Another NSPRA SuccesStory

NSPRA’s Gold Medallion Award is the highest award given by the Association in recognition of outstanding educational public relations programs. This is the sixth in a series highlighting the 2014 winners.


Gold Medallion Winner — Houston (Texas) ISD
PowerUp Communications

Project Overview

Houston (Texas) Independent School District (HISD) is providing laptop computers to all of its 65,000+ students in 44 high schools under an initiative titled “PowerUp.” Designed to bring digital-age instruction to students and change the culture of teaching and learning, the project was begun in 2014 in 11 schools and is being phased in over three years. 

“PowerUp” required an ambitious communication plan, with innovative strategies and multimedia tools to ensure that all stakeholders ¬— staff, students, parents and community members — understand the scope and goals. Led by the Office of Communications, HISD developed a multifaceted effort that included social media, television, parent workshops, teacher blogs, online resources and web applications, electronic newsletters, emails, printed collateral, news conferences and media coverage.

Comprehensive research and planning paid off with the successful implementation of the first phase, and resulted in positive recognition, including a story in the national education publication, EdWeek.

Research

During his State of the Schools address in February 2013, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, Ed.D, challenged the audience to imagine a classroom in which every student had a laptop for learning both at school and at home.

To make that vision a reality, a cross-functional team was assembled to create a plan that would make this not just a technology project, but one that would incorporate the leadership and knowledge of leaders from multiple district departments. The group first researched and gathered input from other school districts across the country that had successfully, and unsuccessfully, implemented one-to-one and bring-your-own-device programs.

After an analysis of findings, the team determined that a successful launch of the initiative required that teachers undergo intense professional development on using:

  • The laptop computer itself;

  • Digital technology in the classroom: and

  • Web-based tools for effective and engaging instruction.

Thus, a semester of training programs was set up for teachers and principals at the 11 schools in the project’s first phase (2013-14 school year) before students received their laptops in January 2014.

Research also indicated that internal communication was the most important component when launching a comprehensive initiative to change the culture. Successful districts had focused heavily on getting buy-in and acceptance from teachers, principals and district leaders.

In addition, successful initiatives addressed parent concerns regarding safety and security when laptops were distributed to students. And, districts that had fewer incidents of student “hackings” and inappropriate online behavior had effectively communicated to parents and students the importance of the responsible use of technology and consequences of its misuse.

Analysis and Planning

The cross-functional team identified a number of communication goals and key messaging for internal stakeholders, including:

  • Communicate the “why” of the initiative and help staff understand that the laptop is just a tool that will allow educators to deliver more engaging instruction and personalize learning for students.

  • Make staff aware of the initiative’s potential, dispel myths, provide resources for them to answer questions and speak about the initiative, and answer frequently asked questions.

  • Focus on “early adopter” teachers who are already embracing technology and capitalize on their enthusiasm to spread the message to their colleagues, as well as students and parents.

  • Support principals in their communication efforts with staff.

Among the communication goals and key messaging for external stakeholders:

  • Stress to parents and students that the laptop is being provided as a learning tool that will help students develop the 21st century skills they will need to be successful in a career, college and life.

  • Provide a basic overview of the device, safety and security, laptop care, installed software and online applications and resources students will use in class and at home.

  • Help students and parents understand the importance of good digital citizenship, the long-lasting implications of a negative digital footprint, and the consequences of engaging in negative online behaviors.

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Once the internal and external audiences and communication goals related to each were identified, a member of the Communications Office staff developed a detailed communication plan that was shared and evaluated by the project team. The plan incorporated a combination of traditional and new forums to publicize the initiative and to solicit comments and feedback.

Communication and Implementation

Following is a summary of communication activities conducted for the “PowerUp” initiative:

  • Social media. Weekly updates were posted on the district Facebook page and Twitter account. Key communicators in the district, including the superintendent, shared regular updates on their social media feeds. 

  • Online electronic applications. A “PowerUp” webpage (in English and Spanish) was launched, and a special application was created to push the webpage onto the 11 school websites. An internal Edmodo site was created to communicate directly with teachers and solicit their feedback. 

