When a radio station approached my church about using our parking lot for an event, we went along with the plan. But based on my experience trying to draw crowds to events at the school where I was principal, I was sure the station event would fail. Included: Lessons learned from a radio station.
A major radio station in the area where I live recently contacted officials at the church I attend. Station officials asked if they might plan an outdoor block party -- complete with food, prizes, entertainment, and a live radio broadcast -- in the church parking lot. Church officials consented to use of the property, but we not-so-silently agreed among ourselves that the event would not be the success that station managers predicted. You see, nothing we had done in the past warranted us to believe the event would draw a large crowd.
The night of the event arrived, and the parking lot was packed with church members, neighbors within walking distance, and many others who by choice or chance happened by. My minister was surprised by the turnout. Why had strangers chosen to attend this event and not others we had planned?
I had shared my pastor's skepticism about the event. I didn't think people would change their busy routines and stop at a block party on their way home from work -- even with the offer of free food. My cynicism was jaded by memories of numerous family events planned at my school that fewer than hoped-for numbers attended.
As a school principal, I'd always felt that if you schedule, promote, and build it, then parents will come. Right? Unfortunately, that assumption never held up in my school. And, based on what I hear from many colleagues, it doesn't hold up in a lot of other schools either.
It always seemed to me as if the same core group of parents attended school functions. We worked hard to develop programs that we thought would benefit challenged families, but we were never very successful in attracting those families that seldom visited the school.
Like most principals, I felt that our activities should be a family priority. Time after time, however, the reality was that parents were preoccupied with working (more than one job, in some cases), paying bills, shopping, attending soccer practices, and putting a dent in the home-project list. Our lack of success in building relationships with hard-to-reach parents was always a disappointment to me because I know that kids do better in school when their parents are involved in activities at school.
So why was the radio station event such a success? As I think about that event and reflect on the school events we planned, it strikes me that many of our school events lack fun. The events we schedule are predictable; they don't change much from year to year. Our carnivals seldom change. Conferences, music programs, and family luncheons all have a "same-old feel." Some events -- such as the carnival, book fair, and others -- even have costs connected to them that might prevent from attending those we are working hardest to attract.
But we plan what we know how to do.
And our programs mirror what countless of my colleagues do in their schools, often with similarly disappointing results.
What the radio station did at church that we never did was to promote, package and produce an event that was, simply put, fun-filled.
Did the radio station event planners have a purpose and goals? Indeed, they did. Foremost, their plan was to advertise and promote their radio station. (Just as our school-wide events hope to promote our schools and parent involvement in them.) Even more, they hoped to create a sense of community by connecting with people in their own backyard. For a couple of hours they were able to break down the barriers that make us strangers in our neighborhoods.
I would be pleased to accomplish half as much at school.
Like church activities, school-sponsored events promote the development of connections that contribute to community building. They help people cope with the harsh realities of their daily lives. They are an important venue for reducing barriers of prejudice. They help reinforce social graces that support our society. But when people are made to feel that they are needy, targeted for remedial programs, or intimidated, they will not come.
If we keep planning what we've always done, we will continue to get the same results.
If we really want to reach out and connect with diverse families, we need to do some fresh thinking and make a commitment, foremost, to creating family fun. Events that feel fresh, new, non-threatening, and fun, will attract crowds. Messages can be conveyed in subtle ways, but fun must be the hook. Food helps, but if fun is lacking, there will be lots of leftovers.
Schools have much good news to share. If we hope to have the opportunity to spread that good news, we need to place the family first. We need to plan events that create a sense of curiosity and allow people to enjoy themselves and each other. We need to model the experiences and behaviors we want others to enjoy.
If we can take the lesson learned from radio station event managers -- Make it fun, and they will come! -- we will have learned a valuable lesson.
Then and only then will we be able to draw the parents we most want to our schools.
Then and only then will we be able to build support for other school initiatives when we most need that support.
Paul Young, Ph. D., is the executive director of the West After School Center in Lancaster, Ohio. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National AfterSchool Association (NAA). He served as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) in 2002-2003 and retired from Lancaster City Schools in 2004. He is an author with Corwin Press, EducationWorld.com, and School-Age Notes. He and his wife, Gertrude, a music teacher, live in Lancaster.
Article by Paul Young
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