Effective Practices : Community Life
Communication with the School Community
Community Life Section 2
1. What are the means by which information is officially communicated to the school community? Describe each, and name the person or group responsible. Items listed may include the weekly bulletin, school and class newsletters, web site, phone or email trees, handbooks, postcards or other mailings, all school and class meetings, and so on.
2. What means does your school use to ensure that all communications are accurate, timely, and properly reflect the image, philosophy and intent of the school?
3. Is there a central place where copies of all communications are kept for reference? Who is responsible for collecting and archiving this material, and how is this task accomplished?
4. Describe the role that electronic communication (web site and email) plays in the communication with the school community. How has this changed in the last year, and what changes are you planning or anticipating for the future?
5. Describe the key elements of your school’s philosophy in relation to communication with the school community.
6. What about your school’s communication program is particularly effective?
7. If there were something you could change in relation to your school’s communication program, what would it be and why?
What are the means by which information is officially communicated to the school community? Describe each, and name the person or group responsible. Items listed may include the weekly bulletin, school and class newsletters, web site, phone or email trees, handbooks, postcards or other mailings, all school and class meetings, and so on.
Schools use a variety of approaches to keep the school community well informed about events, activities, and other issues of interest. These include:
- weekly or biweekly bulletins,
- quarterly newsletter,
- school calendar,
- a back to school package,
- the parent handbook and directory,
- school web site,
- school and class email and phone trees,
- all school meetings,
- campus sign board,
- all-school mailings, both of letters and postcards,
- class newsletters and other mailings, and
- press releases.
Bulletin - Every Waldorf school in the study prints a bulletin that goes out with great frequency to parents. In most schools it is published on a weekly basis, although some schools print it on a biweekly basis. One school in the survey alternates a one page version of the bulletin with a fuller biweekly copy. The bulletins are typically printed and distributed to each family on a weekly basis. To reduce the copy time and expense related to producing the bulletin some schools give the bulletin to the youngest child in each family only. This also helps to ensure that the bulletin is received at home, as parents are more likely to review the contents of a young child’s backpack, increasing the odds of its being seen by the intended recipient. Due to the time sensitive nature of the information the bulletin contains it is not effective to mail the bulletins home, although one school noted that it will mail the bulletins on request to families that pay an additional fee to cover postage. Many schools are now distributing their weekly bulletin by email or through their web site, eliminating much of the copy time and expense incurred in the past.
Most bulletins contain logistics and announcements regarding upcoming events, school news, brief class news and updates, some community news, and some classified advertising. The front page always contains a calendar section previewing the next two weeks’ activities. Recurring features may include a weekly College report and regular Board and Parent Association updates.
The bulletin is usually generated by a member of the school staff. The specific person responsible for creating and distributing the bulletin varies from school to school, and may be the office manager, the school secretary, or a member of the development office staff. Often times there are many contributors to the bulletin, and the point person in the office coordinates the layout and inclusion of the various submissions. Proofreading is often done by the administrator or another member of the office staff.
Schools that publish their bulletins electronically are able to include color in their printing, and use this to good effect by increasing readership. (See: Sample Weekly Bulletin)
Quarterly Newsletter - Schools often publish a quarterly newsletter. The newsletter contains articles on the curriculum written by a teacher and perhaps something from the enrollment coordinator about new families, staff, or teachers. The development office reports on activities in that area, and at times may choose to include the school’s annual report as a part of the newsletter. Alumni news is often included. Pictures of student artwork and activities are important parts of the newsletter. The newsletter is far less event oriented than the weekly bulletin, and is more of an educational piece that is a gift to the parent community.
The School Calendar - Each school prints a school calendar and distributes it to families at the beginning of the school year. For more information on calendars see Community Life Section 3 - Calendars and the Rhythm of the Year)
Back to School Package - Most Waldorf schools produce a back to school package that is mailed in August each year. It contains information about the start of school including information on class parties and potlucks, the Rose Ceremony and the first day/week of school, reminders about dress code, starting and dismissal times, and may include forms that must be returned prior to the start of school.
