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As the 2022-23 school year approached, Genevieve Brown was working in program management and marketing at the University of New Hampshire when an intriguing job opportunity came up.

The Oyster River Cooperative School District, located next to the university campus, was hiring a communications specialist to serve its 2,150 students and four campuses. What prompted Brown to apply was that the position was solely devoted to the communications function, a somewhat unusual move in a district so small.

“Many of my colleagues across the state are teaching while also doing the communications role, and that’s hardly sustainable,” Brown says. “It’s almost impossible to wear both hats at the same time.”

Oyster River decided to allocate the resources for the position following an audit that showed gaps in the district’s communications with parents, staff, and community members. Barbara Hunter, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), says more similarly sized districts are following suit.

According to Profile of a School Communicator, a biannual report published by NSPRA in September, districts with even fewer students than Oyster River are hiring more communications-specific staff than they did prior to the pandemic. And larger districts that previously had a single person in communications also are adding staff as the demand for information grows.

Crisis communications remains the top priority for school communicators, according to the NSPRA survey. But, compared to the pandemic-height of 2020, fewer communicators said it is among their top five responsibility. Now, it appears, the focus has shifted more toward community relations and public engagement.

“The increase in membership and the increase in the value of the function is an indicator of the efforts being made by school districts to bridge the divides we’re seeing in many communities,” says Hunter, whose association has seen double-digit percentage growth in its membership since 2020. “In public education, especially, it is so important to bring people together to bridge those differences, and school communicators are really good at that.”

Brown’s skill set—she has degrees in advanced management and public relations and has served on boards for three chapters of the American Marketing Association—helped her get the job. But, she says, moving into the complex world of K-12 education was an adjustment.

“I’ve done a little bit of everything, and that was very helpful because as the one-person shop you need to be able to jump in and figure out things as you go,” Brown says. “But the K-12 universe is very different, and it can be challenging to navigate and understand how everyone comes together to make this work.”

Nine months into her job, Brown had migrated the district’s outdated central office and school-based websites to a unified platform, ParentSquare. It was one of several large projects that the district did not have the capacity to do before she was hired.

“In a lot of districts hiring for these kinds of roles, not everyone is on board,” she says. “So when you do hire someone, it is critical for them to demonstrate their value right out of the gate. Once you’ve done that, it’s hard to argue against having someone on the team.”

Brown says Oyster River, located about an hour and 15 minutes north of Boston, serves “a very invested population” because of the university faculty and staff who live in the three small communities served by the district. At the same time, the district has a large percentage of students who come from low-income households and has seen an increase in homelessness and food insecurity.

“One of the challenges I faced is that you don’t know what you don’t know, so I ask a lot of questions,” Brown says. “Even an experienced communicator would not jump into this type of role without doing that. You have to have humility.”

Brown credits her superintendent, James C. Morse, with helping to define her role.

“I’m immensely grateful for that relationship,” she says of Morse. “It can be challenging to put processes in place and build relationships internally so that issues are on your radar before they become a thing. We’re all still learning how to do that because it’s a brand-new position, but it’s been a great learning experience.”

Having that direct access to the superintendent is critical for school communications professionals, an increasing number of whom are part of the district’s overall cabinet and/or leadership team, according to the NSPRA survey. Hunter says elevating staff to that level is best practice “because they have the pulse of the community and the backs of school leaders.”

“School communicators have often been delegated to the role of fixer,” she says. “You get handed problems to take forward rather than being part of the front-end conversation around shaping and looking at the complexity of issues. They should be at the leadership table where they can impact decisions.”

Now that districts—large and small—are adding more staff and resources to communications, Hunter hopes it is something that can be sustained when they encounter what is seemingly an inevitable financial crisis in the future.

“I hope superintendents and school board members understand that this function they have bolstered is something that needs to be maintained,” Hunter says. “It has been seen in the past as something that is ‘nice to have’ and not a ‘need to have.’ But we know now, based on this survey and other data we’re collecting, that good communications are needed now more than ever.”

Glenn Cook (glenncook117@gmail.com), a contributing editor to American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer and photographer in Northern Virginia. He also spent five years as a communications director for a North Carolina school district.

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