Strategic Communications with District Leadership: Creating Arts Champions!

Guest Author: Peggy Burt, Senior Advisor, Arts Planning Initiative

The Challenge: How to communicate strategically with district leadership to demonstrate progress in arts education.

The Strategy: Structured, reflective, brief monthly reports to leadership, turning district leaders into arts champions!

The Story: The coordinators of Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA coordinators) as well as other arts leaders and arts educators in school districts often find that their work is well known by some in the district, but almost “invisible” to others.

In an environment where information is often “information overload,” how can we be strategic about getting the facts and the stories to decision makers who have influence around arts education for all students in the district?

A few years back, I had the honor of working as the VAPA coordinator for a small district in Los Angeles County. The superintendent was warm, collegial and very open to communications. I started writing a brief monthly update to keep him informed about all of the progress and successes around arts education in the district. I also informed him of the challenges discovered, and strategies brought forward to meet those challenges. Most of the time, I sent the brief report by email, but sometimes I would share my report in a face-to-face meeting. Building this relationship was key to developing a shared vision for moving the arts forward in the district.

Structure: I organized my thoughts around the same framework that we use when we enter into Arts Strategic Planning as outlined in the Insider’s Guide. According to the methods of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, there are four levels that allow for deep reflection and understanding: Objective, Reflective, Interpretive and Decisional (known as ORID).

As you think back on your month and you are preparing a report, consider:

  1. Objective = Facts. What are the things that WE accomplished together this month? This gave me an opportunity to shine a light on the arts champions in the district – teachers, principals, parents and students – and to highlight projects and programs. This is not about “tooting your own horn” but rather, showing how collaboration is key to moving big ideas forward.
  2. Reflective = Feelings. I took this opportunity to describe how I was feeling about our progress and successes as well as challenges and areas for growth.
  3. Interpretive = Thoughts. This was a chance to “make meaning” out of the strategies – where were we seeing change and growth? Where did we need to adjust?
  4. Decisional = Actions and Next Steps. Moving into what’s next allowed me to step into what was possible and keep the momentum flowing. It heightened my own sense of accountability and encouraged me to keep reaching for new opportunities along the way for the benefit of all students.

Reflection is Key! The important aspect here is taking the time to reflect on the scope of work for the month. An honest assessment of both the successful aspects and the tough aspects creates a sense of trust that the contents of the report are thoughtfully balanced. After I organized my ideas within this structure, I created a brief report with headings like:

  1. Key Accomplishments
  2. Key Findings
  3. Insights and Understandings
  4. Next Steps - Forward Momentum

If you wish to include a category specifically for an important project, you can enter an update on that particular project on a monthly basis. Photos and images are always appreciated, but curate them carefully – a choice selection is much better than photo overload!

Many times I hear colleagues say that they are so busy doing the work, they don’t have time to sit down and write a report about what they are doing…but it is the very strategy of reflecting and reporting that can build an enduring and sustainable program.

In the age of tweeting and brevity, keeping it short and concise is very important! If you can offer district leadership information in a short, manageable format that is predictable month after month, you will begin to see the information showing up in newsletters, websites and in School Board minutes. 

Always having the facts at their fingertips means that leadership will become the voice and the champions for the arts when you are not in the room. As momentum for arts education builds in your district, the messages and stories will create a greater understanding for all stakeholders.

Many of us find ourselves “leading from the middle” or what is sometimes called “managing up.” Communication is key to this. It is our responsibility to make sure that our leaders have the facts, the heartfelt stories, the wise insights and the clear outline of next steps to understand how the arts can grow in the district, allowing every student to reach their creative potential!

With thanks to Magnolia Public Schools and Ismael Soto, Director of Partnerships, Outreach and Communications Department for the photos in this post. 

Learn more about the Alliance’s Arts Planning Initiative.

Read last month's blog on how our Arts Now Community in San Benito worked to build strong 1:1 relationships with key school leaders here.