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Profile                                                            Page 59

 

Communication Links

That Bind   

 

BY PAUL RIEDE 

Marsha Chappelow
Marsha Chappelow

Marsha Chappelow always had a soft spot for journalism. Growing up in Springfield, Mo., she worked on her high school newspaper and considered a career as a reporter. But it was the late 1960s, and the career paths suggested to girls were secretary, nurse, teacher.

She picked education. After graduating from college with an education credential in English and a minor in journalism, she taught both English and journalism and advised the student newspaper.

“I liked learning about people,” she says of her interest in reporting. “And I still like that today.”

That curiosity led Chappelow into administrative positions in K-12 education, particularly communications. Chappelow developed an expertise that led her to the presidency of the National School Public Relations Association and to the superintendency of the Ladue School District, just outside of St. Louis, in 2009.

It’s a rare combination of skills and experiences and an unusual career path, says Richard Bagin, executive director of NSPRA. He knows of only three superintendents who have assumed the job from the communications side

“I think it’s a wonderful training area,” Bagin says. “They look at the entire operation over every function.”
For Chappelow, it makes all the sense in the world. “I think communications is one of the top three reasons, if not the top reason, why superintendents are not successful,” she says.

That focus helped Chappelow and her colleagues persuade Ladue district residents to approve two bond issues — in 2007, when she was assistant superintendent, and in 2010 as superintendent. And earlier this year, residents voted for the first tax levy increase since 1993.

That’s no easy task in Ladue, a suburban district with about 4,000 students. Parents have the option of sending their children to any of a dozen private and parochial schools. Focusing their attention on public education isn’t a given.

To increase community participation, Chappelow has pushed school-business partnerships, as well as a program that brings senior citizens into the schools by enlisting students to tutor them in the use of personal technology. She also instituted board advisory committees, which mix board members with community volunteers, on various issues.

Chappelow’s open style helped her guide the district through a bruising budget battle last year, says Mark Shevitz, a parent who has served on several advisory committees. Ladue faced its first significant staff and program reductions in years, and many parents and students were up in arms.

“Marsha stood in the middle of the firing line,” Shevitz says. “She was a very controversial figure for a while.”

She weathered the crisis by opening up rather than hunkering down, making herself available to supporters and critics alike.

“What she did best of all is that she didn’t hide,” he says.

Shevitz, a marketing executive, says the strategy was a direct result of Chappelow’s public relations savvy. “She really does know how to package an issue for whatever constituency,” he says.

Her outreach also extends to students. Based on input from the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, the district recently studied ways to provide a laptop to every high school student.

In the end, Chappelow says, it’s simply pragmatic to aggressively communicate with everyone in the district — and listen carefully to what they have to say.

“If you only do what professionals want,” she says, “you’re going to lose your communities.”

Paul Riede is a staff writer at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com 

 

BIO STATS: MARSHA CHAPPELOW

Currently: superintendent, Ladue School District, St. Louis, Mo.

Previously: assistant superintendent for human resources, communication and technology, Ladue School District

Age: 61

Greatest influence on career: The administrators who were my supervisors all played a role in making me who I am today as a superintendent. Their encouragement nudged me into secondary administration when there were not many females in those roles.

Best professional day: It is always the day of graduation.

Books at bedside: That Used To Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

Biggest blooper:  “Drop that hamburger!” became a slogan with our school staff after I stopped a middle school food fight as an assistant principal by shouting that to a student.

Why I’m an AASA member: AASA has provided me with resources, professional development and networking opportunities from a national perspective.
 

 

 

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