Jared Cotton graduated from Virginia’s Chesapeake Public Schools, started teaching after college in the same fifth-grade classroom where he’d been a student, and later became an administrator there before becoming a superintendent in Henry County on the other side of the state.
After six years, Cotton returned home in 2018 to become Chesapeake’s superintendent. He knew change was needed, but he wanted to hear from the community first. Like many new superintendents, he set up a “listen and learn” tour and developed online surveys to get additional feedback.
“I already knew something about the community because I grew up here and went to school here, but I still needed to know the strengths and the weaknesses and things that I should be focusing on, as well things I shouldn't mess with,” he says.
One weakness he identified was a woefully understaffed—read: one person—communications department tasked with serving 45 schools and 39,000 students. To achieve Cotton’s goal of two-way communications with students, parents, and community members, he knew that situation would have to change.
Cotton made communications and community engagement one of the four goals in the district’s strategic plan. Mostly through restructuring, he has added staff to the communications department, which in turn used a variety of technology platforms to expand communications before and during the pandemic.
In mid-July, Cotton was honored with the 2022 Communication Technology Award for Superintendents by the National School Public Relations Association and Blackboard. The award is presented annually to a superintendent for leadership “in redefining, upgrading, and integrating cutting-edge communication technology to improve and expand outreach and engagement” with internal and external audiences.
“You have to place value on communications,” he says. “You have to be proactive, not reactive. For a lot of school divisions, it's more reactive. You deal with the increase in communication issues that pop up, rather than being more on the proactive side.”
Positions and technology
Soon after he started, Cotton added two positions—a digital media specialist and a webmaster —and restructured the communications department using existing staff from the district’s print shop and other areas, including the central office’s front desk person. He started a blog as the new team revamped Chesapeake’s website and started using Facebook and Twitter to promote “all of the great things happening in our school division.”
“That’s not a big deal, but it was for Chesapeake because we weren’t using any social media when I got here,” Cotton says, noting the communications staff developed guidelines and best practices and used them to train staff.
Since the 2018-19 school year, the district launched K12 Insight’s “Let’s Talk” platform for two-way communication with families. It added Voxer, a walkie-talkie app that allows administrators across the district to communicate in emergencies.
“For me, cobbling this team together and hiring the right people has been critical,” Cotton says. “You give them the space to explore and take risks and try new technologies, and you can greatly expand what you’re trying to do, which is finding ways to communicate and keep your community involved and invested in your schools.”
Cotton says the district uses K12 Insight extensively, noting the platform allows anonymous messages to be sent to him and to department heads, and the staff can follow up if needed.
More participation online
Throughout the pandemic, the district dug deeper into technology to communicate with parents, students, and staff.
When the district moved to a hybrid attendance in 2020-21, it used ParentVUE software that aligns with its student data system—Synergy—to allow families to register for school online. A Google Data Studio provided information about COVID cases and outbreaks directly to classrooms.
“We had to leverage technology to communicate to our families in real time,” Cotton says. “We've had to really use Synergy with the parent information that we've been pushing out through COVID. We had parent verifications and agreements that we had to put out there. This allowed us to do it in a way that was safe and secure.”
Zoom enabled Chesapeake to host a Family Empowerment Webinar series that has drawn as many as 300 participants. The webinars, which are also archived, offer a live Q&A.
Another use for video: Community members can now submit comments to the school board using the VideoAsk platform. The platform was a hit during COVID, Cotton says, and will continue to be used.
“Sometimes the people who are the loudest come and speak at board meetings, and it’s easy to think everyone feels that way,” Cotton says. “By opening all these other channels, we’re hearing from a much larger segment of our community.”
Now completing his fourth year as superintendent, Cotton is pleased with the state of Chesapeake’s communications program. Community members are engaged, feedback loops have been established, and the information that is gathered has become “the cornerstone of our decision-making process.”
“We use all this information to help determine what we need to clarify, what additional information we need to provide, what decisions we need to make throughout the process, and I really feel like we know we have a good pulse on the community and what’s going on,” he says