Trust in Public Schools: Where Did It Go?
Published on Oct. 10 at 4:09 p.m.
by Carleigh Clark
Public school districts with dedicated communications and public relations departments are leading the way in community engagement and credibility among parents, teachers and students.
As of 2021, 90.9% of school-age children in the United States attend a public school. Public schools, ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade, are seeing a consistent decline in attendance and parent engagement across the nation. The Texas Education Agency revealed “withdrawals from public school to homeschool in the spring of 2021 were up by 40% from the previous year.”
In order to keep American children in public schools, parents and students alike have to believe that their local public school district is their most valuable option.
Heather Lenard is the director of communications in Oxford, Mississippi, for the Oxford School District. The district is responsible for seven schools with approximately 4,770 currently enrolled students, she said.
Lenard noted the biggest challenge of communication within the district community comes with ensuring a unified message across all platforms.
“There is one of me, but we have 600 employees. We communicate from a district level … so other departments coordinate with me to make sure the facts are there and [all] of our internal publics are sharing correct information,” said Lenard.
Public school districts are responsible for five major internal publics. Parents, students, teachers, administrators and the school board all serve a different purpose with different interests. Numerous districts with consistent and willful parental involvement tend to be more successful and have a better sense of community.
Following recent years full of COVID-19 protocol and school safety issues, school districts have an opportunity to rebuild credibility within their community, especially with parents. According to Robert Pondiscio in an article for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, “it seems indisputable that public education in recent years has not always operated with the interests of parents foremost in mind.”
While Lenard said the Oxford School District has great parental involvement, she discussed the importance of having multiple avenues of communication between all individuals in the district. Open communication, she said, is always important in keeping parents involved in the schools.
“How do [parents] want their information? Our parents vary in the ways they prefer to receive information, and the content always determines which communication channel is used. In a crisis, we dispatch all methods of communications. Some parents want short and quick messaging while others want a full story not limited to character count. Analytics and parent surveys help us determine how to adjust our communication strategies. In our school district, we use a variety of methods: email, text messaging, mobile app push notifications, website headlines, and social media. Communication is key in building and maintaining trust,” said Lenard.
Following the Robb Elementary School shooting on May 24, 2022, school trust and credibility was at an all-time low for the community of Uvalde, Texas. Reports from the Texas House of Representatives revealed routine maintenance on doors and other safety measures at the school were not treated in a timely manner by the school district. The shooter entered the school through an unlocked door.
As the new school year started, following the shooting in Uvalde, safety improvements were made to the physical school building to help ensure safety. However, some parents say they will never send their children back to public school due to the carelessness of the district.
At a Uvalde CISD meeting in July of 2022, the older brother of a victim said, “How am I supposed to come back here? I’m a senior. How am I supposed to come back to this school?”
Detailing the investigative report released by the Texas House of Representatives, NPR noted “school staff had grown less vigilant, straying from locked door policies and active shooter procedures.”
Trust was gone. Ideally, trust should be built within a school district before a crisis occurs, but an extensive amount of forethought and preparation must to take place. Public relations professionals are most valued in times of crisis.
Terri Brewer is the director of public relations for the Tuscaloosa County School District. Located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the district is responsible for roughly 19,000 students spread across 35 schools, according to Brewer.
Brewer said with such a large district community, crisis response plans are in place for every possible scenario. When a crisis does occur, she said, it is most important to establish strong communication with parents and families.
When asked about the importance of maintaining credibility in a crisis situation, Brewer said, “It’s important that families hear about these issues directly from the educators and district leaders responsible for their children’s education, not just from others, who may not have firsthand, accurate information about these issues.”
Individuals who are responsible for building and maintaining the trust and communication between all members of the district community are a vital need. Both Lenard and Brewer explained that the ultimate challenge when communicating within a school district is keeping information accurate and timely, no matter the circumstance. The Oxford School District and the Tuscaloosa County School District differ in size and location, but they both strive for consistent messaging.
Mistakes were made in Uvalde — all of which were widely publicized. School districts across the nation were given the opportunity to learn from previous errors. People like Heather Lenard and Terri Brewer are working hard in American public schools to build a future where trust should never have to be questioned.