Effective Communication Strategies for Building Local Stakeholder Engagement and Ownership

This blog is the first in a series on strategies and resources to help rural educators implement critical improvement initiatives. This blog series will share and build on lessons and best practices that are working in rural districts. An introductory blog post outlining the series is available here.

Community members in rural districts often view their schools through the lens of tradition and history; in their communities, schools are considered the lifeblood of the region. Many school-based events—including sporting events, school plays, and graduations—are major social gatherings that bring citizens together and place schools in a prominent local position.

Rural leaders have an opportunity to leverage stakeholder engagement activities, many of which are supported by components of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to forge stronger links between rural schools and the communities and citizens they serve. School leaders play an important role in bringing rural community stakeholders together to discuss how the school helps children learn, grow, and become active and independent adults. Through their annual improvement planning, schools have a great opportunity to sponsor and provide space for conversations on topics such as learning needs, health and development, financial independence, and local workforce development. By leveraging stakeholder engagement efforts, rural leaders can provide opportunities for community members to extend their participation beyond attending school-based events to actively investing in the daily work of schools in their communities.

To galvanize the community, school leaders can prioritize their goals and clarify their vision for education, then clearly communicate the local goals and vision to stakeholders to build support for their critical work. Consider the following successful communication strategies:

  1. Stay focused. Rural school and district leaders often have limited time and resources and small numbers of staff. Instead of creating an exhaustive list of all possible options, keep the work (and the required tasks) focused and aligned with overall district priorities to promote better long-term viability.
  2. Streamline messages around school initiatives. Be careful not to present new initiatives or efforts as “one more thing.” Instead, communicate how new efforts are part of a broader, long-term strategy that reflects the needs and values of the community. By organizing messages around common objectives, leaders can keep communications focused and easy to understand.
  3. Start small and build momentum. Large-scale community events are typically only successful after community members are already engaged in the work. Start small and work first with those in the community who have influence and those who are most impacted by the initiative. As momentum builds, focus on broader engagement efforts over time.
  4. Engage a wide range of stakeholders. Emphasize how promoting student success in rural communities promotes economic sustainability for rural citizens. Engage stakeholders from businesses, foundations, nonprofits, and public sector service organizations. By engaging stakeholders from a variety of organizations, rural communities may be better positioned to distribute and share ideas and resources.
  5. Don’t miss an opportunity. In addition to clear and specific information shared with all stakeholders broadly, school leaders also have to be prepared for informal and impromptu conversations with members of the community. This often means having clear, concise talking points ready and connecting those talking points to individual values and perspectives.

Interested in learning more?

For more information, check out the “Future Ready Schools Guidebook” from the National Rural Education Association and partner affiliates. This guidebook includes strategies for district leaders for communicating with their communities, as well as examples of how states are working with rural school leaders to support education initiatives (specifically, personalized learning for rural schools). You can also check out the suite of resources on boosting productivity in rural schools from the Building State Capacity and Productivity Center, “The SEA of the Future: Uncovering the Productivity Promise of Rural Education.”

Over the next few weeks, this blog series will share more detailed strategies for engaging stakeholders in rural communities, including an implementation checklist, example strategies, and a Top Ten Tips list for leaders.

Click here for the next post in the series, “Stakeholder Engagement—A Checklist for Rural Education Systems.”