Strategic Communications for Portfolio School District Reform

Sam Sperry, Center on Reinventing Public Education
July 2010 

This working paper by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) discusses the diverse needs of three “portfolio” school districts – Denver, New York, and New Orleans – when it comes to communications and marketing practices.

Portfolio districts – which manage a “portfolio” of various types of schools, give school leaders great operational freedom over their schools, and hold schools accountable for academic performance – face marketing needs that are unique to each district’s context. The paper draws on interview data from communications personnel in the three districts and comes up with techniques to improve marketing and communications for other districts considering a portfolio approach, such as:

  • Have solid messaging focused on academic improvement and results (and good “messengers”). Portfolio districts are focused on growing schools that work and closing those that don’t, and this can create messy PR scenarios. The paper recommends that districts be honest and stay centered in the core message that children deserve better options.
  • Demonstrate success with concrete numbers. Point to increases in proficiency, graduation rates, student growth, etc. but also put a human face on the numbers so the message of school improvement is more compelling.
  • Know the audience. The paper spells out the importance of stratifying communications with various groups like the media, the teachers themselves (many of whom may be skeptical of new reforms), parents and the community, etc. as well as having the right personnel in place to handle communications.

Just as the management of schools in portfolio districts is less rigid, so are the strategies discussed in this paper, which in some places reads more like personal advice from a friend than a policy paper. But the importance of this topic should not be overlooked, as portfolio districts often face complex and controversial reform issues and must demonstrate their success in ways that traditional districts don’t have to.

Portfolio districts oversee a diverse mix of schools – most of which are more autonomous than traditional district schools – and are defined by a sense of urgency to lift achievement and ensure that all schools continually improve (or get phased out). This complexity requires more than just basic communication strategies. This paper might be useful for anyone interested in portfolio districts or even other alternative (and high-stakes) schooling environments such as school turnarounds. Read it here.

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