A majority of respondents to a recent survey by School District 21 said the areas most needing improvement were providing mental health services to students, achieving smaller class sizes, and getting more K-12 funding.

The survey of 237 people also found respondents wanted improvements in providing safe facilities for learning and activities, and community and parent engagement.

Of the respondents, 96 identified as district employees, 90 as parents, 77 as community members, 21 as students and 20 as “other.”

The survey was aimed at improving communication efforts by North Wasco County School District 21. The district recently released a report, in English and Spanish, describing its findings.

The survey also asked what D21 does best, and by far the top answer, selected by 139 respondents, was that D21 hires caring, high-quality educators. Another 71 said it provides student access to modern technology and 64 respondents said it provides school safety.

In the “needs improvement” category, 124 cited mental health services, 123 cited class size and 113 cited K-12 funding.

The poll was taken by an online survey and stakeholder interviews. It was done to identify patterns of perceived strengths and weaknesses in order to inform communications priorities.

Some 233 respondents participated in a question asking for their assessment of the district, and 39 percent said it met (33.5 percent) or exceeded (5.5 percent) their own expectations and standards.

A larger share, 61 percent, found it was either “approaching” their standards (37.8 percent) or did not meet their standards (23.2 percent.)

Respondents were asked “Who do you trust most with information about your school? Check all that apply.” By far the top category was teachers, with 72.2 percent selecting it. It was followed by “the principal” with 43.2 percent selecting it, parents at 28.6 percent, students at 23.3 percent, the superintendent at 19.4 percent, the school board at 10.1 percent, the newspaper at 7.5 percent, and “other” at 10.1 percent.

The survey found 39.3 percent of respondents thought communications from the school district were good. Another 31.6 percent called it fair, and another 20.5 percent called it infrequent or poor. Less than 10 percent altogether labeled it either exceptional or overwhelming.

By far the top way respondents wanted to get information from the district was via email, with 76.6 percent selecting that option. Other popular options were social media/text, the district website, and parent nights.

Of social media, Facebook was by far the one used most regularly, with 67.2 percent of respondents using it.

Teachers were identified as the district’s best asset and most trusted spokespeople. This is consistent with national data, the survey report stated. The report suggested informing teachers and staff first of key hires or program decisions and giving them key talking points before a public announcement is made, so they feel prepared to respond to any questions.

The survey encouraged the district to place a high value on keeping its website up to date and families informed via email. It said the district should also continue to promote in-person communication like public forums, especially for its value in developing relationships.

Elected officials in particular felt the newspaper was an important outlet for staying informed, the report noted. A random sample of 59 out of 309 total articles in the Chronicle over the past seven years found 30.5 percent of the headlines were positive, 30.5 percent were negative and 39 percent were neutral. It was seen as a good area to set a goal for improvement.

The report encouraged the district to highlight how it partners with others, such as Columbia Gorge Community College, to boost student opportunities.

It also encouraged using the upcoming hiring of a new superintendent, to replace Candy Armstrong who is retiring next June, to celebrate past achievements, identify community values and do strategic planning.

The report encouraged the district to attract quality candidates by “aggressively celebrating achievements and heavily involving the community in the search process.”

The report suggested making it easier to find news updates on the district’s website by placing them on the home page. It also suggested having the high school principal send a column to the paper and email it to all district parents at the start of the school year. It suggested outlining gains in AP enrollment, graduation rates, college credits received and other areas of significant improvement.

The report also suggested hiring bilingual front office staff to promote parent engagement.

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