Andrew Campanella, President and CEO of the National School Choice Awareness Foundation (best known for their annual initiative National School Choice Week), is one of the leading experts on the wide range of schooling options available in the U.S. Critically, he also understands what parents want and need to know when deciding on a school for their child.
Campanella’s book, The School Choice Roadmap: 7 Steps to Finding the Right School for Your Child, has earned a number of honors because of its value to parents, including a National Parenting Product Award, but its lessons are equally valuable to the leaders who are designing and marketing schools. What are parents looking for in a school and how can leaders demonstrate we have what they want?
As the guest on a recent episode of The Authority Podcast, he evaluated things from exactly this angle, and we’ve drawn a handful of valuable lessons from the interview. Given his relationships with parents and educators across the schooling spectrum and his work through National School Choice Week to “raise positive and equal awareness” of all schooling options, Campanella is well-positioned to help school leaders understand what parents want to hear from schools and how to deliver that message.
“Getting out there” with your story
“What does it mean for families when schools go out and promote themselves and say to families, ‘hey, this is why you should choose us?’ I think it means everything. And it can make a world of difference for a school,” says Campanella.
This lesson applies regardless of what makes your school unique. No matter what you want to tell people, it’s about telling them proactively and consistently. Campanella uses the example of Coca-Cola, a company that still invests in significant advertising well over a century into its existence, as evidence that public outreach works.
“People need to be reminded over and over and over again, not just that you are there and that you exist, but what it is you do and what makes you unique.” Letting people know about your good work is the way you continue to grow and recruit families, he says.
Empowering outside narrators harms your story
Not only is there an opportunity cost when schools don’t tell their own story — you also leave it open for someone else to tell their own inaccurate version.
“People will fill in the blank” when we don’t communicate our own objectives and successes, says leadership and career coach Eric Woodard. This applies to staff, faculty, parents, students and any other stakeholders — they’ll draw inferences based on what they do know, and what they think you might not be telling them.
Former teacher, assistant principal and entrepreneur Mike Ficara also describes this phenomenon in his book, Like Socks on a Rooster. “They aren’t your haters, they’re your narrators,” he says of the people who tell your story for you. “You’ve granted them the ability to speak for you through your silence.”
In the case of schools, this may be the parents or community members who are creating their own narrative based on their limited perspective on your work. It could also be your “competitor” schools who imply your shortcomings in contrast to their own narrative. In either case, these people may not intend to mislead or even criticize, but you’re probably unhappy with what they’re saying because it’s not the full truth as you’d tell it. The only thing to do, then, is to share your own story.
5 lessons for telling a strong story
Campanella’s insights cover a lot of ground, but the most important lessons shared in the podcast group into five key takeaways:
Lesson 1: Communicate early and often
The first time you communicate with parents shouldn’t be when you’re asking them for something. Campanella specifically mentions fundraising as a common ask from schools. “That’s important, and I’m not going to discount the benefit of having parents involved in development, but you need to involve parents in other aspects of school, too,” he says. “They can’t just be the financiers of the operation.”
Opportunities to involve parents include telling them about the types of things kids will learn through the curriculum and the kind of field trips you plan to take. Some schools may even take it further and include parents in decision-making about new hires. No matter the specifics, it’s important to maintain frequency: when parents feel left out, they’re going to convey a lot of frustration. And while this often seems like it’s about dissatisfaction with the quality of education or other factors, it really comes down to frustration with the lack of communication.
Lesson 2: Tell a story people can understand
“Jargon works for nobody,” says Campanella. He cautions schools to avoid the acronyms and other terms so common in “education speak” (many of which lack even a consensus definition among educators, who are also tired of buzzwords). Parents are smart, and they want to feel informed. Obscuring your message in jargon not only leaves them feeling confused — it also will appear that confusing them is your intent.
Making your story understandable also comes down to the details on which you focus. For example, when talking about your teachers, parents want to hear about their qualifications rather than their certifications. Certifications are important for the school, but they don’t help parents make meaning and they don’t tell a relatable story. By contrast, if you share a qualitative narrative about what your teacher has done for students and how those students flourished, that’s a compelling story that will attract families.
“[Stories about] how the teacher inspires a child and motivates a child and challenges the child to be the very best that he or she could be. Those are the stories that we remember about our teachers and their parents remember about their kids’ teachers, not the credentials they hold,” says Campanella.
Lesson 3: Make sure your story addresses things families want to know
In recent conversations with Campanella, parents have expressed particular concerns about the quality of education their children are receiving — especially with respect to pandemic-related learning loss — bullying, and broader safety issues in schools. Schools should be prepared to respond to these concerns, or even better, talk about them ahead of time.
As for topics that parents aren’t interested in hearing about? It’s best not to assume. “It really depends on the parent population you’re talking to and on the individual parent and kid,” he says. For example, many parents may not find Great Schools rankings and test scores particularly interesting, but for others that may be an effective message. When you consistently share your story with parents and stay tuned into how they’re responding, you’ll more easily be able to highlight the things that matter to them.
Lesson 4: Tell a story that makes you proud
“Pick three or four things about your school that you know make you proud. Tell people about [those things] and why it matters to them and their kids,” says Campanella. “Make it about their kids: don’t make it about some internal process or some external validation. Make it about what your school will do for their child or has done for other kids, and use those things to lead your messaging.”
One way to determine the narratives to highlight: think about the difference between “needs” and “wants.” There are a number of things schools need to provide, and parents will be looking for those, but they’re not what makes you unique. It’s important to make this information easy to find, but in your story, it’s the “wants” that speak to parents’ aspirations. They’re more compelling.
Also, don’t pressure yourself to tell an all-encompassing narrative. Focus on the top few things that are differentiators. If they’re strong enough, they’ll get people in the door. If you’re clearly proud of your work and the impact you have on students, families will respond.
Lesson 5: Close the loop
One of the best opportunities to earn parents’ affinity is to communicate about changes and improvements you’ve made based on their requests — so make sure to take this step. Explain what you heard from students or parents, what you did in response and any further feedback you’d like. Families will see themselves as partners in your work, and you’ll earn their continued buy-in.
The story continues through word of mouth
“How somebody feels about their experience with your school is going to be what they lead with when they talk with another parent. And that can make or break you,” says Campanella.
Planning ahead for good word of mouth is, therefore, essential. And each of these lessons helps you to not only better communicate with your parents, but to train and equip them to be effective tellers of your story. By focusing on individuals’ experiences and framing your story in a way that’s personalized to their desires, you’ll give them the ability to do the same. Without blanks to fill in, your chosen narrators will tell a stronger, more positive story.