Parent Handbook and Directory - Schools publish a parent handbook that is distributed to all new families and when updated. The parent handbook contains lots of helpful information regarding the school, serving as a comprehensive guide to new families and outlining expectations regarding student behavior and dress code. (See: Sample Parent Handbook Table of Contents for additional information.) The school directory includes the names, addresses, and phone numbers for all families at the school. Directories often include parent email addresses and the birthdates of each student.
Some schools also publish handbooks for Parent Council Members and for Room Reps. These handbooks describe the expectations and responsibilities of individuals serving in these capacities. Some schools also publish a Parent Involvement Guide for new parents, describing the various committees and groups at the school and explaining how to get involved with a variety of activities.
School Web Site - Many schools now have a web site which is most frequently overseen by the development office. School web sites provide lots of good general information about the school and Waldorf education for prospective parents, and plenty of helpful information for current parents. Current parents use the school web site for updated calendar information, sports schedules, news from the parent association, copies of recent communications including the weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter, articles, copies of the lower school and high school handbooks, and much more.
School and Class Email and Phone Trees - For many years the class phone tree was a common method of getting information out in a timely way to every family in the school. Each room representative put together a list of telephone numbers for the families in the class and organized them in a “tree” format. Each family would be given two or three other families to call when ever important news needed to be passed on, and room reps could count on the word getting out in a fairly prompt way. With the pervasiveness of email in today’s world this technology has replaced the telephone tree in many schools, allowing room reps to communicate quickly and efficiently without worries about someone breaking the chain of communication. Schools are also beginning to experiment with all school email lists to communicate information such as weather related school closures and other last minute items requiring the attention of the full community. Faculty phone trees and email lists are also used in some schools.
All School Meetings - Waldorf schools typically schedule two or three all school meetings each year to share important information about the school with parents. More information about these meetings, their purpose, and their format is described in Community Life Section 1 - Annual Meetings and Events.
Campus Sign Boards - Many schools have a large message board that can be seen from the car at drop off time. These boards have brief messages reminding people about upcoming events. Wording is limited, and will simply note, “10/11 School Picture Day” or “5/4 May Faire”.
Many schools have two other bulletin boards as well, often located in high traffic areas of the school. One is a bulletin board on which flyers and other information about official school matters are posted. The other is a community bulletin board, one on which members of the community may post small ads or notices for personal services, items for sale, or rooms for rent.
All School Mailings and Postcards - Schools mail letters and postcards to all parents for a variety of reasons. Postcards are often used to notify parents about upcoming social, educational, and cultural events being held at or sponsored by the school. The postcards are usually produced by the Development Office, often in conjunction with the Parent Education Committee or the Enrollment Office. A letter is sent to the entire school community whenever significant personnel announcements are made, or whenever information is needed by parents regarding a sensitive situation at the school. These letters are sent out to provide immediate and accurate information about situations that are either developing, in progress, or being resolved at the school. Letters regarding significant personnel and other sensitive matters are sent by a member of the school’s leadership body.
Class Newsletters and Other Mailings - Some teachers and room reps create a regular newsletter or other communication to update parents on important matters related to their son or daughter’s class. Often these are emailed to parents to ensure timeliness and to reduce postage expense. Some schools have a once a month mailing to all parents and require that any notices or letters mailed to parents be included in those packets rather than each item being mailed separately. This bulk approach produces some postage savings, and also protects parents from feeling that they receive an overwhelming amount of mailings from the school.
Press Releases - The school Development Office, often with support by parent volunteer authors, creates and distributes press releases regarding important campus achievements and milestones. These press releases are shared with local news organizations so that the wider community can be well informed about significant events and achievements in the life of the school.
Other Means of Communication - A few other methods of communication were mentioned by individual schools in the survey. While not used as frequently as the approaches listed above, the following ideas are listed for reference and may be the right solution for a school in a particular situation.
One school has allowed the Parent Council to create a mail box for each parent at the school. Although these are not often used by the school for official communication with parents, the boxes are often used by parents for communicating with each other and to facilitate the flow of communication between members of parent committees.
Another school has created several standardized email addresses so that parents can easily reach the school and be sure their questions and concerns are directed to the proper place. These include an email address for the Board, the Finance Committee, and the Parent Council.
