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2011 Leadership Through Communication Award
Executive Summary

In August 2007, Vancouver Public Schools was mid-way through an ambitious strategic planning process. Dr. Steve Webb, then the deputy superintendent, was leading the effort as part of a superintendent leadership succession plan implemented by the board of directors. He had enlisted Tom Hagley, Jr., then the district’s community relations manager, and a “Futures Team” of district and community leaders to help oversee the planning process, which involved more than 400 direct participants and generated nearly 2,000 sets of public input through a series of engagement activities. Goal area teams consisting of 100 internal and external stakeholders were convened to develop vision statements, goals, target objectives and measures of success. The board adopted the strategic plan in January 2008, and Dr. Webb was appointed superintendent that spring to succeed the retiring superintendent, Dr. John Erickson.

The superintendent-level transition and the adoption of a new strategic plan provided an excellent opportunity to revitalize the district’s overall, year-round communication effort, and to make effective communication one of the district’s primary operating principles. While Vancouver Public Schools historically had a strong public relations program and a decades-long record of community support, the external context had changed significantly in recent years. Student enrollment had gone from fast growing to flat. Competition was increasing from new private and Internet-based schools. Positive media coverage of education had diminished as seasoned reporters were laid off or ushered into retirement. Meanwhile, technology was changing the public relations profession. New tools were available to help inform and engage people through personalized communication. The district’s strategies and techniques needed to keep up with the times. In addition, many of the district’s communication products lacked consistency in their messages and appearance. The print, television, web and face-to-face communication functions happened within different departments and work groups and were not integrated to maximize effectiveness and cost-efficiency.

For 2007-08, Dr. Erickson and Dr. Webb appointed Tom Hagley a member of the superintendent’s cabinet and the leader of a consolidated Communication Team for the district. The board of directors held work sessions facilitated by Hagley and a local marketing-communication expert who donated her time to assist the district. An ad hoc group of 20 creative and visionary thinkers from the district and community was convened to brainstorm ideas for a new brand identity, communication and community engagement plan. Target audiences and key messages were defined, and new tools and techniques were considered. The primary goal was to continue building public support and positive relationships through: 1) A more friendly and personal brand identity, 2) more targeted and timely communication, 3) more consistency in brand and messages across multiple media, and 4) more opportunities for face-to-face communication. The work was mapped out on the district’s “plan-on-a-page” format with an expected timeline of two to three years to complete the implementation. Conceptual graphics, messages, product designs and plans were presented to the board, superintendent, leadership team, and district advisory groups for feedback before the Communication Team moved forward.

In July 2008, Dr. Webb promoted Hagley to executive director of community and government relations and expanded his role to include leadership of one of the district’s new strategic priorities: “Relationships and Connections.” In addition to overseeing the revitalized communication program and serving as a close advisor to the superintendent, Hagley became the leader of a task force responsible for establishing family-community resource centers in schools highly impacted by poverty. At that time, $50,000 was added to the Communications Office budget for activities related to the strategic initiatives, bringing the district’s total annual investment in the communication and community engagement functions to more than $800,000.

Communication and Community Engagement
Highlights of the overall, year-round communication and relationship-building effort in Vancouver Public
Schools include the following:

Because the State of Washington does not provide full funding for K-12 education, Vancouver Public Schools must rely on revenue from a local levy for 18 percent of its general fund budget. In February 2010, nearly 69 percent of voters approved a replacement levy totaling $123 million over three years. The total turnout of 29,135 voters was the highest in the history of Vancouver school levy elections.

A statistically valid telephone survey of community residents conducted by CFM Research in October 2009 also indicated strong public support with 64 percent giving the district grades of A or B for its efforts, compared to the state average of 54 percent. Sixty-seven percent of respondents would recommend the district to people considering relocation to the area. They would base their recommendation primarily on the overall quality of education available. Half of the newer residents in the area said the quality of education influenced their decision to move to the district. More than half of the district residents get information about their schools from district sources; previous surveys had indicated that the local newspaper was their primary source of information.

Annual parent and staff surveys also show high levels of satisfaction. Comments from patron tour participants on district efforts to communicate are overwhelmingly positive. Compliments on district materials are received often from staff and community members. The district’s annual performance scorecard and other data sources portray significant growth in parent, volunteer and partner participation, which is a direct result of engagement activities and partnerships at schools with family-community resource centers. Precinct results also indicate that voter support for levy measures has increased in neighborhoods served by well-established centers.