular social media tools like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and webinars enable schools to maintain interactive dialogue with stakeholders. Today, the vision of school district communications is all about building relationships.
For example, on January 9, 2015, Minnetonka High School hosted “It’s FAFSA Season: Five Tips for Parents,” a webinar that provided background information and strategies for graduating seniors who would soon be applying for financial aid as they decided on colleges. The webinar enabled parents to learn from college and high school counselors in real time, to better understand the federal aid application process and deadlines, and to ask questions to further their understanding, all from the comfort of wherever they were: at home, at work, and even while traveling.
A Story of Engagement and Outreach
Minnetonka Public Schools, a central Minnesota district serving about 9,600 students in grades K–12, is demonstrating how to use social media thoughtfully and strategically to engage, inform, and interact with stakeholders. Minnetonka has built “a constantly evolving technology interface” to accommodate, embrace, and engage parents, teachers, students, business leaders, and all other segments of the community, according to Janet Swiecichowski, the district’s executive director of communications.
The district has identified social media tools like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter as effective ways to reach the audiences with whom education leaders want to communicate. The key is to reach out through many different channels, Swiecichowski advises. “Don’t make them come to you.”
YouTube was the first new media tool that Minnetonka developed. Why YouTube? It’s one of the top-ranked websites in the world, and the district wanted to send out its message without a filter. In 2005, the district built its own YouTube channel and added professional video experts to its staff who could work from a broadcast journalism perspective. Today, the district’s target is to post two new videos a week on YouTube, with feeds to the district website and an app that pushes the video content out to students on their smartphones and tablets.
Facebook became the second social media channel Minnetonka folded into its communications plan. An annual survey indicated that parents checked Facebook at least weekly, so it seemed like an ideal tool for community building. The districtwide Facebook page showcases what’s happening in schools, celebrates students, and provides parents with information to support student learning from home. Announcements posted on Facebook can be more informative and interactive than printed announcements sent home in students’ backpacks ever were. For example, a recent post invited parents to an upcoming presentation by a child development expert on raising resilient, self-disciplined children; the post included a brief video so that parents could preview the presenter’s style and message, as well as a link that parents could use to sign up.
Recognizing that most students are on Twitter, in 2013 the district began its Twitter feed as a third communications tool. Recent tweets have congratulated the winner and runner up of the geography bee, pointed students to information about online course offerings, announced the dates of student activities from orchestra performances to basketball games, and highlighted the efforts of students in the Thanksgiving gift drive. Minnetonka High School principal Jeff Erickson, who has his own principal Twitter feed, got student buy-in by promising not to follow them on Twitter. He models responsible digital citizenship in his own tweets by sharing high-interest tweets of happenings around the school, celebrating student successes, and creating awareness of staff work and school programs for students and their families. Erickson’s feed now has more than 5,000 followers, and many cocurricular teams and student activities have joined in by starting their own Twitter feeds.
Keeping the Focus on Student Learning
Browsing through Minnetonka School District’s YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter channels, it’s clear that the district’s social media use focuses on student learning. The district makes a conscious effort to make 75 percent of posts about students and learning, rather than defaulting to posts announcing the abundance of cocurricular activities.
The district’s embrace of social media has not meant that it has abandoned traditional communications tools. Rather, the goal is to send and receive messages through multiple channels, new and old, to increase access for all stakeholders.
For instance, principal Jeff Erickson introduced his Twitter feed using traditional communications media like newsletters. He also extended this communication channel with a video series, “Beyond 140,” explaining at the beginning of each episode, “Sometimes I sit down to write a tweet, and my idea just doesn’t fit. I wish there were a way to take my ideas beyond 140. I’ve got it!” The videos deal, often humorously, with important aspects of the school’s culture and illustrate what students and staff appreciate about the school. For samples, see episodes of Beyond 140 on how to “do the right thing” (one of the school’s mottos); what students are thankful for; and goodbye messages to departing 12th graders.
What Social Media Can Accomplish
Minnetonka School District’s work to craft and implement a progressive communications plan has yielded many benefits:
- Relationships with all education stakeholders are stronger.
- Quick information gets disseminated on the fly.
- Stakeholders capture and pass on messages quickly and easily, sharing and retweeting information about school events and celebrations, such as this Happy New Year announcement retweet promoting students learning coding, which was retweeted 124 times and favorited 90 times.
- School programs and initiatives are cross-promoted with business partners in real time.
- Educators model digital citizenship, developing community expectations and norms.
- Pediatricians, care providers, and parents are getting more involved through school social media channels, sharing ideas and information in real time. For example, Dr. Ross W. Greene presented an online webinar for Minnetonka parents on “Fear and Worries: What to Do When They Keep Growing,” providing perspective and guidance about developing resilience in children.
- Grandparents are much more engaged in their grandchildren’s school lives, even if they live a distance from Minnetonka, especially through Facebook.
School districts like Minnetonka, which uses new media in deliberate, strategic ways, go beyond the traditional role of school communications and build relationships in real time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Agile, responsive, authentic communications promote stakeholder support for schools’ work and values. By celebrating successes, discussing challenges, and identifying opportunities in an open dialogue with the larger community, schools can build stakeholder relationships that will serve them well in advancing their goals.
Read the entire article by Walter McKenzie on Educational Leadership at http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr15/vol72/num07/%C2%A3Don%27t-Make-Them-Come-to-You%C2%A3.aspx