District Resources / Feb 19, 2021

The 5 Biggest Myths About District Family Engagement Strategies

Family Engagement Strategies

On a bad day, a school district can seem like a run-down hospital—big, impersonal, cold, and a little scary. It’s a place you go if you have to, but not the kind of place you hang out on purpose. On a great day, a school district can seem like a bustling community with friendly people and a place where meaningful memories can be made. The difference between dreary and delight is how well the district engages parents in the shared work of education and development. Unfortunately, some district leaders have given up hope that engagement is even possible because they’ve heard so much mythology about apathetic parents. For many, the promise of district family engagement is stuck on the launchpad, held back by the weight of commonplace myths. Could that be your case? Are any of these five big myths familiar to you?

Myth 1: “We said it, they read it, we’re engaged.”  

Imagine if relationships worked this way, with one-directional monologues substituting for actual dialogue. It’s almost nonsensical to think that any other relationship could exist with only one party doing all the talking. Could a family raise a child into adulthood if they only talked and never listened? Could a doctor heal a patient if information flowed only one way? In other relationships, we take it for granted that dialogue and interaction are essential, but somehow our district strategies overlook the importance of feedback and collaboration. The reason engagement can refer to a lifetime commitment between lovers is because it means a mutual commitment to a shared future. To activate that emotional potential, districts need to learn about the strengths, goals, and expectations of the parent community. That means meaningful district family engagement begins with questions, not declarations; and collaboration, not just service.

Myth 2: “Social media is fire!”  

Because they are highly interactive and visual, social media platforms create an illusion of engagement. Posts and feeds seem more active than they actually are. Most of the leading platforms are designed for superficial interactions, with likes, retweets, and shares dominating activity on all the top platforms. Original content is rare, and value-added responses even more so. There are ways to use social platforms strategically, but they work best as a launchpad, not a landing zone. The myth that broadcasting over social media “works” is not only unrealistic, but it can distract us from other strategies that animate meaningful district family engagement.

Myth 3: “Traditional Marketing is Dead!”

Across the globe and over the last two decades, technology prophets have declared the triumph of pixels over the paper. “It’s cheaper!” “It’s faster!” “It’s easier!” are the siren songs of digital devotees. But those lyrics are all wrong. Digital strategies have value, they add efficiency and support customization, but analog tactics have a place too. The look, feel, weight, and composition of a flyer, newsletter, report, or insert provides a different qualitative experience that cannot be replicated on screens and devices. For items that might be posted, re-read, shared, or marked up, traditional physical media have advantages that digital equivalents cannot match. If you invite a family to a round table with the superintendent, which is more compelling, a golden ticket delivered in person, or a QR code posted to Facebook? If the answer isn’t obvious, maybe it’s time to do a little personal myth-busting of your own.

Myth 4: “Reach Equals Engagement”

This myth may be the most pernicious distortion that every distorted district family engagement. Reach, and its evil twin spread, are both used to describe the width of a communication campaign. But meaningful district family engagement depends on depth. Is it better that your message is ignored, deleted, and unsubscribed by 10,000 patrons, or that it is heard and acted on by ten? Engagement isn’t a numbers game, it’s a names game. Naming your prospects, naming their motivation, and listening as they name their expectations—will take you further than a shotgun message broadcast to the masses. Personal, exclusive, and attentive are much more important than reach and spread if you truly want effective district family engagement.

Myth 5: “They’re Just Not Into Us”

When outreach efforts tank, or worse, limp along with just enough progress to keep you interested but never deliver results, it’s easy to conclude that our audience is disinterested. The final myth about district family engagement is that only the district wants it. Not true. School choice movements across the county have demonstrated conclusively that a core of families and students are open to alternatives like charter schools, magnet programs, private schools, online programs, and work-based learning. If families are willing to make the effort for something as major as choosing a new school and supporting all the logistical arrangements, they are certainly engaged with schooling—they’re just not engaged with you. Understanding their unmet expectations or unresolved questions is the catalyst to energize family attention. Remember the first rule of attraction, we pay attention to those who pay attention to us. When our outreach makes families feel special, they’ll reciprocate and respond in kind.

Myths can be powerful, but reality wins the day. The school doesn’t have to feel like a dreary hospital when it could be a compelling destination. Purposeful outreach that meets families where they are and invites them to come further along, can bust the myths and build meaningful relationships with willing families. Family district engagement is a relationship, and customized messaging, targeted follow-up, real-time reporting, and plans for follow-up are relationship builders. District leaders who move past the myths and skillfully foster meaningful family district engagement. 

If your district has been led astray by some of these persistent myths, our latest webinar featuring success stories from Ohio, Alabama, and Michigan district leaders gives you actionable insights that you can use to dispel the myths and make your family district engagement stronger than ever.

Building Parent Engagement In Ohio, Alabama, Michigan

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