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Outreach Through the Airwaves:
Schools Bring Message Home With Television

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Through channels and programs of their own creation, some districts are reaching out not only to students and parents, but to staff and community members as well. These "education stations" are keeping citizens tuned-in and informed about schools and their programs. At the same time, they are showing the lighter, "human" side of faculty and administration. Included: TV programs produced by districts in Florida and North Carolina.


Host Moira Quinn and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent James Pughsley on the set of the award-winning TV show -- UPFRONT! with Dr. Jim Pughsley -- produced in the studios of CMS-TV3 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"Using a dedicated cable television channel like CMS-TV3 means we can reach tens of thousands of homes each week with accurate and timely news and information from our public schools," station manager Russ Gill told Education World. "It's hard to measure the viewing audience for a PEG (Public, Education, and Government) channel, but through email, phone calls, letters, and direct response from principals, employees, and parents, we know our local shows are reaching tens of thousands of viewers every month."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools owns and operates one of the five PEG channels set aside by Time-Warner Cable as part of its cable franchise agreement with the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Gill's station has been creating local television programming for many years. When he arrived in 1998, it began to produce more focused local television programs to reach nearly 250,000 cabled homes and businesses and 150 public schools throughout Charlotte and across Mecklenburg County. While commercial television news may cover some school-based events, the district can't control the message as it does on this dedicated channel.

"CMS-TV3 is carried on Time-Warner Cable (Channel 3) and is positioned between the local CBS affiliate station (Channel 2) and the local ABC affiliate (Channel 4)," explained Gill. "Our low dial position ensures that many channel-changers run across our programs every day. We broadcast 24/7, airing programming from 8:00 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Sunday, and using an on-air graphics system to announce district-wide news and event information from midnight to 8:00 a.m."

UPFRONT AND ON-AIR

The station produces five local series each month to share positive events and stories from the area's public schools. Its primary audience includes families, district employees, and community and business leaders. For maximum viewership, locally produced programs are televised ten times each weekend and up to 40 times per month. The station also creates "news updates" that air at the top of every hour. Gill's staff of show producers doubles as researchers, writers, directors, videographers, editors, and voiceover announcers. The format of each show differs, but all of the local series are 28 minutes in length. The five local shows found on CMS-TV Cable 3 in Charlotte are

UPFRONT! With Dr. Jim Pughsley
This series features the CMS superintendent and is hosted by Moira Quinn. The informative series covers topics that families want to know about and is the only local television series that provides direct answers for parents.
Airs: Weekends at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m.

SportsBeat
This exciting, Emmy-nominated series profiles outstanding athletes and coaches, and shares all the sports action from CMS high schools.
Airs: Weekends at 5:00 and 8:00 p.m.

CMS Magazine
This award-winning series looks at the interesting people, places and programs that make up the successful public school district.
Airs: Weekends at 7:00 and 10:00 p.m.

Diversity Matters
This ground-breaking series looks at the many ways the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools and their communities celebrate diversity.
Airs: Weekends at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m.

Math Extra
This popular series uses the power of live, interactive television to help middle school students better understand their math concepts.
Airs: Monday through Thursday at 4:30 p.m.

Most guests on those programs are subject-matter experts from the school district, and production costs come from an annual operating budget for the television station. The local series have been so well received that the station will soon offer on-air sponsorship opportunities, much like funding credits that appear on public television stations, to bring in additional revenue and provide for additional quality programming. One of the station's most successful programs is written, produced, and directed by Gill.

Tuning In to Television

If your district is considering using television, station manager Russ Gill suggests that you "start small."

"News updates are fairly easy to produce and yield a high return because thousands of viewers tune in to watch children or see a school featured on television," he explained. "Our News Updates take about 10-12 hours to write, shoot, edit, and produce each 90-second package, and they air ten times daily for three to four days."

Talk shows are another simple way to spread the word without breaking the bank. Gill added, "Talk shows are easier and less expensive to produce than field segments or shows shot entirely on location and then edited on a non-linear editing system. On average, it takes about 60-80 hours each month to produce one local half-hour show. High-quality videos and public service announcements can be produced and aired repeatedly to get your positive messages out to viewers."

"UPFRONT! With Dr. Jim Pughsley features our school superintendent and was developed to let him take his messages directly to parents and CMS employees," explained Gill. "Segment one is in-studio, and he and the show host discuss six to eight topics in depth, giving viewers much-needed information on a variety of topical subjects. Segment two runs seven minutes and features a studio guest who discusses a timely topic that parents and viewers probably don't know much about -- such as a brand new magnet program, a teacher mentor program, a new career academy, or a successful new computer science program at our technology high school."

Segment three of UPFRONT! is shot entirely on-location with a high school student as a "field reporter." It gives viewers a close-up look at an exciting program that may be of interest to their children in the future. In the final segment, the superintendent answers questions from viewers that have been submitted via email.

