Debbie Critchfield: The Power of School Communications

Internal communications is critically important to running a successful school district, and it is also an ongoing challenge for many. Debbie Critchfield, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Idaho, shares her experience in school communications and the ins and outs of internal communications.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: September 29, 2023


Internal communications is critically important to running a successful school district, and it's also an ongoing challenge for many. Debbie Critchfield, Superintendent of Public Instruction in Idaho, shares her experience in school communications and the in’s and out’s of internal communications.


Debbie Critchfield joins SchoolCEO and shares her experience in school communications and her current role as the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Idaho. 

If you’re an avid listener, you know that SchoolCEO so often goes deep into organizational culture and how you can craft effective communication that reaches your intended audience. This episode combines those two topics as we dive deeper into internal communication and explore:

  • Internal communication
  • Tactics and strategies for better internal communication
  • How to work better with school boards and external partners
  • What superintendents can craft a better working relationship with their communication directors
  • How communication directors should spend their time to become even more effective in their work
  • And so much more. 

Debbie Critchfield was sworn in as Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction on January 2, 2023. She previously served for seven years on the Idaho State Board of Education and was appointed to education task forces by Governors Brad Little and Butch Otter. Debbie served as an elected school board member in Cassia County for ten years and was on the executive committee of the Idaho School Boards Association. She is a former local library trustee and Oakley Valley Arts Council president. She worked as the public information officer for Cassia School District for nine years. Debbie and her husband Dave live in Oakley, where they raised their four children. They have three grandsons.


Tyler Vawser (Host): All right. Well, Debbie Critchfield, thanks so much for joining school. CEO conversation.

Debbie Critchfield (Guest): Thank you so much for the invitation.

Tyler Vawser (Host): I've heard a lot about you from some of my colleagues, and we had a chance to chat before today's recording. And you just have such an experience with communications and your background in that. So want to spend a good amount of time talking about your experience as a communications leader in a school district. And so you spent nearly a decade in a communications patient's role, and I'm kind of curious to hear from you how that role changed and how you approached the role differently from your first year to your last year.

Debbie Critchfield (Guest): I think that it really takes in technology as far as a big part of what changed and also the frequency by which communication took place. And I remembered thinking about my first year on the job compared to my last. And at the end of the school year, on the first year, I had this really great idea that I wanted to kind of capture some really great events of things that had happened at every school and customize something that we were going to print out and then send home with parents. 

And it was like, okay, well, let's get the document put together and make it really look nice, and then we're going to go print out all of these copies and stick them in everyone's backpacks. It was time intensive. It was a good idea, but the difference from the last year of we're still going to celebrate things that we've done, but we're going to do that very differently. We're going to have it on the website, we're going to push it out in a notification through our app. How we're going to communicate, where people are and where people get their information was so different in nearly ten years.

Tyler Vawser: That's really interesting. What about mindset wise? How did you think differently about the job or the purpose of communications within a school district towards the end of your tenure?

Debbie Critchfield: That frequency piece really was such an important part of how we did the job. And again, where we reached people, there's just an expectation now whether it's a parent or internally, someone that's on a staff, an educator, a building principal, it's the same message, but it's communicated differently to different audiences and how people and where people go to get their information. Social media became a really important tool and avenue for the community at large and internally. So it was that external piece and internal piece, but then you could really customize something for the audience that you want. It's going to sound a little bit different when it's going to someone that's on staff than perhaps a parent. You're not changing it or twisting it, but you're going to use different terms. You're going to talk about it a little bit differently.

Tyler Vawser: Well, you brought up internal communications, and that's something we've been thinking a lot about. And so I wonder if we can just start digging into that. How did you approach internal communications, talking to teachers, staff, even building leaders, what did that look like from the central office and out?

Debbie Critchfield: It has to be a priority for anyone that does communication. You have to let your teammates know what's happening, what's going to happen, what's changed, what's new before you let the community at large. And the reasons for that I believe, really come down to valuing the people that work for you. Not only is it a respect thing that before we tell the entire community, we're going to tell the people that are going to be in charge with implementing and also you create ambassadors and champions for the thing that you're trying to do or accomplish. If you're explaining something, we're going to explain it internally first, because what is 100% going to happen? Is someone in a grocery store or someone at a barbecue in their backyard? They're going to get asked, because the first place people are going to go, hey, wait, you work at that school or you work in that school district? We heard that. Dot, dot, dot. I never ever wanted our own people to be the last to hear or the least informed or the least educated. 