A third school mentioned that it has a parent sponsored online chat room and that the faculty chair is a regular participant in those conversations.
What means does your school use to ensure that all communications are accurate, timely, and properly reflect the image, philosophy and intent of the school?
Most schools tend to think about this question in terms of the audience for which various printed materials are intended. Most schools require that any correspondence or other promotional material to be distributed to the immediate parent community must be reviewed by a second individual prior to mailing. Some schools do not specify who the second reader must be, allowing the writer to have any individual of his or her choosing read the material and offer corrections prior to mailing. Other schools are quite clear that the school administrator or other member of the core leadership group must read all correspondence that goes out on school letterhead or that includes the school logo.
For material intended for a wider audience such as promotional material for events and activities, annual reports, and similar collateral it is usually the school development officer that has approval authority for these materials prior to mailing.
Some schools report that they have no formal system for reviewing materials distributed by room representatives, or even for class teacher letters to parents, and that this has caused difficulties from time to time. The most common trouble is that material is incomplete and is not shared with the office staff, leaving them unable to answer incoming questions from parents. In more isolated cases material has been distributed that contains errors of a more serious nature, and this has reflected badly on the school as a whole.
One area where schools are still struggling to create a policy has to do with email communication. Many schools are now adopting a policy that says that email may only be used for generic communication, and that any information regarding the specifics of a student’s performance or class issues must be handled through traditional mail and follow the school’s existing policy regarding review by a second individual prior to mailing.
Is there a central place where copies of all communications are kept for reference? Who is responsible for collecting and archiving this material, and how is this task accomplished?
With the advent of electronic word processing and publishing, some schools now keep electronic copies of all correspondence and publications. These are routinely backed up onto CDs or other storage devices for historical reference purposes.
Some schools report that they have been well served by a simple date ordered notebook. These schools require that a copy of anything mailed or emailed out be placed in a notebook in the school office for future reference. The exception to this is that copies of letters pertaining to an individual student are placed in the student file rather than in the general office file. This simple system allows any member of the staff to find a copy of a communication that someone may be inquiring about, and refer to it easily to answer any questions that may arise. The date sequencing also makes it easy for someone to locate letters that are sent out each year (back to school letters, etc.) and use them as the basis for creating the next year’s version. One school noted that it has three date ordered notebooks - one kept by the development office, one by the enrollment office, and one in the school office. The development office and enrollment office maintain the file copies of the material generated in their areas. The school office maintains the date-ordered file for all general school correspondence, teacher search and recruitment mailings, and other non development and enrollment collateral.
A few schools reported that they do not have even a simple date ordered notebook, but have just been “putting things in a box” with the intention of going back and sorting out the contents at a future time. The schools report that this intention is seldom realized, and they encourage all schools to start where they are and just begin a system of date based filing today.
Describe the role that electronic communication (web site and email) plays in the communication with the school community. How has this changed in the last year, and what changes are you planning or anticipating for the future?
All the schools surveyed noted that electronic communication is growing by leaps and bounds. Schools had interesting comments to share regarding both email usage and their school web sites.
Email - While it is true that almost everyone has email these days schools have learned that not everyone checks their email regularly. Schools are trying to be sensitive to this issue and try to never rely on email alone to communicate with parents. One school noted that it has developed a system of email buddies for those parents who don’t check email regularly, so that even these parents are kept well informed.
The kinds of information that are appropriate for email distribution are still being defined in our schools. As a general rule of thumb schools have noted that email is only appropriate for sharing general information such as meeting times and places. Personal information and comments on sensitive situations should never be shared via email. Experience has shown that it is quite simple to misinterpret the writer’s tone or meaning in an email, and that this same level of misunderstanding doesn’t seem to be generated in a traditional letter. In part this may be due to the fact that most schools require every letter sent on school letter head to be read by another member of the school staff prior to mailing so that difficulties with language or meaning are likely to be identified and ironed out prior to mailing. The same conventions do not exist with email correspondence which is better suited to quick, casual, informative subjects. One school noted it works carefully with room reps to help them to be sensitive to the kinds of communications that are better handled by letter or by a phone tree rather than through email.
