Communication is Key for Baltimore County

By Joetta Sack-Min

Engaging parents, students, school staff and stakeholders is a top priority for Baltimore County Public Schools and Superintendent S. Dallas Dance. Mychael Dickerson, Chief Communications Officer for the school district, has worked with the superintendent to shape the district's communications strategies and ensure that all parties are getting the information they need, on time. For its success, the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), AASA, the School Superintendents Association and Blackboard honored the district with the 2015 Leadership Through Communication Award.

Dickerson recently spoke with the Learning First Alliance about Baltimore County's philosophies and strategies.

LFA: Communications has not always been a top priority for school districts, especially in times of budget cuts. Tell us, in your view, why do school districts need to prioritize and invest in communications?

Dickerson: It is ironic that school system communications offices are among the first to be cut during difficult budget decisions but it is precisely during this time when public relations/communications staff is needed most.  Communicating and explaining budget crisis decisions, in the right way, to internal and external stakeholders is particularly important and when there is no communications professional staff to help with messaging, many school systems get it wrong. 

LFA: How have you seen social media and digital technologies transform the way school districts engage parents and their communities? What are some of the strategies Baltimore County uses successfully? Has there been anything that sounded like a good idea but did not work?

Dickerson: Social media and digital technologies have been game changers for engaging students, parents, staff, internal and external stakeholders and communities.  Schools systems can now take their messages directly to their communities without the filter of media or the time of traditional mail.  In Team BCPS, we have embraced the idea of open, transparent and timely communications and we use social media; digital media; our website; phone, text and email notification system; and marketing resources to share our message.  There’s also times when bringing people to town hall-style meetings and speaking to them directly in person is absolutely the right thing to do.  We still hold student and teacher town halls twice a year.

I cannot think of something we tried that did not work but knowing when and how to use the tools we have in place can sometimes present challenges.  Communicating fast and immediately through social media may not always be the best option, particularly if the message is not given to the right stakeholders first and in the correct manner.  As an example, before sending out a message that schools are closing early, it is important to make principals aware so they are prepared for the calls that might follow.  It is never good when students walk up to a principal to announce that school is closing early. Not that this has ever happened to us…..

LFA: Tell us about the “Team BCPS” campaign and how you’ve built a greater sense of ownership and community. Are there any specific strategies that could be replicated by other districts?

Dickerson: We came up with the Team BCPS campaign last year when we realized that after the superintendent started referring to the school system as Team BCPS (from the moment he was first hired in Spring of 2012) our stakeholders were also using the term.  Our students were and are the most avid users and promoters of the Team BCPS term and concept and we noticed that principals and their staff were adopting the idea of “Team” in their individual buildings.  Last year, after having a great first half of the school year we wanted to come up with a way to energize the internal and external school system community around the idea that everyone is part of the team.  We simply asked people to send photos of them wearing Team BCPS Blue and to go to social media to post their pictures or to let us know how they were celebrating Team BCPS Day.  To our surprise we received hundreds of pictures and thousands of tweets and Facebook posts.  We also held a competition recognizing the youngest Team BCPS member (mothers to be were sending in photos pointing at their stomachs indicating they had the youngest Team BCPS member), the oldest Team BCPS member, the largest Team BCPS group etc., the most spirited, etc.  The pictures and tweets came from all over the world and from all sorts of people to include; students; parents; families; staff members; businesses; religious groups; senior citizen homes and many other organizations and stakeholders. It was an incredible launch and this year was even more successful.  

I think other school districts could do something similar but it really begins with reaching out to the internal and external community and making them feel like they are part of what the system does day to day.  They must genuinely feel they are part of what makes the school system successful and their input and involvement is crucial.

LFA: What is your advice to school districts that can’t hire a full-time communications director to help coordinate these types of initiatives?

Dickerson: The first thing I would suggest is to continue advocating for a full-time communications director because the return on investment will be immediate and obvious.  Having stated that, if it is not possible to bring someone in fulltime, school systems must identify people within the organization who are active social media users and who are willing to spend time promoting and communicating positive stories and activities taking place in the system.  I would also strongly urge the involvement of students in the marketing and promoting of the great things happening in the school system.  Promoting student work, to include academic; artistic; athletic and extra-curricular activities, is key to getting students, families and the external community excited about what’s happening within the system. Notice that everything I’ve discussed costs little to no money to implement. It is really a matter of finding those people in the organization who are passionate about education, providing great opportunities for students, and who want to share your story throughout your community and beyond.

LFA: How important is the support of the school system leadership in your communications plan?

Dickerson: The support of the Board of Education and having a Superintendent who recognize the importance of communication and community outreach is key. I am fortunate to have both and they have allowed my team to try ideas and to engage students in ways that were not used here before.  It has been an incredible partnership and we look forward to continuing to share the Team BCPS story and strategies.

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