They become a part of the communication process and the tools that we have because we've informed them. Now they may not like it or they may follow up with hey, I want to have additional information. But at the very least I wanted someone to be able to say, yeah, I got an email about that and this, that, or the other. It's so critical to overall communication success.

Tyler Vawser: So I think a lot of times the idea of internal communication is something everybody wants to do, but the actual process can be really difficult. What are some of the roadblocks or some of the barriers that you see to good internal communication and then how did you overcome those barriers? What did that process look like to make sure you were telling teachers and staff before you told the larger community?

Debbie Critchfield: I think it really just first starts with the acknowledgment that we're going to tell our team first. There's a tendency, I think, for communicators that public information officers, that it's for the public that hey, the school board had this discussion and here's going to be this new policy or here's going to be a new decision that's going to impact the community. We need to tell everybody as quickly as possible and we need to get that news release. Well, that news release first needs to start with our own folks. 

And so my protocols were to give a certain amount of time that we're going to send it to our own people first. And what I'd learned with that was questions coming back actually helped me refine something that went out before I sent it to the larger public. Like oh, I missed the school that that was going to be at. I just, in my mind thought because I know everything about the situation, questions coming back gave me an opportunity to refine the communication. Thanks for the question. Or a typo. I mean, that's always a communicator's worst nightmare that we had a typo or that we missed a word. And so when people would send back, hey, Debbie, you left a word out of that sentence. Oh, geez. I mean, I didn't like it that it went to our teachers like that, but I for sure don't want it to go to the broader public and having the knowledge that it was in your inbox. So people don't sometimes open all their emails or click on the notification that came through the app. I would be able to follow up if someone said, hey, how come we didn't know this, that or the other. You've got a paper trail in that sense, an electronic paper trail, to be able to say, well, actually, I'm sorry you missed it, but go check your inbox again, or you don't want to make people feel bad. Or I'd say maybe it accidentally went to spam. 

Go check it out on the state, and if you didn't see it from me, let me know. I never got anybody back that said, hey, I didn't see it. But that's just kind of, I guess, a softer, more professional way of saying, hey, go check your email.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I really like what you said about getting questions from internal stakeholders first and then using that as an advantage when you're communicating to a group of external stakeholders that probably don't have as much context or as much kind of inside info. Did you ever tell teachers and staff, like, I need your help, or you're actually part of this process? Like, by telling you first, we expect that you will represent the brand of the district and that you also get to participate in asking these questions.

Debbie Critchfield: I never said it formally or stated it like that, but I would always include, hey, you're getting this first in some form. Like, this press release is going to go out to the community tomorrow morning. We're sending it to you a day in advance. If you have questions or concerns, get a hold of us and we can help you understand a little bit more. So it wasn't just stated like that so formally or outwardly, but I always made sure that our people know, hey, you're getting this first. And really, that was a way to acknowledge that we prioritize you. You work here, you have a right to know, or I believe they had a right to know before we put things out to everybody.

Tyler Vawser: And how did the central office, the superintendent, and you work with those building leaders, right? Because I think a lot of times and we are actually releasing some research really soon that shows just how important that superintendent and principal or building leader relationship is, but sometimes there's miscommunication or that principal role gets caught up in the day to day. But they're not as concerned about communication and marketing because they have so much else on their plate.

So I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about your relationship with the building leader and principal.

Debbie Critchfield: It's so critical to the success of what I did in my job. Now, I had a unique benefit, which was obviously I'd been in my district, lived in my school district, my kids attended and were attending schools at the time, but I had also been a school board member. And so I had built relationships with people. And so they trusted me that if I came to them and said, look, this is an issue for you and let me help you get the communication out, or I need you to put this on your reader board, or whatever it was, you develop those relationships so people trust you. That's step one. Superintendents are amazing at a lot of things. They're not amazing at getting the water to the end of the row, to use a farming analogy. You can tell them all these incredible things. Their focus is not on how I'm going to tell everybody else. And so smart districts hire someone or have someone that's specifically doing that job. 

My role with the superintendent was to make sure that they understood all of the issue and what was coming back from the community, coming from other teachers, so that when they talked about it, they had a really informed view about it. And they also knew all of the perspective so that they weren't stepping on landmines as they presented whatever the decision was. And then for building administrators, that's where I got a little more into the nuts and bolts of, hey, this is how you need to talk about this with your teachers, how we're going to talk about it in your community. And as you build that rapport with people, in the end they realize this is an important person in my life because they have my back. They're going to help me see what those landmines are before I get there, or they're going to help me avoid controversy or problems because we're going to get that communication out ahead of things.

