Fresno USD improving community relations with effective communication practices

A recent webinar hosted by ParentSquare featured Fresno Unified School District Chief Communications Officer Nikki Henry sharing information and tips about bringing recognizable faces and personality to district communications. In “K-12 Leaders Speak: Humanizing Your District,” Henry emphasized the importance of connecting school staff, parents and the larger community.

Located in California’s Central Valley, Fresno USD serves a high-need student population in which 85 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. One in three students are meeting or exceeding standard in English language arts and one in five are meeting math standards.

Henry spoke about a historically negative narrative of the district in the community, and even internally. “When that self-deprecation is embedded in your district and in your community for so long — it’s something we believe affects the academic outcomes of our students and the belief they have in themselves,” Henry said.

The district conducted a representative survey of parents in summer 2022 to measure this perception issue and results found that more than eight in 10 parents were satisfied with communications from Fresno USD and more than three in four found communications from the district to be trustworthy, understandable, accurate and timely. Henry emphasized these questions were answered about the district as a whole, not individual schools.

Why humanize your district?

Engagement thrives on human connections and relationships, and those are built from knowledge, familiarity and trust. Henry said that regularly featuring the faces and voices of the superintendent and other district leaders and staff helps to forge these connections over time. “Without our voice in the space, negativity will fill the void,” she warned.

Fresno’s goal was to change the district’s narrative and have staff and students be proud ambassadors. “When you humanize and you get focused on the storytelling and focused on the beautiful things that are happening at your district every single day, it gives people the opportunity to be that proud ambassador,” Henry said.

Takeaway strategies

Henry described five strategies that helped Fresno USD flip the script.

  1. Daily social media highlights — Every school and department in the district gets a chance throughout the year to be spotlighted. Communications staff asks what a school/department wants to highlight and turns that into social media content.
    1. Keep videos less than 60 seconds
    2. Provide examples when you make the ask
    3. Tie captions back to district goals
  2. Weekly superintendent/deputy superintendent messages — These messages include important information, celebrations and recognitions, and link to other district content to encourage further engagement. Allowing parents and students to see and hear the personalities of district leaders on a regular basis and form connections with a person, “not just a system.” Providing video captions in multiple languages is also crucial in building positive relationships with all families.
  3. Faces of Fresno Unified magazine — Publications that feature authentic, deep storytelling brings the work of the district to life. Fresno’s digital magazine provides a place to repurpose and streamline content, feature profiles of staff and students, and even has the potential to generate revenue through ads.
  4. Consistent media relations — “Engaging with the media and regularly pitching positive stories and providing access to interviews as often as we can — even if it’s a negative story — makes for more balanced stories,” Henry said. “By being accessible for their stories, it makes the media more receptive to your pitches for positive stories.”
    1. Offer exclusives on tough subjects for balanced stories
    2. Make sure to highlight positive stories on social media
  5. Audience advisory groups — Advisory groups made up of students, parents and principals have been put together by Fresno USD to gather feedback on communications plans, hot topics and improving services. The district’s Student Advisory Committee includes time with the superintendent and learning opportunities with staff.

View the webinar here: