Channeling Communication

Why effective communication is a cornerstone of K-12 success

The overriding philosophy behind the Atlanta Unbound Academy (AUA) is to enable its students to dream beyond measure. With a culturally rich teaching approach in a creative, nurturing environment, the K-8 school has created what founder Alaina Chipman Leeks calls a “tribe” — a village of students, families, staff, leaders, partners, champions and anyone else who is willing to link arms to help.

At the center of this approach are the proactive steps AUA takes to enhance parent engagement and feedback collection. For example, along with traditional surveys, administrators have introduced department and topic-specific town halls, which provide parents with a platform to ask any questions they may have.

Recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all, Chipman Leeks, who also serves as executive director, can ensure that parents have multiple avenues to share their thoughts and concerns based on individual needs. To foster open communication, teachers and staff actively participate in conversations with parents during arrival and dismissal times. Furthermore, they organize various parent-focused meetings to gather additional feedback, responding directly to the needs expressed by their community.

A concrete example of this responsive approach is the implementation of AUA’s afterschool program. Upon learning about the need for the program from parents, the school openly shared the challenge it faced. “As a result, our parents came forward with multiple program suggestions, one of which has now been successfully confirmed and incorporated into our offerings as of last week,” Chipman Leeks says. “Our dedication to parent engagement, feedback collection, and responsiveness strengthens the partnership between parents and the school, ensuring a tailored educational experience that meets the unique needs of our school community.”

“[For us], effective communication helps build trust between students and educators, fostering a positive and supportive relationship.”

— Alaina Chipman Leeks, Founder/Executive Director, Atlanta Unbound Academy

Chipman Leeks says Atlanta Unbound Academy’s success highlights the power of collaborative problem-solving, reinforcing the commitment it makes to actively involve parents in shaping the school’s initiatives.

Just as with parents, students also crave understanding the “why” behind what they are learning and doing. When AUA provides its students with clear explanations and insights into the purpose of their education, they become more engaged and motivated. By fostering transparency and encouraging open dialogue, AUA offers an environment where students feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns.

“Open communication enables us to better address their needs and support them in their learning process,” Chipman Leeks says. “When students feel heard and understood, they are more likely to develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for their education. [For us], effective communication helps build trust between students and educators, fostering a positive and supportive relationship. Students feel valued and respected, which boosts their confidence and overall well-being. When they know that their voices matter and that they are an essential part of the learning community, they become more invested in their academic success.”

Ultimately, by nurturing effective communication with students, the Atlanta Unbound Academy’s staff helps empower them to become active participants in their learning journey. This means they are more likely to embrace challenges, seek assistance when needed and develop critical thinking skills that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

The strategy lies in AUA’s approach. For example, it has implemented various methods to ensure proficiency in both traditional and digital communication. Embracing technology as an essential aspect of modern education, it incorporates online assignment submissions and encourages email communication, imparting valuable digital literacy. Interestingly, AUA’s eighth grade students are taught how to formally request a letter of recommendation via email. The instruction helps equip them with the necessary platforms for seamless high school applications, ensuring they enter the next phase of their education well prepared.

“By fostering these communication skills, we empower our students to navigate the demands of today’s interconnected world confidently,” Chipman Leeks says. “These competencies will undoubtedly serve as valuable assets in their academic journey and beyond, allowing them to engage effectively with peers, educators, and future professional contacts. As educators, we are dedicated to nurturing well-rounded individuals, and our emphasis on versatile communication is an integral part of that commitment.”

Everyone in the loop

Located 40 miles or so outside of Dallas, the Maypearl Independent School District has more than 1,100 students across four campuses. If you ask Superintendent Ritchie Bowling the secret to keeping the balance between the campuses, administrative staff, teachers, students and parents, his answer is communications every single time.

In fact, Bowling says the key is over communicating. The Maypearl team is constantly conducting surveys among stakeholders, gleaning data that can help connect the dots of what is needed and where. “We are constantly talking about how we communicate and how often. We have built-in systems as reminders for ourselves to ensure it is not said once and moved on. We do not always get it right, but we grow from the things we learn about effective communication.”

For example, every cabinet meeting agenda and leadership agenda has communication highlighted in its protocols. The cabinet also has developed a calendar for all district happenings that is shared across the campuses. The key is to make sure no member of the administrative team is out of the loop. The Maypearl team also has a system of text messages, social media, emails and other digital communication tools.

“We are constantly talking about how we communicate and how often. We have built-in systems as reminders for ourselves to ensure it is not said once and moved on.”

— Ritchie Bowling, Superintendent, Maypearl Independent School District

The other important factor is interpersonal engagement. “We make time to sit down with people who want to hear from a real person or to be able to ask questions,” Bowling says. “We schedule monthly on-campus days to just hang out in the lounge to be available for staff who want to visit with central administration or principals. We also schedule coffees to be able to have informal dialogue with fellow colleagues and parents.”

Admittedly, if Bowling could change one thing it would be the time needed to prepare for each communication initiative. “There is probably not enough time given to preparation due to the limited time between meetings and events. But I do reflect a lot, and write down ideas and plan on ways to do things better the next time. I also seek out books that support strong leadership and communications skills, as well as training.”

Bowling spends ample time reviewing the surveys and data the school district compiles. He also asks his team for recommendations on how things can be done better. The key is in the honest, forthright feedback he receives. “This helps to clear up any misunderstandings. I am also very available, so my team feels safe to come visit when needed.” In a K-12 landscape where things are constantly changing, having proper and effective communications lines is critical to building a foundation for success. By leveraging multiple communication channels and strategies, K-12 leaders continue to foster a more inclusive, informed, and collaborative environment for everyone involved.