To demonstrate that K12 leaders are lifelong learners, Superintendent Travis Bracht figured out how to use microphones and edit audio over the summer to produce the Affton School District’s first podcast. He has since recorded nine 20-minute episodes of “Affton Unplugged.”
“We highlight the people and stories that make the district great,” says Bracht, who has led the St. Louis-area district since 2017 and was recently named a superintendent to watch by the National School Public Relations Association. “We have covered everything from students telling us about what they enjoyed the first week of school to a conversation about artificial intelligence with our technology director.”
Bracht recently chatted with District Administration about the other aspects of his award-winning communications strategy and why he and his team take “intelligent risks” and have embedded diversity, equity and inclusion across district operations.
1. DA: How else do you use communications technology?
Travis Bracht: “For the past three years, I have used my phone to record weekly video updates that go out to families and staff. The video, usually recorded selfie-style, is embedded within the weekly digital newsletter Access Affton for families and Affton Insider for staff. In the video updates, I spend about two to three minutes highlighting important items going on across the district.
I also use it as an opportunity to recognize staff members and thank families for their support. As an added bonus, I often record video updates from my favorite outdoor locations, such as parks and other green spaces. This has become so popular that I now include the specific location where the video was recorded.”
2. Why are communications a priority for you? Who is most critical to reach?
“Communication is an important strategy that never goes away, especially in today’s world of connectedness and social media. If you are not telling the story of your district, then someone else will, good or bad. Now more than ever, it is important to establish your district as a trusted source of information.
It is easy to communicate when you have good news, but it is just as important to earn respect and trust by communicating the not-so-good news as well. This proactive approach allows you to not only explain what happened but how it is being addressed.
In this day and age, I don’t know that school districts can assume they will be the first source people hear from about a particular situation. However, you can be timely and communicate frequently and earn the status of being the most trusted source of information. It is important to give all of the individuals in your school community, such as staff, families, and students, the time, attention, and communication they need.”
3. What are you most excited about that’s happening in the Affton School District?
“I am excited our district had the foresight and courage to pursue priorities that we know are important for staff, students and families. We are not afraid to take intelligent risks, and we understand that failure is part of the learning process. This mindset of continuous improvement in all facets of the district helps keep us sharp.
For example, the pandemic put a spotlight on the mental health and wellness of our students and staff. In our district, social-emotional learning has been a key component of the strategic plan since 2016, well before the pandemic. More recently, during the 2021-22 school year, the district threaded the theme of inclusion, diversity, equity and anti-bias throughout each pillar of our strategic plan. This came at a time when these words had become divisive in some communities.
In August of this school year, our district became one of only 20 districts across the state approved for an Innovation Waiver to work on redesigning the state assessment and accountability system. These things were made possible by listening to our staff, students, and families when asking them about our strengths and opportunities for improvement.”
4. What are the keys to your leadership philosophy, and how do they contribute to Affton’s success?
“My leadership philosophy illustrates a commitment to continuous improvement by focusing on people, tasks and the needs of our district. I believe in being genuine and selfless and maximizing the success of those around me. I judge my own success by whether others around me are succeeding.
I believe that I contribute to the district’s success by expecting everyone, including me and the board of education, to model continuous improvement. For example, in the last four years, our board of education has earned the Governance Team Award from the Missouri School Boards Association. This is MSBA’s highest honor, and on an annual basis, there are only about 20 districts across the state that achieve it. My commitment to communication is another way that I try to model for staff, families and students how important it is to communicate effectively.”
5. How have your job/responsibilities changed over the last few years?
“Now more than ever, superintendents are expected to have expertise and school districts to deliver services in areas that traditionally have been handled by other departments or organizations outside of the district. The pandemic certainly made me feel as though I was running a health department in addition to a school district. Today, schools are doing more than they ever have to support the mental health and wellness of students and staff.
Safety and security is another area where superintendents and school districts are having to take on more in-house expertise and preparedness. Emergency operation procedures have become a vital part of what schools do to make staff, families and students feel safe to come to school each day. Preparing to perform well on the annual state tests used to keep you up at night, but that has been replaced by worrying about what event might happen where you will have to deploy your emergency operations training.”
6. What are the biggest challenges the Affton School District is facing right now?
“I think a big challenge right now involves keeping up with a world that is changing more rapidly than ever while not overloading our stakeholders. You want education to be relevant and meaningful, but it also has to be cohesive and practical. We know that technology, and now artificial intelligence, will impact education as well as the work environment. The challenge comes with encouraging people to lean into the inevitable change while not causing anxiety and burnout.
It also seems like education is more frequently getting dragged into politics in a way that is meant to be intentionally polarizing. More and more, we are having to dispel a narrative that is being cast over all public schools but is not the case at the local level. Again, this is why it is so important to proactively tell the story of your district and be a trusted source of information.”