Saturday, October 20, 2018

Pinellas calling: district to conduct survey about its schools, communication efforts

Keep your phone handy: the Pinellas County school district may be calling you for your two cents beginning next week.

The district announced at a School Board meeting Tuesday that it is contracting with the University of North Florida's Public Opinion Research Laboratory to survey more than 1,000 families on their local schools and district communication efforts.

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said the move comes after a recent Tampa Bay Times story about families in northeast St. Petersburg rallying around their neighborhood school, North Shore Elementary, to make it the number one school choice for families who are surrounded by other options.

"We as a district have grown and looking for better ways to introduce information to the community in various ways for community members and parents to get attached to their community school," he said.

Melanie Marquez Parra, the district's director of communications, said her department was inspired by the Austin Independent School District, which presented research found through surveys at a recent Council of Great City Schools conference.

The district will pay $18,400 for the survey which will be conducted before winter break, in the midst of school open houses, discovery nights and magnet application season.

“Maybe the school down the street has what the families are looking for and they just don’t know it,” Parra said. “It’s really about understanding what people want to know and how they want to know it.”

“It’s the right time to do this,” she added.

Michael Binder, PORL's faculty director, said his lab has worked with school districts to survey communities on topics from policies to sex education awareness.

The lab’s employees, who are mostly UNF students, plan to cold call up to 1,000 families — including current families, families who have left the school district or families who may have applied but never enrolled in a public school–  on the cell phone and landline numbers. They plan to ask a mix of 20 to 30 close-ended questions, where respondents can pick answers like “excellent,” “good,” “fair” and “poor,” and open-ended questions.

The questions center around key ideas: What are the most important factors families consider when choosing a school? How do families prefer to receive information about a current or potential school? Is the district providing information families want to make informed choices? What can the district do through its communication efforts to further support neighborhood schools?

Not all of the questions are being created from scratch — some have been used previously and have been tested for validity, though they will be tailored to Pinellas. There will be questions that will be the same for callers countywide as well as specific geographical questions pertaining to nearby neighborhood schools.

The district will call families around the county, but it also plans to target Dunedin in its survey. Parra said there are a “cluster of schools there with the potential to grow.” She said the district is how responses vary from families in different areas.

The answers are confidential — all names and numbers will be stripped from survey answers, which will be aggregated, Binder said. The findings are expected to be ready by January.

“The heart of the matter is we want to understand better parental decision-making when it comes to the schools in which they send their children,” he said. “We want to get a better sense of overall opinions and overall thoughts so Pinellas can do a better job of marketing to constituents and customers.”

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