  • Electronic newsletters/email. Weekly updates were added to the employee and community electronic newsletters. Teachers at the 11 schools shared their stories regarding trainings and professional development opportunities.  

  • TV programming and video. A weekly video featuring teachers and principals from the 11 schools, as well as district staff involved in the initiative, aired on the district’s 24-hour cable access channel and was streamed on the district’s website and “PowerUp” page. 

  • Existing partnerships with media. A weekly two-minute story produced by HISD-TV aired on Univision, Houston’s largest Spanish language media outlet; a weekly online blog appeared in La Voz, the Spanish version of Houston’s major newspaper; and HISD leaders appeared on popular talk radio programs targeted to African-American and Hispanic audiences. 

  • Press conferences/outreach to media. Local media representatives were invited to two press events and given the opportunity to tour classrooms and interview teachers, students, the chief technology officer and the superintendent.

  • Printed collateral. Handouts and one-pagers with information on the initiative and the district’s acceptable-use policy for electronic devices were given to parents and students during a series of parent nights at the 11 schools.

  • Digital citizenship classes for students. All students at the 11 campuses were required to take part in a hands-on, interactive digital citizenship class conducted during core classes.

  • Parent night/digital citizenship orientation. All campuses held a series of parent nights before deployment of laptops to provide an overview of the initiative; a basic review of the laptop features, installed software and tips for proper care; and an overview of the district’s acceptable use policy for electronic devices.

  • Leveraging of new partnerships. Several new partnerships were formed with groups such as Common Sense Media, which provided resources for digital citizenship classes, and Discovery Education, which provided training for teachers. The district also developed a partnership with the Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District, which included hands-on training with our teachers and evaluation of their individual classroom instruction using laptops and online technology.

  • Leveraging of other district communication efforts. In 2012, Houston voters approved a $1.89 billion bond that will create 21st Century high schools across our district. Currently, project advisory teams at each school are meeting to plan and design the new buildings and community meetings/presentations are underway to communicate the importance of incorporating the “PowerUp” initiative in the design of each building.

  • Staff meetings. Monthly meetings were held with the 11 principals to communicate next steps and to solicit their feedback. Other school and district leaders, as well as central office staff and board trustees, were regularly updated on the initiative.

Evaluation

A survey of principals from the 11 pilot “PowerUp” campuses revealed that all thought HISD had provided adequate communications support for staff, students and parents, and a near majority stated that the project webpage, resources, collateral materials and parent night programs were helpful. Also, a survey of the 5,000+ parents who attended parent nights at each of 11 campuses indicated that 96.8 percent found the information received at the meeting helpful and that their questions and concerns had been answered.

In addition, a survey of more than 2,000 teachers at the 11 pilot schools by Discovery Education showed the impact of professional development. Ninety-five percent of teachers participated in technology-related training during the 2013-14 academic year, compared to only 54 percent the previous year. Web metrics also showed steady use of our videos and interactive resources to communicate the initiative among our internal and external stakeholders.

Ongoing analysis and evaluation showed the following “lessons” learned:

  • Having a member of communications serve on the cross-functional team to help research, plan, and develop an implementation plan for such a monumental, district-wide initiative was a game changer.

  • Constant and repetitive messaging among our early adopter teachers was a vital step that led to the successful creation of a positive atmosphere at the school level.

  • Efforts to ensure that HISD parents and students understand the responsible use of technology and proper online behavior was valuable. In the early months of the project, there had been no major incidents of student hackings or misuse of the laptops.

  • In planning for the second and third phases of implementation, the “PowerUp” team decided that:

  • Early adopter teachers and principals from phase one schools will be used in communication with staff.

  • Communication with parents and students will begin at the start of the school year and during summer “fish camps” for incoming ninth-graders.

  • A series of parent nights, a school technology showcase and a “Laptop 101” class for parents will be held at all schools.

  • The project website will be redesigned to include a robust parent and student resource section on Internet safety and security.

 

Contact: Sarah Greer Osborne, multimedia manager, Houston ISD, at sgreeros@houstonisd.org