—– By: Ann Costantino —–
A lot has happened with controversial – and now defunct – Illinois-based superintendent and principal professional development company, The SUPES Academy.
In 2017, its proprietors and the former leader of Chicago Public Schools landed federal prison sentences for charges related to an elaborate kickback scheme where over $20 million dollars was siphoned from the Chicago school district through a contract for its principal preparation program, through which dozens of out-of-state superintendents and education leaders were paid to train its principals.
Some of those superintendents – called out for awarding contracts to SUPES for their own school systems – personally profited from payments from the vendor in exchange for providing professional development in Chicago and other districts, rather than sharing their knowledge – for free – at their home districts.
And at least one former education leader, Baltimore County Public Schools’ S. Dallas Dance, PhD, was found to have accepted roughly $90,000 from the company’s proprietors, along with other consulting jobs for which he, too, spent time in jail after prosecutors who investigated his involvement with SUPES found he perjured himself when he failed to disclose the income – plus almost $60,000 more – on his financial disclosure statements. Dance also brought an $875,000 contract to the district with the vendor.
But before SUPES’ fall, there was plenty of professional development delivered to aspiring superintendents, principals and other education leaders across the country. And some of these districts with former SUPES teachers bear striking similarities: evidence of a directive to control the school system’s message by deliberately controlling the media.
We make a huge mistake by thinking that facts make a difference… Facts don’t build trust, perception does… The key is having the media report ‘news’ from your point of view…”
Control the Media, Control the Narrative
“School districts are like bad football teams with bad defenses,” began a 2013 SUPES Academy presentation in Chicago, obtained by The Baltimore Post, on the topic of marketing one’s school district. “They give up a lot of points. The only way for a school district to win the game of public opinion is to have a high-powered offense that scores a lot of points,” the slide stated.
Another slide put it bluntly, “’News’ is anything that helps TV stations, radio stations and newspapers make money. The key is having the media report ‘news’ from your point of view,” it said.
But how did SUPES coaches and consultants teach and use these marketing strategies in their own districts? By employing a variety of “relationship building” strategies, according to the roughly 350 page PowerPoint presentation.
Building Alliances with Select Groups
“Communication must begin face-to-face and be continuous over time. After good communication is sustained, relationships can be developed and understanding can result. No one else can do the job for us. We can’t rely on the media to tell our story,” SUPES taught.
“We make a huge mistake by thinking that facts make a difference. Facts don’t build trust, perception does” another slide stated. “We need to listen to our customers and their perceptions and start having conversations about their perceptions.”
Going further, SUPES taught district leaders to “go direct to your key publics. Identify your key publics” they taught, “and talk to them via their opinion leaders.”
‘Our schools’ should be synonymous with student learning.”
But SUPES leaders cautioned to avoid some “gatekeepers,” which included some members of the “media, politicians and special interest groups.” Instead, SUPES leaders taught to target select groups and “all members of the school staff. ‘Communications’ is in everyone’s job description…” the presentation asserted. “Administrators and school leaders have a key role in communications. They should have an ongoing dialog with community opinion leaders. ‘Our schools’ should be synonymous with student learning.”
“Sharing good news about your school,” and earning “media coverage when good things happen,” was the focus of another part of the presentation. And by “Relationship building, relationship building, relationship building” another slide stated, that along with some members of the media known as “regular contacts,” PTAs and community leaders, the system’s desired message could get across.
Another one of SUPES’ strategies suggested districts should develop and deploy volunteers – embedded in the community – to spread the good news for the school district.
When the Message Goes Awry
But at times, in some districts, when the message was found to be going in an undesirable direction, systems with former SUPES leaders, like the Kent School District (KSD) in Washington State, have resorted to trolling social media pages and harvesting messages from advocacy groups to control the public’s messaging, as Lori Waight found out when she requested emails from her school district through an open records request.
Ms. Waight was shocked to discover that school leadership actively tracked advocacy within the community in an effort to discredit and suppress community opinions.
It took the district over 10 months to provide two internal school system emails which stated, in part, “Attached are two isolated posts and comments from the KSD Discussion Group on Facebook with the subject matter requested…” and “Please find the post and comments made on the KDS Discussion Group regarding the meeting between Dr. Watts… and community members …,” wrote two administrators who attached 12 screenshots from the social media group. Calvin Watts, the district’s school superintendent, is a SUPES Academy graduate and former SUPES consultant for Chicago Public Schools’ 2013 SUPES training, records show.
In another case, a news station in the Kent School District was locked out of a building during a public executive meeting session for the school system, according to advocates. In yet another instance, a security guard blocked entry, prohibiting interested citizens from attending a meeting in the school district on “fiscal recovery.” The Baltimore Post reported on similarities between Kent and Baltimore County Public Schools last month.
The Ten Commandants of SUPES Academy
Heavy emphasis, put forth during the 2013 SUPES Academy presentation, showed leaders were taught not on how to be open with the community, but instead to be ready for combat to defend a desired message. But specifically on how to engage with the media, SUPES’ “10 Commandments” made it most clear:
- Thou shall not lie to the press.
- Thou shall not flee the TV camera.
- Thou shall not put thy hand up in front of the camera or otherwise look guilty as sin.
- Thou shall not wear sunglasses while on camera.
- Thou shall not guess about an answer.
- Thou shall not let the reporter put words in thy mouth.
- Thou shall not talk past thy prepared statement.
- Thou shall not assume that anything is off the record.
- Thou shall not be seen smiling and laughing at sad or troubling moments.
- Thou shall always remember, they can’t report it if you don’t say it.