School District Success: Six Steps to Cultivating Impactful Community Engagement


It’s back-to-school season. Students across the country have returned to classrooms, parents rejoiced (!) and educators are feeling the excitement of a new year, full of new possibilities and opportunities for the students they serve.

What else comes with a new school year? Questions. Lots of questions. And lots of information for districts and schools to share with staff, parents, students and communities. 

The role of school district communications – whether it falls to the superintendent, a communications pro or a public relations team – is a big job.

But don’t just take our word for it.

In the recent State of K-12 Customer Experience Report, school leaders identified their most important strategic initiatives. It’s no surprise three of the top responses involved improving relationships with community members. Building community trust (90%), engaging external stakeholders (80%), and providing high-quality customer experiences for all stakeholders (76%) were all identified as top priorities.

While these may be top priorities, the reality is educators today wear a lot of hats – which can make community engagement and communications seem like a challenging task. But rest assured, the task is completely doable with a little strategic planning and thoughtful implementation.

Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, we were fortunate to partner with Deer Park Community City Schools (Ohio) and Pueblo City Schools (Colorado), as part of our work with EPIC Impact Education Group. While these school districts have vastly different populations and cultures, both followed a similar approach to community engagement which yielded impactful results and common best practices.

The takeaways?

  • Engaging community is not easy, but it IS worth it.

  • Authentic engagement and listening, combined with an actionable plan, translates to success.

  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities in development and implementation are critical.

 As school districts consider their own strategic planning, we summarized six key steps to consider for impactful and practical community engagement.

  1. Pre-Plan and Prepare. Ensure all stakeholders know what you are asking of them in the strategic planning process and prepare them for success. It takes planning, expectation-setting and skill to help people adapt to change.

  2. Look Inward. Be willing to openly and honestly examine culture, data, processes, and more. The insights you gather will help align your work, process, practices, and people with your overall district goals and objectives.

  3. Bring in Experts. Consider inviting an outside agency or facilitator to guide the process. These strategists will not only keep the project on track, they also have the unique ability to collect and review data without emotional bias or judgment.

  4. Engage Stakeholders. Meet people where they are, authentically engage them, uncover their ideas, and discover what they value through online surveys, in-person focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and more.

  5. Align. Think beyond the immediate needs of your teachers and principals. Work through vision, goals, plan, department goals, and individual objectives for broader accountability and success.

  6. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Talk about your plan. This is crucial for both planning and implementation. Once you begin working toward your new plan, communicate your progress, modifications and milestones to your key stakeholders. This is essential for keeping your team focused on reaching your goals and sustaining community support.

Recently, our team had the opportunity to present these experiences and key learnings alongside Deer Park and Pueblo City Schools at the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) National Seminar in Washington, D.C.

We loved hearing that these actionable steps hit home for our audience members, including event attendee Patrick Gallaway, Director of Communications, New Albany - Plain Local Schools and President, Ohio School Public Relations Association (OHSPRA) who shared: 

“I appreciate the lessons learned [at the NSPRA National Seminar] from the strategic planning process that Approach Marketing led for both Pueblo City Schools and Deer Creek Community City Schools.  Attendees were able to see that even though these districts may have been far apart in terms of demographics or student/community makeup, the basics of engaging stakeholders and streamlined communication, can apply almost anywhere. I truly value the six common-sense steps for community engagement and will be able to share this with my entire leadership team and board of education.” 

To learn more about our work with school districts, check out our success stories featuring Troy City Schools , Balanced Family Academy and LOCI.

Are you an education organization looking for a partner to help with your community engagement and communication? Approach us at