Another school noted that it has had particular success with email communication to high school parents, as they are on campus less often than parents with younger (non-driving) students. These parents often appreciate the extra level of attention that an email makes possible.
Several schools noted that email is particularly useful to committees at the school. It is used for sharing minutes, meeting agendas, and other materials, allowing participants to arrive well prepared and ready to work.
Many schools are now distributing their weekly bulletins and monthly/quarterly newsletters by email, cutting printing and distribution costs while increasing production values through the use of color.
Most schools are now including parent emails in their school directories, although most ask parents for their specific permission to include that information there. Several schools noted that there is a real potential for abuse with email, and several schools have had situations where gossip and innuendo has taken on an electronic life of its own that is outside of the school’s established protocols for communication and conflict resolution. Clearly additional experience will help schools as they work to find the best and most appropriate uses of this new medium.
Web Sites - All of the schools in the study have a web site, and several of them report that the web site has become their most effective recruiting tool. It has now become common practice for someone wanting to get information on a topic of interest (including private schools) to turn to the web as a first source of information. A focus on making the school web site a tool for recruitment should be a first priority when a new web site is being created for the school.
Once the school has made the web site an effective tool for allowing interested parents to receive basic information about Waldorf education and the Waldorf School, then attention can be moved toward making the web as effective for current families as it is for recruiting new families. This phased approach makes sense as most schools already have time-tested programs for communicating with their parents - the web only serves to simplify and speed this process.
Most schools have developed a parents-only section of their web sites. This portion of the site is accessed by a password, and allows parents to view many school documents online. Information posted on the web site includes parent handbooks, school directories, the weekly bulletin, the school calendar, and the monthly/quarterly school newsletters.
Another way in which the web site is gaining use is in the development area. Parents can make donations online, find out more about the school’s building plans or capital campaign, and learn about various community events that will be taking place in the near future.
Please see the Sample Website Map for an overview of how a simple web site might be organized. Several schools noted that a commitment to a web site requires careful consideration. A good web site needs ongoing maintenance and periodic refurbishing. It is important that a school makes an appropriate commitment to providing the necessary staffing and funding to design and maintain the web site at a high level.
Describe the key elements of your school’s philosophy in relation to communication with the school community.
Artistry must be an element of all publications. Our communications must be beautiful and thoughtful. For example, the school tries not to provide parents with documents that are photocopies of photocopies. The focus is on making each communication look as though a person took care in its creation, adding a human touch to every thing that goes out.
There is a balance between communicating enough and not communicating so much that important news gets overlooked in the pile.Communication with the school community falls under the school manager’s job description. Overseeing the communication that goes out in written form is a major part of her job, and she works proactively to help people feel heard and connected.
We try to stay abreast of issues that might be bubbling up in the school, and to address those issues in a proactive way. For example, we try to look ahead and may include a series of articles in the weekly bulletin about issues that might generate energy, such as how our middle school students are prepared for high school life.
How the administration presents itself and its ability to meet needs in a timely and well thought out manner does a lot to build a strong foundation for how parents view a school.
We try to present a picture of the whole school, so that parents get a picture of what’s happening at all stages of the students’ development.
We try to make things attractive in the weekly bulletin and work to make the headlines informative.
Most parent and constituent communication seeks to promote the school’s belief that because Waldorf education is developmentally based, integrates intellectual, artistic, and physical activity into all learning, and provides a strong, nurturing community, it is good for children, families, and ultimately good for our world. And, oh by the way, there are fun, wholesome things going on here, with really nice people and you should be part of it all!
Student reports are a notable exception. They need to walk a more difficult line. Yes, they need to articulate the great, appropriate, interesting, things that are going on in our classrooms. They also demand an objectivity and forbearance that can have implications that the author might find uncomfortable or undesirable.
We understand that every time we give parents/constituents something to read from the school, we are asking for the reader’s time. If the reader chooses to give us his/her time/attention we then have an opportunity - the opportunity to give them a window into what a great place our school is. If we squander too many of those opportunities they will stop being given. Therefore communication should emphasize:
- Accuracy in matters of fact
- Clarity in matters of the heart
- Precision in matters of the hand (no typos!)
