Communication Technology Award for Superintendents

  • Thank you to the National School Public Relations Association and Blackboard for recognizing the work of our extraordinary Highline Public Schools team.

    No superintendent can take sole credit for a district's success--district leadership is indeed a team sport. Every leader in this room, however, knows that when things go wrong we step forward and take responsibility and when things go right we step back and give the credit to those who are deserving--which is what I am going to do right now.

    I am so fortunate to work with the very best communications team anywhere and I share this award with them. Catherine, Rexanne, and Tove, thank you for making me a better leader and communicator each day, and for telling me what I need to hear not necessarily what I want to hear, which I know is not an enviable task! It is truly an honor and a joy to work with you. Each of you is a #HighlineRockstar.

    Highline Public Schools is special and it is a privilege to be entering my fifth year serving as superintendent. We are a richly diverse school system of nearly 20,000 students representing over 100 languages. Rather than having a mission or vision in Highline, we have made the promise to our students, families and community that every student will be known by name, strength and need and graduate prepared for college, career and citizenship. 
    And we have set bold goals worthy of our students. At least 95% of 3rd-graders will demonstrate mastery in core subjects, at least 95% of 9th-graders will have passed Algebra, and at least 95% of our students will graduate prepared to choose their future. In addition, we have set goals for eliminating out-of-school suspensions except when critical for staff and student safety and ensuring that all students graduate bilingual, biliterate and tech savvy, tech literate.

    One of the greatest strengths of our Highline team is that each of us believes in the paramount importance and power of communication--especially when it comes to reaching these bold goals. At the same time, we recognize that meeting the needs of our richly diverse Highline community means understanding that traditional communication channels are not the most effective way to engage the many cultures that define who we are.

    So we have begun to leverage our technology tools in new and creative ways that bring as many people as possible into the conversation of what we want for all of our children and how together we make it a reality. Just as personalized learning in the classroom blends technology with face-to-face interaction and instruction, so too must today's communication strategies be personalized, intentionally integrating technology to strengthen trust and build relationships. Here are just some of the ways we are doing this in Highline:

    1) We know that most everyone now has some kind of smartphone, so we use our mobile app to engage families and provide access to critical information in multiple languages.

    2) We are very active on social media, using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. These are great for communicating key messages, answering questions and squashing rumors in a quick, informal way.

    3) We are using more mobile-friendly engagement and feedback tools to increase the number of people who participate in our surveys and engage with us and one another through online dialogue.

    4) We have designed interactive tools, such as our annual report that allows people to dig deeper into our disaggregated data and see the progress we are making toward our strategic plan goals, and our new online budget tool that allows people to get additional detail on how and where our dollars are being used.

    5) Finally, we have made a deliberate shift to sharing stories rather than merely communicating information, using more video and less text because it's far more appealing and effective in reaching a diverse audience. And people love a good story!

    Let's face it, we can be doing the most incredible work in our districts but if we aren't sharing those stories in compelling ways through multiple communication channels it won't be sustained--because people can't support what they don't know about or understand.

    This is made all the more challenging and urgent because we live in a time when too many external, and all too often ill-informed, partisan forces, have taken it upon themselves to tell our stories for us. And they are getting it wrong.

    This is why it is imperative that we take our successes and challenges, our data, and the experiences of our students and staff, and saturate our communities with those stories. The technological tools we have today not only make this possible, they eliminate our excuses for not doing so.

    All of that said, and with all the excitement and promise that technology brings to our work, relationships still, and always will, matter.

    I strongly believe in the power of coming together to learn from one another, disagree with one another, problem-solve with another--in person. So in Highline we continue to hold meetings throughout the school year, such as conversations with the superintendent and school board members, where all stakeholders can meet and share their questions, concerns and ideas. In harnessing the power of technology we must remember it should enhance, not replace face-to-face communication.

    To be honest, for all of the tweets, texts, Facebook posts, emails and e-newsletters we send out, some of my most powerful, high impact communication and engagement strategies happen in person.

    I have begun holding my superintendent conversations within the community, one of the best attended last year taking place at a local apartment complex where dozens of our students and families live. That was in early May. Several weeks later, heading to the airport, my Uber driver recognized me and asked if I worked for Highline. He said he remembered me from the evening he and his wife came to that apartment complex conversation. We began chatting and he told me how happy he was with the educational experience his three children were having and how welcomed he and his wife felt in their school community. This was made all the more poignant by the gratitude he expressed, since having come from Afghanistan several years ago, he could have never hoped for such a quality education and sense of safety and belonging at school for his children. Given all that is happening in the world right now, we need more stories like these.

    Another practice I started when I was in Seattle Public Schools and continue to this day is soup with the supe. Nothing educates, humbles or feeds the soul of a superintendent like spending meaningful time in a school, so once a month I set aside several hours, and my outstanding nutrition services team prepares and delivers pots of soup to the staff room at one of our schools. I join teachers and all school staff and volunteers in an informal, PowerPoint-free, agenda-free lunch conversation. I listen to their stories and get to know them while they get to know me.

    Last year I added a student focus group to my visits so I can hear directly not only from teachers and staff but from our inspiring students as well. Late this spring I met with 5th and 6th graders at one of our higher poverty elementary schools. When I asked what more they would like to have in their school, hands shot up. More technology. More advanced math and science--especially science experiments. More hands-on projects. More art. More field trips. A garden.

    Those who know me know I won't rest until they, and all students in Highline, have this and more. And I will use every resource and strategy available to communicate how deserving our students are of the very best education we can provide.

    Everything I have described here requires a significant investment of time, but the return on that investment is priceless. Technology enables us to share our stories in so many creative ways, but we must never forget our work is not just about communicating, it is about engaging the hearts and minds of our students, staff, families and community members.

    So I challenge all educators and supporters of public education to commit to, and take responsibility for, three things:

    1) Be educators who communicate and communicators who educate, honestly, purposefully and with integrity--in ways that we are proud to have our students observe and emulate.

    We are the role models.

    2) Redefine the status quo by leveraging technology to know, and be known, by our students, families and community members so that we transcend cultural, linguistic and political differences and find common ground.

    We are the innovators.

    3) Own the power to share our individual and collective stories so our nation can boast to the world: public education can and must work for all children.

    We are the storytellers.

    In doing these three things, we recommit ourselves to public education and the millions of children we serve.

    They are our future, and they are counting on us. Let's do right by them by telling their inspiring stories in every way imaginable--knowing they will be the ones to imagine what's next.