School & District Management

Here’s What Superintendents Should Include, and Avoid, in the Dreaded Back-to-School Letter

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 19, 2019 6 min read
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In the annals of documents that need to be crafted carefully, you can list the superintendent’s back-to-school letter to parents alongside things like résumés, break-up texts, and condo association bylaws.

The dreaded back-to-school letter has to strike a fine balance between being pleasingly warm and being hokey; between giving parents information they need to know, and overwhelming them. So Education Week hunted down a few superintendents to share their insights into what they think should make the cut—and what the letters absolutely shouldn’t include.

Their big takeaway: The back-to-school letter typically arrives in a packet with a bunch of other stuff, like bus routes, bell schedules, and permission slips. It is not going to go up on the fridge next to the kids’ collages from summer camp. So don’t put a million things in it.

But the letter should briefly sketch out any major changes parents will be encountering somewhere along the lines in the school year. And it absolutely should convey the district’s values, they agreed.

Keep it short, focused, and practical.

“A single sheet of paper, between one to two sides,” said Jeanné Collins, who’s entering her sixth year heading up the Rutland NE school district in Vermont, a consolidated district serving a number of towns. “It’s really all you want: a brief reminder of what we do, and this is why we do it, and this is where we’re headed, and we invite you to be part of the journey.”

It’s a fine place to introduce parents to the new faces in the district, new resources, or any change that’s materially going to affect how parents get kids to and from school. It could, for instance, mention the new director of transportation, highlight the district’s new website, or point to an initiative that will alter school schedules.

“For example, in the past I introduced the idea of early-release Wednesdays for teacher learning time. That would be an example of a change in practice or schedule that we would have included,” she said. “Or a particular curriculum that we’re introducing—all of that can be spoken to in the introductory letter.”

“I cut out 75 percent of what I would normally want to put into a letter; we want them to read the whole thing,” said Larry Spring, the superintendent in Schenectady, N.Y., who has led the district for eight years. “What you’re sending them is delivery of information, but that’s fairly fleeting: The letter is gonna go in the garbage. So what you really want to make sure comes through in the letter is this notion that schools were built for your kids. And we want it to feel that way when your kid comes through the doors: We’re here for you.”

Keep it upbeat ...

This can be a challenge if your district has gone through staff cuts or a bond failure or some other major problem. But rehashing what didn’t go well the prior year is generally a no-no, the superintendents all said.

“Keep it light, but positive and enthusiastic,” said Joseph Maruszczak, the superintendent of the Mendon-Upton Regional School District in Massachusetts, now in his ninth year. “You have to stay focused on what your mission is as a district and what is the thing that drives your work.” He said it helps to open with a little bit about his own family—as he did last year, when he talked about the difficulty of seeing one of his daughters off to college: “The human element of that correspondence is really, really important as well.”

Absolutely don’t use the letter to justify or bring up something from the prior year that upset parents, especially if it’s something you botched. The letter should be resolutely forward-looking. It can be especially tempting to rehash personnel changes, especially if they were sudden or unexpected, noted Spring.

“I’ve had a convo with a supe who wanted to put in this letter that these new admins were joining, but felt like it was out of place because he hadn’t had a conversation about why the former ones left. And I was explaining that he’d already dropped the ball on communications,” Spring said. “You don’t want to try to do that retrospective processing in the letter.”

Summed up Collins in Vermont: “A ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, the sky is falling’ message is not going to be taken well in this letter.”

... But stick to your guns on the big stuff.

The 10,000-student Schenectady, N.Y., district serves many disadvantaged students and students of color. It’s doing a lot of work on trauma-informed schools and equity, and on reducing disproportionality of suspensions and explusions for students of color and students with disabilities. Though such discussions make some parents uncomfortable, Superintendent Spring uses his letter to reinforce the district’s work on equity.

“You want to give parents that comfortable, warm feeling that these schools are really accepting and welcoming places for [their children],” he said. “But inside that is this message: We are intentionally working on issues of equity, and we work hard on ensuring race, economics, and disability are no longer predictors of student achievement. This is not necessarily a message that everyone likes, because part of it [acknowledges] that schools have traditionally not always been welcoming places, and some students in particular have found them to be unwelcoming.”

Don’t reiterate every detail of the strategic plan ...

Superintendents take the long view. They know the ins and outs of the the master facilities plan. They know how far they’ve gotten in the strategic plan, and where they need to press harder. But this is not the place to lay out a whole bunch of bullet-pointed initiatives.

“People on Aug 15 don’t want to be mired in the details,” said Maruszczak. “I see the letter kind of being able to highlight what the big ideas are, what the priorities are, but not doing it in an overwhelming manner, or doing it in a way that a staff member reading that is going to feel overwhelmed. Keeping it light is important, and keeping it super, super positive about the possibilities.”

... But it’s OK to highlight core themes.

Maruszczak’s district has been putting a lot of work into social-emotional learning and developing six attributes that comprise the “portrait of a learner"; he’ll play those themes up in his back-to-school letter.

In Rutland NE, one of several districts in that state that has recently consolidated, Collins said she continues to look for opportunities to reinforce the theme of co-operation and union among the schools that used to belong to different school systems. “We are finding we do need to find new ways to reiterate that we are unified and not seven different schools or eight different communities,” she said.

It’s also a good time to signal staff appreciation.

Most of the superintendents said they host a welcome-back meeting just for staff early in the school year. Still, the back-to-school letter can also be a good place to send the message to staff that they’re valued.

Collins said she likes to stress that while school’s been out, teachers haven’t been sitting idly by.

“I think it’s important to stress the ongoing learning that teachers do over the summer to change that paradigm that teachers only work nine months out of the year, which is a common perception from non-educators. It’s a different work schedule that teachers have, it’s a different intensity, and once the teacher steps in the classroom at 8 in the morning they’re really on stage until 3 or so,” she said. “Summer is their opportunity to refresh their learning and create new ideas and update their curriculum. That’s not well understood outside of the education sphere.”

To sum up...

An obscure Victorian novelist once famously described his philosophy for engaging the reading public: “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

Basically, superintendents, when they’re dealing with parents, should ignore that advice completely.

Got any additional thoughts, tips, or sample letters? Go ahead and join the conversation below! Also, see District Dossier’s advice for new principals series.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.