Tyler Vawser: So communication, so much can be done behind the desk, but what you're encouraging people to do is get out from behind the desk. Where are those places that you can physically go that you think have the highest dividend? Right. You don't have a lot of time. Where should a communications director go to really start building those relationships internally and externally?

Debbie Critchfield: Internally, the place that is pure gold is the teacher's workroom at lunchtime. And I would schedule trips to schools absolutely around that. I would get in there a little bit early and I wouldn't even be like eating lunch or anything. I would just be in there visiting with people, and they're getting their lunch, and they'd sit down. And I would start with casual conversations that somehow ended up as group conversations. What are the concerns here? What are you worried about? That is the number one prime spot for learning and understanding where teachers are coming from and externally being where the community is. It might be a grocery store, it could be the service organization, but again, it's getting out and making yourself very visible and having people feel as though you're approachable.

Tyler Vawser: Did you find yourself asking questions when you're meeting with teachers at lunch, or would they kind of volunteer the information on their own?

Debbie Critchfield: Well, always questions, and at the first, people would be a little suspicious of me because it was like, well, she's at the central office, and, well, we would tell you, or, I don't want to say too much, or I don't want to get anybody in trouble. And that's where you build that trust of people. Not everything that was said in a teacher's room was something that I went back and reported. One, it wasn't necessary, and two, I could understand and respect that. Sometimes people were just venting. Teachers were venting about something. It wasn't a critical problem. It wasn't something district wide. It was just maybe something that happened in a day, and they just needed to get it off their chest. And that's where I go back into. I always jokingly said I was part therapist. You say it. But then there were things that when themes developed, it wasn't just building by building. 

Sometimes I went to the principal and said, hey, look, you maybe are aware of this or maybe not, but this came up in your teacher's room. You might want to keep an eye out for some of these conversations. Those types of things were important. Or I would get asked something like, we just don't understand why the district or why the superintendent or whatever. I always made sure that I followed up because I wanted to show them the respect that I heard you, and I'm going to take the time to follow up.

Tyler Vawser: That's so important. I really think it adds a lot of context, too. When you're crafting that email that's going to be sent out to everybody, instead of it being to a list of email addresses, you're kind of imagining those people in that conversation and how they might receive something right.

Debbie Critchfield: It makes it absolutely well. And then as I built up these relationships and my particular district, we had around 700 employees, which isn't a ton, but still it's a big industry if you think about it, or a business, if you think about it like that. I would have people email me back something that was like, I absolutely do not agree with what the school board decided or with what they're going to do. But Debbie, I know it wasn't your decision, but thank you so much for sending this to us so that we have all of the information. So I would get the negative and the positive responses, but it was always ended with a thank you for letting us know, or thank you for sending this to us. And so I know that that was appreciated.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's a high compliment. One, there's a relationship there, but two, it's pretty rare for someone to show appreciation within disagreements. So I think that's a real badge of honor for you.

What would your advice be to someone that's starting out? They're a new communications director. They might even be new to the community that they're in. And so how would you advise them on building relationships with those building leaders and with others within the school district?

Debbie Critchfield: Get out from behind your desk, your cubicle, your computer. You have to go into the schools. And so for me, I made a list of things that I wanted to do, even though I had some of the relationships. And of course, administrators and people change over time, and certainly in ten years, I worked with a variety of people, but I was a regular and frequent customer visitor to all of the schools. I was always checking in with the principals, and I had a routine that I would make sure that I could get on their calendar, even if I was just at the school for something else. I would say, hey, if you've got 1015 minutes, well, those 1015 minutes turned into sometimes 30 minutes or sometimes 60 minutes. In some ways, I felt like I was part therapist, too, to listen to what was going on or issues that they were dealing with, and then to know what was coming up. And that's where I learned a lot of the incredible things that I could then showcase about a particular school or in the community. 

