Why DA superintendent-in-residence says storytelling is key to K-12 leadership

'When they don’t know what you do in school, they make up what you do in schools,' Joe Sanfelippo says.
By: | January 4, 2022

The fact that educators around the world know the story of a small Wisconsin school system of 825 students speaks to the power of communication. Or rather, the power of a superintendent who’s deeply committed to telling the district’s story.

If you’re consistently talking about all the good things going on in your schools, there’s a good chance people will start making things up, says Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of the Fall Creek School District. “When they don’t know what you do in school, they make up what you do in schools,” Sanfelippo says. “And when they make up what you do in schools, it’s not what you’re doing in schools.”

It’s that deep belief in transparency and maintaining strong community connections—along with other key K-12 leadership concepts—that attendees of the District Administration Leadership Institute will learn from Sanfelippo in 2022 as he moves into his role as the program’s new superintendent-in-residence.

Sanfelippo began his career teaching kindergarten and subsequently second and fifth grades. He then became an elementary school counselor and later a principal. He has been superintendent in Fall Creek for 11 years and lives across the street from his schools.

What’s convenient for the community

Superintendents and their teams can’t just start posting willy-nilly on social media, hope their message resonates, and call it effective communication. Administrators have to take a systematic approach to telling the stories about what’s happening in the classroom, Sanfelippo says.

It’s also crucial that administrators not limit messaging to “when they need something,” such as when asking voters to pass a bond measure. Consistent communication across multiple channels helps district leaders build social capital, he says.

Administrators should also spend some time asking community members about their preferred forms of communication. For instance, not all parents—even involved and engaged parents—can attend a back-t0-school night. “If you’re communicating in a way that’s convenient for you and not for them, you’ve missed the boat,” he says.

In Wisconsin, which is an open enrollment state, Sanfelippo’s strategies have brought dozens of students to the district from outside its boundaries. This high level of communication is particularly effective when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will.

“When something goes wrong and they don’t know what you’re doing, not only will they talk about the thing went wrong talk about, they’ll about everything that ever went wrong,” Sanfelippo says. “If we’re really connecting and talking about the impact schools are having on the community, they’re much more likely to support you even if don’t know what happens in school every day.”

‘Be the known in that unknown world’

As superintendent-in-residence, Sanfelippo says he plans to help District Administration academy and summit participants “lead in ways they never thought possible.” He intends to leverage the expertise of the broad network of K-12 leaders he’s built relationships with while telling his district’s stories.

He’s connected with a diverse group of leaders in rural, urban and suburban districts that want to help new leaders achieve their professional goals. “This job is very isolating because you’re the only person in the district with your particular title,” Sanfelippo says. “When you’re isolated, you get lonely and then you get depressed and start thinking it’s better somewhere else. And when you go somewhere else, it’s the same thing.”

This is why Sanfelippo’s philosophy of storytelling and transparency extends to his school board. He often invites students to open meetings by describing something they’ve achieved in school. This helps board members put things like achievement data into context. “I want to make sure the five people on the board I serve are in the right mindset to make decisions for kids,” he says. “You can give them some numbers but the numbers don’t connect to a person’s emotions.”

Looking in 2022, Sanfelippo says the biggest challenge with be leading through uncertainty. He intends to tackle that by creating and strengthening connections with his community. That can boil down to even the small details, such as when important announcements are made and how long they will take.

“When leading through the unknown, be the known in that unknown world,” he says. “Let everyone know that they can connect with you in a way that’s consistent.”