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averting crises by

building relationships 

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"...Rachel helped us paint a new picture of success."

Situated in an inner ring Philadelphia suburb that prides itself on diversity, The Cheltenham School District was viewed from the outside as a “changing” school system. This coded label put the District and its residents on the defensive.

 

When the District hired Making Headlines to manage its communication, its relationship with the media and the community had been badly damaged. Requests from the media were met with suspicion and hostility and the results could be seen in its media coverage. Parent and teacher leaders often worked around the administration rather than with it, and parking lot gossip was rampant, unnecessarily escalating situations.

 

It was my job to heal these relationships. Without this protective measure, the District might not survive a real crisis, when it needed its stakeholders to serve as allies.

 

My work began with personalized outreach to stakeholders--both in the media and the community. Only through active listening could I learn what these groups needed from the District and help leadership reframe its perspective about relating to the media and the community.

 

As the school district allowed me to provide better access to the media, Cheltenham grew into a trusted resource, opening the door to myriad  opportunities to tell its unique stories around shrinking the achievement gap, arts education and women in STEM. Its leadership became recognized for its policy expertise and creative problem-solving. Even a national magazine, CHILD, came knocking, and featured Cheltenham in a story about best practices around testing. 

 

Parents and teachers, too, needed more transparency, and also needed to feel included, listened to and appreciated. We brought teacher and parent leaders into the fold as district advocates and invited them to become part of our communications program.

 

I conceived Cheltenham Cheers for Volunteers, a program publicly honoring parent volunteers at monthly school board meetings.

 

Over the course of our work together, we realized many measures of our success, not the least of which was a large story in The Philadelphia Inquirer about Cheltenham's colorblind musical theatre casting, which highlighted the district's leadership around race and equity. 

 

As trust grew, we saw dynamics shift. When crises loomed, our allies in the media and the community gave leadership the time and space to answer questions before jumping to conclusions.  And leadership answered those questions eloquently with transparency, shaping the District's narrative, instead of letting it be shaped from the outside.