And so I became a valuable resource to our school board, because if they were like, hey, we're hearing this or that in this community, what are you hearing out there? Well, this is who I've talked to, and this is what I know now. I kept confidences. I wasn't like, the town crier in that sense, but things that were important to keep confidential. But just in general, you could say, hey, here's kind of the tone of what people are saying about this particular issue. And then the other thing I really encourage new people getting into this to do is make a list of community leaders. Go sit down with the editor of whatever the paper is. I don't care if it's a free or free paper or whatever. Go to all of your service organizations. Start showing up to the chamber of commerce luncheons once a month. Go to your Kawanis, your rotary, whatever those organizations are. Go to the PTO meetings I scheduled twice a year, where I bought all of our parent PTA, PTO, whatever people refer to it in your state where I brought all of those moms in. 

I'd say, Bring your whole board in. I'm going to feed you lunch. And we'd have 30, 40 moms. Sometimes Dads would be involved in it too, and I would say, what are you guys working on? What are you talking about? Those were really important connections, because when the school district decided to pass a school bond or there was going to be a big initiative, I let them know, along with staff what was happening first. Those were some of the most influential, critical people to have it be informed. And again, who are those important business leaders in the community that you want to make sure that you're regularly checking in on? And, hey, this is what our school district is doing. When people feel important and special that way, it's amazing how they are the first to defend you. If something really crazy comes out, they'll think, yeah, that doesn't sound right, or, hey, Debbie, I heard this. This doesn't add up to me. And then I could say, because it isn't right. Here's what the story is. Those types of relationships and connections pay incredible dividends.

Tyler Vawser: I would imagine. Those are the relationships that are easy to put off, and if you wait until you need them–

Debbie Critchfield: It doesn't work at all.

Tyler Vawser: If you call someone because you need a favor and you have no relationship, it won't go very absolutely. So I like the advice about getting out from behind your desk. Go have the meeting, have the conversations.

Debbie Critchfield: Before the problem comes, and when it's a check in, hey, I just started in this job, and it's really important to our school board and to our superintendent and to our education community that if you ever have a question or a concern or, hey, here's some things we're working on. Did you know that we've got this great clothing drive that's coming up? Or did you know that we've got a real push on literacy and you share the good stuff, and then as you keep kind of these check ins going at the time when you really do need the community to have your back, they will have it.

Tyler Vawser: That's really interesting. So much of communications is just getting everybody on the same page, and especially when there's a press release coming out or there's a particular policy change. Is that the right phrase? Did you feel like your role was trying to get everybody on the same page, or was there a bigger goal than that?

Debbie Critchfield: I don't know that I'd say I feel that I know where you're going by saying everyone on the same page when it comes to what are the facts, let's have everybody operating from the same set of facts. It's impossible to get everyone on the same page as far as whether they agree or disagree. I felt like I was successful in bringing people together to hear things. Let's get the community, let's get some groups together. I'm going to go talk to this particular city council, or I would show up to a city council meeting and ask to be on their agenda so that I could explain from the district. I believe that the school district, you need to be the first and best source of information and not let secondary and social media tell your story. Who's going to tell your story? And when you do that, in the end, people may say, well, I like what you said, or I don't like what you said, but we can agree that you're getting the information from the source that is so important.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really good. What about with board members and the superintendent as far as getting them, in particular the board members, to share the same talking points? Right. Boards can have a lot of disagreement, and that disagreement can be healthy or unhealthy, but kind of when the books are closed and the doors are open again and it's time to go spread the news or the policy or what have you, it's important that it's a unit and that it's a team that's working together. Was that a very formal process where you're walking through these are the talking points. I'd be curious to hear how you worked with superintendent and board members to make sure that the message was clear and consistent.

Debbie Critchfield: Sometimes it's formal, but most of the time it's informal. It's so important. Outside of an executive session, which is of course, reserved for certain, at least in our state, there's only about three things that the board can meet privately about. Outside of that, you should be everywhere your board is. You go to every board meeting, you're at every work session, you're at all of the things. So that one, you thoroughly understand what is being discussed and then the points of view of each of the board members, particularly if they vary, because you're going to be the one responsible for capturing the discussion and then representing that. And if you haven't heard that firsthand, you can do it, but boy, it would be a challenge. And then this goes back to how you develop a rapport and relationship with your board members. And so when they trust you that you're representing what they're saying, then I'm able to say, hey, when you're out in the community, look, we didn't get consensus on this, but here are the ways that you can talk about it. And I have not met a board member that wasn't happy and frankly so grateful to have a way to talk about it. Some board members are good communicators. Most are. They're unpaid, at least in Idaho. Unpaid volunteers from all walks of life that just want to do good things in their community for kids and education. And so they appreciate having someone to say, here's how I would talk about it. Here's how to explain it. And yeah, you didn't agree with the board member sitting next to you, and you can talk about that, but we can do it in productive ways.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it might even be helpful right, at times to say we don't always see eye to eye, but we have to make a decision, or at some point we have to decide how we're going to handle these situations. And some of them are sticky, but we're working together. And I think that might be even it is helpful just as citizens, to understand you can work together and still.

