Serious About Engaging All Parties
December 01, 2022
Appears in December 2022: School Administrator.
Starting out as a 5th-grade math and science teacher in the school district where he grew up and now leads, Jared Cotton learned something in his formative professional years that continues to be advantageous: Clear and engaging communication promotes learning and understanding.
“I never imagined I’d be a superintendent. I actually just wanted to be a really good teacher,” says Cotton, superintendent since 2018 of Chesapeake Public Schools, a district with 48 schools and more than 40,000 students. “I learned early on that school can be really boring for students if you’re bored as a teacher. I felt my job was to get students excited about learning and the possibilities they had in their future.”
With an administration career grounded in research, testing, evaluation and assessment, Cotton says he discovered that when dealing with data, “no one understands anything you’re talking about, so you’ve got to really focus on communicating effectively and making things easier to understand.”
Informed by early-career experiences and his work in two superintendencies, Cotton received the 2022 Communication Technology Award for Superintendents, presented by the National School Public Relations Association in partnership with Blackboard. The award singles out one district leader for “redefining, upgrading and integrating cutting-edge communication technology to improve and expand outreach and engagement with internal and external education stakeholders.”
Christopher Vail, a former high school assistant principal and now Chesapeake’s director of communications, says it became pretty clear soon after Cotton’s arrival in May 2018 that he was serious about inspiring students and engaging all district stakeholders.
“He’s empowered me to get the right people in the right seat and to play to the strengths of the people on my team, and that’s why we’re successful,” Vail says. “Dr. Cotton doesn’t come in with a cookie-cutter approach. He listens, and he listens to everybody.”
In setting out to expand the communications team from one to eight employees, Cotton says it was imperative to move from a reactive to a proactive approach that focused on “inspiring hope.” Seeing a natural link between strategic planning and communication, Cotton says he is known for “doing things differently and challenging the status quo.”
Recognizing his self-assessment, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents named Cotton its 2019 Virginia Superintendent of the Year for his work with Henry County schools, serving a rural community where more than 60 percent live in poverty. He was recognized for inspiring students, project-oriented teaching and learning, performance-based assessments, and partnering with community groups.
In Chesapeake, his work as a communication leader includes his Cotton’s Clipboard blog, stipends for school-based representatives to share stories of accomplishment on social media, family engagement webinars on pressing topics, and the “Let’s Talk” two-way communications system to allow for anonymous input and a chance to correct misinformation. Ideas heard on his “Student Tours” have led to the K-12 Virtual Academy and budgeting for soccer and baseball middle school programs next year.
Testament to Cotton’s inclusive leadership style, Cotton brought his full communications team from Chesapeake to the NSPRA recognition ceremony in Chicago in July.
“That means a lot, that he takes the time to recognize us and let us take part in the acceptance of this award,” Vail says. “It empowers my team even more, that they get recognized for the work that they’re doing.”
Linda Chion Kenney is a freelance education writer in Lithia, Fla.
BIO STATS: JARED COTTON
Currently: superintendent, Chesapeake Public Schools, Chesapeake, Va.
Previously: superintendent, Henry County Public Schools, Collinsville, Va.
Greatest influence on career: After high school, I was a lifeguard at a residential center for troubled youth. When summer ended, I became a counselor. When the regular teacher was out, I was asked to serve as the substitute teacher during which time I learned I had a knack for engaging students in learning and noticed the usual behavior issues were nonexistent.
Best professional day: The first was the day I was recognized as 2019 Virginia Superintendent of the Year. The second was when Chesapeake welcomed students back to school for the first time during the pandemic, one of the few in the state to do so then.
Books at bedside: Leverage Leadership 2.0 by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo; Start With Why by Simon Sinek; and The Maxwell Daily Reader by John C. Maxwell
Why I’m an AASA member: Collaboration among colleagues. I have been fortunate to graduate from the AASA Superintendent Certification Program and serve as a mentor for aspiring superintendents. These experiences have made me a better leader.