Danielle Airey and her communications team at Arizona’s Peoria Unified School District are all about connection. It’s part of the district’s strategic plan, and administrators are evaluated on how well they communicate and connect to the various constituents in their schools.
Since 2017, Airey’s team has held a day-long “Comm Camp” for administrators. They provide training on branding, crisis communications, community partnerships, ways to expand their influence in the school community, and how to recruit volunteers. The camp includes whole-group presentations and activities as well as guest speakers, videos, and various breakout sessions.
Airey, a Peoria Unified graduate who has worked for the district for 13 years, says the annual camp is designed to bring administrators together for “one full day that is focused solely on communication.”
“It was just an idea that sparked with our team,” says Airey, who has five staff members that serve the 36,000-student district, located in the northwest valley of Phoenix. “We started with what are the things we need them to know, what we have observed that can help them improve their skills in communications and parent engagement, and it took off from there.”
Peoria’s communications team surveys administrators annually to learn ways they can be supported in the upcoming school year. Those needs are matched with key components of the district’s strategic plan and annual goals as well as relevant communications-related topics.
“We merged what they wanted with what we wanted them to know to create the program for the day, and helped them develop a toolkit for better engagement for the community,” Airey says. “One of the coolest things about it—an outcome that we didn’t see happening—is that we deepened our relationships with our building leaders. Just getting to spend the day with them helped us tremendously, because you get so busy during the school year that you don’t often get those opportunities to bond in this type of way.”
Easy to replicate
The Comm Camp format is easily replicated and can be customized depending on your district’s capacity and needs. Airey has several suggestions for those who want to try it.
Do your research to develop the agenda, and then circle back to make sure the programming was on target. “The research piece is first and foremost,” Airey says. “Reach out in advance and find out what they need from a communications perspective, then make sure you customize the content, so they get what they want from the day. At the end, ask them to evaluate the programming so you can see if you hit the mark.”
Mix up the schedule and make sure you have time for relationship-building. “You need to have whole group sessions, but you also need to have breakouts where they can work in small groups or one-on-one to solve problems,” Airey says. “Building that rapport is critical.”
If you have a small department, look for expert communicators in your district and ask them to make presentations during the breakouts. Peoria’s Comm Camps have featured veteran principals with speakers from local nonprofit organizations and community groups. Depending on your district’s size and capacity, also consider programming that is tailored to both new and experienced administrators.
“We do this in our breakout sessions,” she says. “We have sessions that are intended for the new administrators on communications basics — what the expectations are, what the tools we use are, and how to use them, what are our areas of expertise. For the more tenured principal, we do more accelerated work on the strategies they need to use for connecting with staff and parents, the business community, and those who don’t have students in the district.”
Give administrators at least one takeaway that they can instantly implement, such as a template they can fill in on communication priorities for the year and strategies on how to make them achievable.
Emphasize that the communications team—whether it is a department of one or multiple people —is there to support administrators in their work. “That has really gone a long way in our district,” Airey says. “Our administrators know that we are there to help them if and when they need it.”
Be flexible in how you set up the camp from year to year, both in terms of the people involved and when you schedule it. “The first year we did it we had all administrators, both at the building level and at central office, so it was much broader in nature,” Airey says. “But since then, we’ve pared it down to principals and assistant principals and have dug into the issues they are facing at the building level.”
During the pandemic, the district made the camp optional. But this year, it will be mandatory and held in the fall. While summer generally is considered the best time for this type of staff development, Peoria adopted a new curriculum in both math and science this year and used that time to implement it.
“There are some tried and true communications strategies or systems that you need to cover from year to year, but over time you’ll find different ways to adapt your agenda to best suit everyone’s needs,” Airey says. “That’s part of the beauty of doing this from year to year. It gives you a dedicated time to help everyone.”