Debbie Critchfield: Disagree on the there's some good that can come out of healthy disagreement when we don't always see eye to eye. It is good to have different perspectives. But to your point, how do we handle this? And then as examples in the community of how to handle disagreement, we do this in respectful, professional ways. And like I say, I haven't met a board member that didn't see that having some talking points or this is how we're going to talk about it. And for some board members, they don't want to talk about it at all. And so having that communications person for me in my district, they would say, everything's going to run through our communications person. We don't want to individually respond to this. We want you to put something together that this is our official statement. And there was some comfort for them in that as well.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's great. I love that. What advice would you give to a superintendent who has a communications director and wants to get more out of that working relationship, wants to have them step up more, or wants to be able to support their communications director more since you've been in that seat? What advice would you give to a superintendent?

Debbie Critchfield: They've got to bring that person in and not think of them as someone that just supports the district by shooting out an email or going to the Chamber of commerce. The communications person can really be a very trusted and helpful advisor, listening ear counselor for a superintendent. If the communications person is doing their job, they have the ear of the community, they have the ear of the educators, they have the ear of board members. And so as a superintendent is working through issues, I need to talk about this to our board. Hey, what are you hearing in the community? What are some of the things that you're hearing? You can bounce things off of that person. And I think that the relationship of communicator and superintendent is one of the most vital partnerships that a school district has.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really helpful. So far, we've talked mostly about internal stakeholders or maybe those that are kind of key positions, like a news organization or a local newspaper. What about the general public? So how did you approach external stakeholders knowing they have their own set of assumptions, they have their own inputs from news and different media, and they're not in house. They don't always have the full context. In a lot of cases, right. You might have someone, they're 65 years old. They don't have kids or even grandkids in the district or in the schools, but they're still voting for bonds. They're still hearing news about what's happening in public schools. How do you bring them closer into the school district and get them to hear your perspective and what's happening?

Debbie Critchfield: This is where having a really varied toolkit of communication avenues is so important. As you've pointed out, we've got different people that receive information in different ways. And so you don't say, hey, nobody reads the newspaper anymore. Well, there are people that read the newspaper. You're going to take out an ad. Don't assume that everybody has Internet at their home. Don't assume that everyone has a smartphone. And so I had this list, and I created it at the first just to make sure I didn't lose anything. But towards the end, I could just go down my mental checklist, and I would think, okay, did we send it out through our app? Yes. Did we send it as an email? Yes. Do we have it on a reader board? Don't overlook some of the most simple things as parents are picking up and dropping off kids. You've got a big sign outside of your school, I think. Did we put an ad in the paper? We had a regular spot on a radio show. Okay, went on the radio. Did I call the local news station? Well, nobody watches the 06:00 news. Well, yeah, there are people that do that. And so there were, I would say, seven to eight solid ways that anything that I wanted to get out, I put in all the ways. 

We had something one time where I literally went door to door and hung kind of these on doorknobs, something in a specific that only affected about 200 people in a community. And I thought, by Darn, I am not going to let someone say you didn't get to me. And so I went door to door and hung information on doorknobs that affected these particular community members. And so whenever someone would say to me, well, I never saw it, I never this or that, I was kind about it, but I would say, how do you like to get it? Because we had it on the news and the paper. I put it on your door. We put it through the app. It was on our website, it was through email. It was on our social media, all of these things. And then I would watch people not have a response, because it was like, oh, yeah, I didn't engage. Now, that's on you if you didn't engage. But I always wanted to make sure we covered all the bases. And so getting back to, your know, how did we do that? We did it in. All the ways that we had possible.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Jeffrey Collier, a superintendent in Michigan. He's been on this podcast and he calls it the Communications Buffet. You can't just have one, maybe, you know, the website's your preferred dish, but you have to think about all the other ways that people get communication and make sure that they can pick and choose what they want and how they want it.

