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The Superintendents to Watch award recognizes up to 25 school district leaders each year who have fewer than five years of experience as a superintendent and who demonstrate dynamic, fast-paced leadership with strong communication at its core.
Vernon Hills, Ill.
What does leadership mean to you?
Leadership means being an effective listener, having a team- and goal-oriented work ethic, and effectively interacting with the learning community. Leaders must listen to the needs of the entire learning community. They must develop open lines of communication with administrators, staff, students and parents to measure how they are meeting the needs of all stakeholders. This can be done by being readily available and visible during the instructional day or by developing systems for gathering feedback on district programs and supports. We model this work ethic by facilitating opportunities for the learning community to align as one, striving for the same goals and objectives. Finally, a key quality for effective leadership is building relationships with the community. Being open and honest with the community allows us to build relationships founded on trust. These relationships are the bedrock from which we build and maintain a learning environment where the entire community succeeds.
How have you integrated communication into your district’s strategic plan?
Our district’s latest strategic plan was built on a foundational commitment to open, honest and transparent communication among all stakeholders. Rather than dictating our new plan from the top down, we worked to include as many voices from the Hawthorn community as possible. This was accomplished by utilizing a third-party facilitator to bring together these stakeholders and help us ascertain exactly what was most important to each group, and then synthesize that information into a strategic plan to guide our district moving forward. One of the key takeaways from our new plan is a renewed commitment to accountability. Our strategic plan incorporates four data-driven district goals with ambitious targets. Everything we do is measured against those goals, and our board of education and community are expected to keep us accountable to those goals.
What communication initiative are you most proud of that have you implemented in your district?
I’m most proud of our Superintendent Communication Council. This quarterly council brings together representatives from each of our nine schools to share celebrations and bring questions or concerns directly to district leadership. Representatives solicit their buildings for celebrations and questions, and district leadership have given a commitment to answer or address anything that is brought to the council. We do ask building representatives to submit their questions ahead of time so cabinet can review them and make sure we have answers. At the meetings, representatives share celebrations from their building, and then we work through the submitted questions with department heads providing an answer to the group. We then discuss the issue as a council. Afterwards, everything discussed at the council is shared with all staff members. This creates an environment of open communication where decisions are not being made in a vacuum, and all staff members have an avenue to ask questions.
B.A. - Mississippi State University; MPA - University of Georgia
I believe school PR/communications is what I was born to do! One of the biggest decisions a parent can make is where to send their child to school, and it’s an honor to share with our parents the engaging work that their children are doing under the guidance of world-class teachers and leaders. On any given day, in any given school, there are many stories to be told and I take that charge seriously. As school communicators played a key role in COVID-19 communications, storytelling was more important than ever – not only did I share information with parents about our protocols, but I also made over 80 visits to schools last year and told a variety of stories about how students were thriving with both in-person and distance learning options. I also worked with principals to determine best mitigation practices and helped make those pervasive, because positive action must be the foundation of what we are ultimately communicating. School public relations is incredibly complex and I love that each day brings a new challenge.
My greatest school PR success was completing 11 nationally-innovative school communication audits using a process of research, planning, implementation, and evaluation. I am now in phase two of this project and am attending school council meetings to garner feedback from parents about school-level communication and how I can better support the work of their schools. One of the most significant findings is that as students take more ownership of their learning, they also take more ownership in parent communication. Therefore, next steps are to better prepare parents for this transition and to also determine best practices from exemplar teachers and coaches at the secondary level so we can strike the right balance with parents feeling informed and fostering student independence.
My greatest school PR challenge is overcoming rigidity. Like many PR professionals, I am detail-oriented and a self-described perfectionist. It’s a blessing and a curse to see when something is one pixel off, but the greatest challenge I have faced in my 13 years in this field is to learn to be more flexible. I might have an aversion to Comic Sans or Curlz, but it’s not the end of the world if those are a font favorite elsewhere. What’s more important is the bigger picture – staff and parents feeling well-informed and students growing and learning in positive school cultures. Instead of telling someone their website isn’t formatted properly, I now make a 2-3 minute screencast if I think there’s a quick tutorial I can offer to provide ongoing professional learning. By being much more flexible, I have deepened relationships and become better at supporting the most important job that occurs in our school system: teaching.
My favorite part of my job is the relationships. I often say that there is no substitute for showing up, and that’s why I make so many school visits each year. From getting to hold a gorgeous monarch butterfly to watching a vibrant student musical to seeing 3-D printing in action from engineering students, I have witnessed countless unique opportunities, and these experiences are just a small piece of what our students get to take part in each and every day. If I didn’t take the time to form relationships, I wouldn’t know that what students value is knowing that the photos I take may show up in their yearbooks. I wouldn’t know the myriad of annual activities that teachers do across our schools because I wouldn’t have witnessed them firsthand. I wouldn’t know about the families of our principals or what they believe makes their school unique. All of that is invaluable because at the end of the day and at the end of this career, relationships are what will remain – both professionally and personally.
The communication tool I use the most is Canva! I would be a brand ambassador if they asked! I am not very mathematically-minded and it can be challenging for someone with an eye for good design – but not an eye for rulers and gridlines – to be a graphic designer. However, Canva has made it possible and I am able to create aesthetically-pleasing graphics with short turn-around times. I have trained communication ambassadors at our schools how to use it as well. Right after Canva, the tool I most use is iMovie. I am completely self-taught in videography and using iMovie and Canva together has made me someone who can add “videographer” to their list of expertise.