Like many professionals who make a career switch, Lesley Bruinton had practical reasons for leaving broadcast journalism and turning to school public relations in 2007. She had been covering courts, crime, and local government for seven years and wanted something that offered more security and routine.
“My husband and I just had our first daughter, and I was looking for a different schedule,” says Bruinton, public relations coordinator for Alabama’s Tuscaloosa City Schools. “But 19 months later, the bottom fell out of the economy, the district reduced positions, and mine was one that was reduced.”
That fiscal reality is one that school public relations professionals fear every time budgets get tight, despite the importance of their role in communicating the work of students and staff in the nation’s public schools. It was a disappointment to Bruinton, who comes from a family of educators and whose heart remained with the Tuscaloosa schools. She went to work for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a nonprofit museum that focuses on Alabama’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. However, she did not hesitate to reapply for her old job when it was posted a year and a half after it was cut.
“I was eight and a half months pregnant when I took the job, and when I came back from maternity leave, we had a new superintendent, and an EF-420 (tornado) had destroyed three of our schools,” she says of returning to her old position. “This was 2011, and not many school systems were using social media like they do now. But we had to turn to it because the tornadoes took out all our telecommunications systems, and we had no access to our websites or servers.”
The tornado—and the district’s embrace of social media—proved to be an opportunity to shift from tactical to more strategic communications. It’s a shift that Bruinton has openly embraced, and her focus on ongoing community engagement has led to two major honors this year.
In February, Bruinton became the first communications professional to win AASA The School Superintendents Association’s “Women in School Leadership” award. And this summer, with a spotlight shined on school communications thanks to the pandemic, she took over as president of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).
“I hope, especially this year, that there’s more appreciation for what we do from the larger K-12 school community,” says Bruinton, who issued a daily newsletter to the families of Tuscaloosa’s 10,000 students during the spring. “School public relations professionals have provided a critical link to families about what was supposed to be happening, whether it was updates on virtual learning, updates on food and devices, or in finding ways to tell the stories of students during this unprecedented time.”
If anything, the pandemic has been another example that school communicators have roles that are anything but routine. From March to the end of the 2019-20 school year, Tuscaloosa sent out 150 messages to parents and the community, which has been mirrored in other districts across the country. Bruinton says she took a “Goldilocks approach” to the messaging, working to figure out the balance “between too much, too little, and just right.”
“I think it’s important for the community to understand what they’re getting for what they’re investing in the local public schools,” Bruinton says, noting the district has not received “any blowback” for its approach. “We have made a commitment to really provide that sense of connectivity to our schools even though our buildings were closed. It’s a unique opportunity to provide community service right from the school system.”
Like any good communicator, Bruinton’s approach to telling her district’s story goes beyond simply sending out information. She tries to show how the district is improving academic outcomes for students.
“If you think of your communications person as someone who serves as the district’s photographer or a person who sends out tweets and posts to Facebook on your behalf, you’re missing out on the wide set of skills that person has to support a wide-ranging program,” she says.
As an example, Bruinton and NSPRA Executive Director Rich Bagin point to her work on Tuscaloosa’s Summer Learning Academy, a program that started in the fall of 2017 to prevent learning loss among the district’s elementary school students. Previous summer school programs had been “punitive, required, and focused on credit recovery and remediation.” Three half-day programs were held for 360 students over four weeks.
Using “The Four-Step Process” — research, planning, implementation, and evaluation—Bruinton provided information to administrators on how to design and market the new academy. She points to one key fact—two-thirds of the achievement gap between ninth-graders in poverty and those who are not is directly attributable to summer learning loss in elementary school. Meanwhile, a survey showed 74 percent of the district’s parents wanted full-day, affordable summer learning opportunities that focused on enrichment.
“A lot of times, children want to participate, but the opportunities just aren’t there,” Bruinton says. “We wanted to create the demand for a program that parents wanted, so we asked them and then marketed the program in just that way.”
The new program is full day, voluntary, focused on academics and enrichment, and held five days a week for five weeks. Transportation and meals are provided, and students receive at least three hours of reading and math in small classes.
“We reached capacity enrollment and had to create a waitlist as a result of that,” Bruinton says, noting the district saw large increases in reading proficiency for first- through third-graders the following year. “The business community asked what they can to do help, and unasked, they developed a challenge campaign that resulted in $40,000 in a week and a half’s time.”
Bagin says this type of effort is “something I wish more of our members can do.”
“She’s not limited to staying in the traditional, prescribed lens of what people view as the school PR position,” Bagin says. “She’s one of our members who can see where engagement will help her district and is able to step back and look at what needs to be done and then work with her colleagues to execute it. We always ask our members, ‘Where do you make an impact?’ She’s an impact player in that way.”
After what has already been a heady and hectic year, Bruinton knows many challenges are ahead for communications professionals. Many districts already have been forced to make tough budget choices, and things are not expected to get easier as we all try to emerge from the pandemic. Some likely will see their jobs cut, like she did more than a decade ago.
Wearing her new hat as NSPRA’s president, Bruinton says school public relations professionals need to focus on promoting the quality of their work.
“A lot of times, school PR people do a great job of advocating for others and their successes and celebrations, but they’re not the best advocates for themselves,” she says. “We need to be more forthright about celebrating the talent and skills that we bring that can improve outcomes for students.
“School systems have a finite number of resources, and they have to think very carefully about how they’ve used those resources to protect the instructional integrity of the academics they offer,” Bruinton says. “We have to champion the work that we do and show there’s a way to do school PR that supports those improved outcomes.”