2011 Leadership Through Communication Award
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
Communication and Community Engagement
Highlights of the overall, year-round communication and relationship-building effort in Vancouver Public
Schools include the following:
- All 200-250 pages of the district’s web site are re-vamped. The site is now easier to navigate and has a
news section, interactive photo gallery and historical timeline, video player, podcasts, search engine, and
maps with Google direction capabilities. It also provides access to family and staff portals. Pages
translated into Russian and Spanish and translation software capabilities for other languages are being
added this fall. http://www.vansd.org
- A modern logo complements the district’s more traditional seal, which is used for formal documents
such as diplomas. The district’s tagline—“Imagine what you can learn!”—has applications for all target
audiences. An approved color pallet permeates all district media.
- Video messages from the superintendent keep staff members informed about the direction of the district.
The superintendent’s monthly podcasts (“Webb e-News”) contain personal stories that support the
- Through membership in a consortium of local educational access providers, the district produces
television programs for three external cable channels and one internal channel. A fully digital television
studio is located in the administrative services center, and other state-of-the-art production facilities are
distributed throughout Vancouver schools to enable students and teachers to produce content for cable
television. A news magazine program, “In the Know,” promotes district initiatives, student and staff
accomplishments, and school-community partnerships. Video (as well as print) news releases are
sent to the Vancouver/Portland media.
- The district posts its videos on YouTube and uses social networking sites to round out its
communication program. Schools communicate with parents through e-newsletters, listserv technology,
and Synrevoice telephone notifications.
- District publications include a magazine-style “Report to the Community,” which is distributed three
times a year to more than 70,000 households and businesses. A “Board Recap” provides a reader-friendly
summary of the board’s business meetings. A district brochure is distributed to prospective employees,
real estate agents and residents who are new to the community, and potential community and business
- All aspects of district planning and operations have a communication component. For example, students,
parents, staff and community members are kept up-to-date on the district’s budget development process
through regular e-mail communication and information posted on the budget facts section of the web site.
Stakeholder input on possible budget solutions is gathered through online surveys, district advisory
committees, and focus groups.
- Each year, the board of directors adopts a legislative platform to convey the priorities of the district to legislators and other key decision-makers. Board members, the superintendent and staff regularly meet with local, state and federal elected officials and their representatives. Vancouver participates in a coalition of Clark County districts that develop and share common positions on education issues.
- The district uses its own unique collaborative planning process called the “design symposium,” which engages stakeholder representatives in visioning and planning for the future. More than 50 design symposia have been conducted to date. Recent symposium topics have included the long-range strategic plan, facility designs for new or renovated schools, family-community resource centers, innovative programs of choice, technology, and shared responsibility.
- Several times a year, the superintendent hosts a patron tour for community members who want to learn about district goals and see firsthand what is happening in Vancouver schools. These themes of tours highlight the strategic initiatives of the district and often are tailored for audiences with specific interests (e.g., business leaders, senior citizens, volunteers, non-English speaking families). Tours include student musical entertainment and a delicious lunch prepared and served by Culinary Arts students. The patron tour program is an NSPRA Golden Achievement Award winner.
- Family-community resource centers (FCRCs) in nine Vancouver schools increase community engagement and partnerships by providing basic needs assistance, parent education, early learning programs, childcare, mental health referrals, extended day/year offerings and other programs and services for economically disadvantaged children and families. The district staffs these centers with site-based FCRC coordinators, a district-level FCRC coordinator and a family engagement coordinator.
- The district’s non-profit foundation manages more than $2.2 million in assets to help meet the basic needs of children, to award classroom enrichment grants, and to provide scholarships. The foundation also assists the district in the development of partnerships and supports the family-community resource centers initiative. http://www.vsdfoundation.org/
- Students, staff and community partners are recognized for their accomplishments and contributions at every board meeting, and the board gives “Employee Excellence Awards” to teaching and non-teaching staff. Vancouver Rotary, the largest service club in the area, also honors a district program each month.
- District teams, departments and schools work together organize special events (e.g., tours, celebrations, showcases) and manage public engagement activities (e.g., design symposia, focus groups and advisory committees).
- To reach non-English speaking families, print communications and Synrevoice messages are translated into multiple languages. Videos orienting immigrant families to American schools are produced in Russian and Spanish. Local Spanish radio and cable television stations also are used to communicate with immigrant families. This fall, the Communication Team is adding Russian and Spanish language sections and translation software capabilities to the district’s web site.
- Emergency messages are distributed via the regional School Announcement Network; parents can sign up for text and e-mail notifications. The district also uses a Voice Over Internet Protocol automated notification system and cable television as appropriate to the situation.
- The district builds relationships beyond the local community. The Communication Team prepares proposals for district speakers to present at state and national conferences. Vancouver Public Schools is a founding member of the Western States Benchmarking Consortium, a collaboration of leading districts whose leaders meet three times a year to share best practices and influence public policy through their collective voice.
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.