Inform Early, Inform Often: An Interview with Award-Winning School Communication Director Zac Rantz

By Anne O'Brien

We know that effective communication is critical in public education, both for building support for public schools and for ensuring the successful implementation of education initiatives, such as the Common Core State Standards. But what does a good K-12 communication strategy look like?

Missouri’s Nixa Public Schools, a suburban K-12 system serving 6,000 students in 11 schools, provides one example. Communication has been a key aspect of the district’s strategic plan for well over a decade, and Nixa has developed a transparent, high-functioning communications program that is two-way in design. For this work, the district was named the 2014 recipient of the Leadership Through Communication Award, with Superintendent Stephen Kleinsmith and Director of Communication Zac Rantz recognized for their exemplary leadership in the field. The district was commended for building a culture where there is a common language between internal and external stakeholders; creating an environment in which information can be shared in a variety of ways; providing the community the opportunity to offer input which is listened to and acted upon; and more.

In a recent e-mail interview, Rantz took the time to discuss the district’s program and give advice to those looking to strengthen their communications strategy.  

Public School Insights (PSI): What is the district’s general philosophy on communication?

Rantz: Inform early. Inform often. Inform through multiple channels.

PSI: What are the key components of your communication program?

Rantz: We structure our communication channels into two main sections: internal and external

.

Internal:

  • Weekly e-newsletter as well as alerts on information before we send it out to the public
  • Staff website
  • Discussion groups where staff and administration are able to discuss various ideas

External:

  • Online: District website and athletic website, Youtube/online video, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), & surveys
  • Mobile: Mobile app, mobile website, e-newsletter, text alerts
  • Print: Academic magazine (published 2x a year) and athletic magazine (published 3x a year), brochures
  • In-person: Community meetings and discussions, focus groups, membership in various organizations

PSI: What are some of the biggest challenges that you faced in developing and implementing this program?

Rantz: The constant challenge is always trying to inform everyone, even more now with the various methods in which people communicate. If someone only communicates in one method, then you need to do your best to be a part of that discussion. But it also is the responsibility of the district to let people know how you will distribute information, so people know what the limitations of the district are and where they can receive information and be a part of the regular dialogue with the district.

PSI: How do you measure whether your communications efforts are successful?

Rantz: We have scheduled surveys of parents, staff and the community to gauge our efforts.  This can be related to everything from technology access so we can see if we are able to implement certain things (like a mobile app) to their perceptions and awareness of various things the district is doing.

PSI: I understand that Nixa empowers building administrators to take charge of their own communications programs. What types of support do you give them in doing so, and have you found them, in general, to be successful?

Rantz: I think what we do is equip them with the tools to communicate, give them guidelines to work in (minimum and maximums on messages), and then assist with messages.  When people know expectations and guidelines, they know what it takes to be successful.  We also hold trainings on various topics, including media relations, website training and a whole host of other things as needs are identified to help support our buildings.

PSI: Many schools and districts are struggling with how to best utilize social media and other technologies in communicating with students, teachers, parents and/or the greater community. How does Nixa do it?

Rantz: We make social media a part of our regular discussions. It is one of the mediums we use to communicate out a message and is a part of the overall plan. When you focus too much on making it a separate thing instead of a part of the whole program, you can get overwhelmed and confused. But when you focus on it as a way to distribute information, just like an email or text alert or magazine, you take the message you are putting out other places and just include it on social media.

We also work to make sure we have clear guidelines and expectations on how we communicate and what we expect from others who use our social media platforms and engage with us. Once you set the framework and guidelines, it helps people know what to expect.

PSI: I understand that the Common Core is quite controversial in Missouri. How have you been communicating with your stakeholders about it, and do you consider that communication to have been effective?

Rantz: I think the big misconception with Common Core (CC) is that many of the bad examples that people use are with curriculum and not the standards. We use CC or Missouri Learning Standards as the basis for what we do, but our curriculum is what we teach, and we make sure our teachers and administration communicate out the expectations of the curriculum to parents and students. When you do that, people know what to expect and what it takes to be successful. If you focus too much on just Common Core, people get confused. So we’ve chosen to focus more on our expectations as a district, which just happen to include Common Core.

PSI: What advice do you have for districts that are looking to strengthen their communication strategy?

Rantz: Start small and grow. Many times districts look at other schools and see the list of things they are doing. But those districts didn’t start there. We are years into our comprehensive program. So, look at where we started…an e-newsletter and a website. That was really it for a couple years. Once those became easily managed, we expanded. The idea that “it’s better to do a few things well than many things poorly” applies here. 

I also think districts need to look into having a person whose job is communications. Many times it is difficult to justify, but when you don’t have effective communication, it is hard to accomplish the many things that a district wants to do. It’s one of those things that you don’t know you need until you have it, and then, once you have it, you won’t ever be without it.

Learn more about the Nixa communication program through their executive summary for the 2014 Leadership Through Communication Award, sponsored by the National School Public Relations Association, AASA: The School Superintendents Association and Blackboard.