- Be engagingly written.
- And, while we don’t have a lot of situations in which a communication (authored by a school employee, speaking on behalf of the school of his/her program) is out of synch with our values as a school, we always have our antennae up for it. When we have a question about tone or content we initiate a discussion with the author before something is mailed.
We want to communicate regularly in a way that is clear and informative.
In publications like the biweekly bulletin it is helpful to have a mix of information that is factual with material intended to deepen one’s understanding of Waldorf education.
Err on the side of communicating too much. If you fear that gossip is brewing send a letter out. When all parents are well informed about sensitive situations the school community can move forward in the healthiest possible way.
In communicating with parents, perception can be just as important as facts. Keep in mind that when parents perceive they have not been notified or that something is amiss there is usually at least a kernel of truth in those perceptions. It is important to not get defensive, but to look for the essence in parents’ feelings. Don’t fight perceptions; instead respond to them in a professional, honest manner.
The key element is the belief that the school is in partnership with parents. When you are in partnership it is essential that the school communicate in a way that is most effective for your partners. For our parent partners this means being able to communicate electronically.
The school is committed to outreach to the community, ensuring that everyone knows what is going on. It is one school, and it tries to keep everyone informed about all events.
What about your school’s communication program is particularly effective? Schools noted several aspects of their communication programs of which they were proud or which were of real value:
The website is particularly effective.
The emailing of the newsletter has been very effective.
The school publishes email addresses (with parent permission) in the parent directory. About 98% of parents choose to have their email addresses published.
The Impulse (the biweekly newsletter) has been very effective and well done.
Having the faculty chair and the Board chair sign letters on major issues is very reassuring to parents. It lets them know that matters are being looked after and are well in hand.
Our school’s communication program is a “larger than the sum of its parts” sort of affair. If one looks at any particular element it is possible to question its effectiveness. But all together we seem to be gaining on the level of professionalism reflected in our communication, retaining the heart, and decreasing (or at least holding steady) the number of confused calls to the Front Office!
We try to step back, take a broad view and be proactive in our communications.
We are sensitive to how people receive things (e.g. sensitivity to the use of email) and that they receive information in a timely way.
The regularity with which we communicate to our community is what makes it most effective.
We work hard to boil all communication down to the essence.
It’s good to have things written in different people’s voices. This adds variety and liveliness to the communication process.
The school benefits greatly from its policy of having multiple people read things before they go out.
Quality - we insist on high quality materials, visuals and artwork.
If there were something you could change in relation to your school’s communication program, what would it be and why?
We continue to work to strike the right balance between too much and too little information.
Individual communication to parents about a particular issue is something that the school continues to focus on. These communications can be so sensitive and misunderstood so easily that it is very helpful to have a second set of eyes look at these letters before they are mailed.
The web site can use more improvement.
We are a lean staff, and with additional resources we could do an even better job of reaching out to and holding parents. The addition of a Communications Director would be a great addition.
The school needs to find a way to keep copies of old mailings in an accessible form.
There are always some parents who don’t feel like there is enough communication. There are a few parents who we have identified to receive extra handholding, but we continue to be sensitive to the needs of parents for additional information.
We look forward to having an official school email group that facilitates the publishing of announcements and quick reminders.
It would be great to have every piece of information that goes out to everybody copied to the office. Teachers and class parents don’t always share a copy of their communications. This can put the administration in a difficult spot when calls come in asking questions about a mailing, and can help to ensure consistency in the look and style of messages from the school.
The school would be well served by implementing a “second reader” rule - that is, all communications sent out on school letterhead must be read by a second member of the faculty or staff prior to mailing. The purpose of this rule is not to constrain or alter information, but rather to ensure that all communications are grammatically correct and well phrased.
In my dreams, the school would send out one thing a month. It would be beautiful and compellingly written. All of the class teachers would submit news without being strong armed. It would be without typos or errors. Everyone would read it and mark their calendars. Fewer trees would be lost and I wouldn’t have to say “pick up time is 12:15 on half days” ever again.