Getting the Word Out

T&L talks strategy with Marsha Chappelow, assistant superintendent of communication services for Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kan.

Q. What's your role in the district?

A. I administer the district's communication division, a job that ranges from supervising the communications department that develops our print and digital media to attending regular meetings with a wide range of professional and parent groups, including PTO and PTA presidents. I also coordinate community programs and school-business partnerships.

Q. How would you describe the mission of the Blue Valley communication division?

A. Our philosophy can be defined by our specific goals: building relationships internally among staff, and externally with the community, parents, and local businesses and providing accurate, timely information using a variety of interactive media. One thing that makes us unique, I think, is that we maintain ongoing communication with the community. Many districts communicate only during a bond issue or a time of crisis. We work with school board representatives to make sure that we keep the community abreast of what's happening within the district throughout the year.

Q. Has this approach been successful?

A. Very. Our last failed bond issue was in 1982.

Q. What has been most important to your success in communicating within the district?

A. Outside of our mission, the most important part of effective communications is planning. Even if the plan changes, starting with a set of goals we want to achieve throughout the year helps us focus time and financial resources. For us that means meeting with the superintendent, communications director, and board of education leadership in July to brainstorm what we think are the hot topics for the year. After we vote on what's most important, we look at the media we have available-our communication options-and plan out our semester. We revisit the editorial schedule in December to consider changes to the calendar.


Blue Valley School District
Location: Suburban
Schools: 29
Student population: 19,000
Free and reduced lunch: 5%
Spending per pupil:$6,164
Technology budget: $8.6 million

Q. What role does technology play in implementing your communications strategy?

A. Technology certainly continues to play an increasing role in how we deliver messages to our customers. For example, our district Web site is a good place for up-to-the-minute district news, contact information, FAQs, and even teacher recruitment packages. We've just piloted online progress and grade reports for high school students. For parents without mobile Web access, we have a great voice mail system they can dial into from any location to retrieve messages from the district or their kids' teachers. Our students assist us in getting the word out about district news via Blue Valley TV (, which airs over 40 hours a week on a local cable station. Regardless of the medium, though, there always needs to be a way to get in touch with a real person, and that information has to be readily available to the public.

Q. Is an emphasis on customer service part of your larger strategy?

A. Yes, it is one of our goals. First and foremost, we see ourselves as an academic institution. Second, we're a safe place for students. And third, we want to provide good customer service. Every other year, for example,we conduct a volunteer-led phone survey to ask the community about the effectiveness of our Web site, BVTV, and our other communication services. We've also conducted an in-service project for the last three years to help teachers learn how to manage the communication they have with parents.

Kristen Kennedy is an assistant professor of communications at the University of San Francisco.