"The series title reflects the fact that our superintendent wants to be open and upfront with viewers," added Gill. "His show gives direct answers to parents. Viewers really enjoy the show because it provides a forum whereby the superintendent can share timely information directly with parents without any media filter."

One of the most powerful communication tools created by CMS-TV3 is the "News Update." Airing at the top of each hour, these 90-second programs are designed to snare channel-surfers with three to four "good news" stories that are filmed on-location at one of the district's schools. The updates air ten times daily for four days, giving schools many opportunities to share positive events.

"Whether it's a cultural celebration, a school award, a VIP visit, an outstanding teacher, or other newsworthy event, we're delighted to put stories from our schools on TV," Gill observed. "Nothing creates more excitement than a parent or grandparent seeing a child or school profiled on television. Our community partners are delighted when we use the power of television news to cover their corporate volunteer program in our schools, their employees mentoring local students, or a generous donation their business made to an area school."

MUST-SEE TV

"Television programming has given us the opportunity to share our story with the community -- parents, employees, and the general public," Joe Landon explained. "Even people who have no connection with our schools or the district have told us that they enjoy watching our television programming."

Tips for Using Television

Joe Landon advises districts that are new to using television to seek the help of a staff or community member who has television experience. He also offers these tips:

--- Begin with simple "talking head" studio interview shows.
--- Use the "magazine" format, with four or five segments making up a half-hour show.
--- Watch a lot of relevant television to learn from what successful television people are doing.
--- Ask a district that already runs a cable television channel, or produces television programming for one, to share advice and to offer assistance.

Landon, communication and information officer for Collier County (Florida) Public Schools, was put in charge of The Education Channel about one year after he joined the district. He brought with him a 30-year background in television and radio broadcasting.

The channel was established in 1994 when the district began a partnership with the Collier County government to program a cable television channel. The two organizations shared use of the channel and primarily televised meetings of the Collier County School Board and the County Board of Commissioners. As other programs were added, the district was given its own channel by the county's two cable television providers, Comcast and Time Warner. Today The Education Channel, cable channel 20, is available to all basic cable television subscribers in the county.

"We offer fresh editions of seven locally produced television shows every two weeks and one live call-in show that airs once per month," reported Landon. "We also produce various specials during the course of a school year."

Landon's offices have a television studio, control room, and three post-production video editing bays. The channel employs a television specialist who programs the cable television channel to run programs around the clock and a videographer who shoots and edits video. One of its longest running shows, School Zone, is actually taped on location at different schools and is currently in its sixth year of production. About 80 half-hour episodes have been produced.

"With my assistant, Leanne Zinser, I co-host School Zone, which gives viewers a virtual tour of a school," said Landon. "We also co-host District Digest, an inside look at our school district. School board members and various district and school administrators appear as guests to discuss timely topics. Our English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) director does a program called ESOL Home Connection, which addresses the needs of ESOL students and parents. It is done in English, Spanish, and Creole. Representatives of The Education Foundation of Collier County host two brief programs."

Other programs aired in Collier County include

  • Education Edition -- an in-depth look at school and district initiatives and activities. The show is hosted by Jan Goldsmith, a parent and former Washington, D.C., television personality.
  • In the Principal's Office -- a fun show hosted by a principal in which other principals and "school people" are his guests.
  • Open Mic -- a live call-in show that is hosted by the editor of the editorial page of the Naples Daily News. The superintendent and a school board member serve as guests.

GOING LIVE

"I had thought about doing a live call-in show a few years ago," Landon recalled. "When a new superintendent arrived in May 2003, he was interested, and we decided to do the show. He came up with the idea of asking the editor of the daily newspaper's editorial page to be the host since he was already doing an interview show on a local commercial cable television channel. He brings objectivity to the show."

Landon and the superintendent created a title, settled on a format, and began the production process. They agreed that a half-hour program airing at 7:00 p.m., one time per month, would be best. They had seen similar shows fail elsewhere because they were too long, aired at an inconvenient time, and were run too often.

"After 13 live episodes and numerous replays, Open Mic is doing very well," stated Landon. "We normally have enough calls to make the show lively, and the topics are varied enough to keep it interesting. We have the benefit of good promotion by the daily newspaper, and our office, as the public relations office for the school district, promotes it heavily as well."

Television programming has given Collier County Public Schools the opportunity to take live and pre-recorded messages home to the community. School Zone "shows off" the district's schools, and important issues are addressed in District Digest. Through In the Principal's Office, community members get to know the real people behind the principals' desks.

"Video, properly used, can be very powerful -- a great medium for communication," Landon remarked. "Video, used on television, reaches people where they live. To be effective, television programming must be done well."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

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