Debbie Critchfield: Well, and speaking of the website, I will tell you that everything that we put out for information, it always included something about, and now go to our website, drive everybody to the website, because that's our land. We own that place, and that's where we have all of the extras. You're not going to put out a whole page worth of information in an app, in a push notification, or in a little blurb on social media, but it was always for the full information, for the full press release, for whatever it is, go to our website.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really smart. All these other platforms are distracting. You don't own it. You can't control it if you're on Facebook. Facebook's driving people to their own spaces, not to your so, yeah, I think that's really important. I've talked to a number of school leaders and when I asked them about how are you bringing in the general public, especially those that don't have kids in the schools, to engage with you? In addition to what you said, they're really focused on getting people into the schools, right. So where they can having an event in the school, obviously done safely and securely. But I think so often there's kind of a people imagine schools to be the way that they were when they were a kid, or they only see what's in the news, or they only hear stories. But when you bring someone into the actual physical space, they can't help but see it and understand it in a new kind of way. And I think it actually kind of brings people's guard down and makes them more open to hearing about what's happening in the schools in later communications, whether that's through the newspaper or the 06:00 news or what have you, they're actually more willing to pay attention after having that in real life experience.

Debbie Critchfield: Absolutely. I don't know what else to add to that. I think you said it very well, but certainly having a school carnival, that's a fundraiser, how do we bring the community in or offering the gym for a community meeting, or making sure that you're available, that it's not, hey, we're the school. We're closed off from everybody else. We're our own island. No, we are an integral part of the community. We're the heart of our town, and we're going to open up our doors, like you say, with provisions for security. But there are ways to do that. I'm always a little sad when I see an attitude that the school is for us, it's for kids, we're going to shut the doors and gosh at the end of the day, that's it. No, open up your gyms and let the fourth grade community basketball team have their games there on Saturdays. And that's how, again, we build those relationships. And then when you go and say, gosh, we got to fix that leaky roof or We've got to do this or that, people will be like, yeah, when I was in the gym or in the school, I remember this or that. But seeing ourselves as partners in the community is so important.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I remember there's a school district in Montana that they were trying to raise money for a bond. And what they chose to do, actually, was have the meeting in one space, and then they had everybody walk to the other building where there was going to be food, but it's outdoors, it's winter in Montana, and the community quickly realized, one, that walk is not very enjoyable. And then the second building where they had dinner was not nearly as nice as the first building, and so they understood, okay, we have two very different experiences. Also, these kids are walking in the Montana winter ten below zero, and I can see the need for the money now. Right. So again, getting them there, getting them to experience it firsthand is so important.

Tyler Vawser: Well, Debbie, I know you're in a different role now, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what that is and what some of the priorities are for you in that.

Debbie Critchfield: Well, my experience as a local school board member, I did that for ten years, and then I was appointed by two governors to be on Idaho State Board of Education, and that was the role that I had just right prior to deciding to run as our elected state superintendent. A lot of the focus for me is the same. I just needed to position myself in a different way to really get to some of the goals that I felt were important for families, communities, educators. And so I now am in a position to be the top advocate for funds for our budget, the K Twelve budget, and issues that I had over not supporting educators like I thought that we could. Now I'm in a position to be able to do that and to really provide the type of support and partnering that our local districts need and expect from the state level is also a big priority for me. So I still have the same passion for education and the same goals towards student outcomes, whether it's towards learning or skill preparation and making sure that an Idaho diploma means something when you graduate. I love the fact that I'm now in a role where I have the ability to really have the type of impact that I'd like to have there.

Tyler Vawser: That's awesome. You mentioned CTE career and technical education when we were talking before we started recording. And so I'm curious to hear you talk a little bit more about CTE and how that's become a priority in Idaho.

Debbie Critchfield: We have really focused since I took office in January and I talked about it for years before I was elected. We've really focused on Elevating career technical education and the preparation piece for our students. I feel as though many of our students have lost their interest in the same academic courses because they don't see the application of that knowledge. And many of our students, they come to school and they don't see why this is a relevant experience for them because we have education, at least in our state, and I think many states that have been it's been so rooted in only an academic pathway. You got to go to a university if you want to be successful. You need to have a four or more year degree if you want to have a good paying job. Now those things are still true, but we're also talking about the fact that there are many jobs out there that maybe take one to two years or you have an industry certificate that you can get. 

Our students want to have a jump start on those types of career choices while they're in high school. And so we talk about math and not every kid's going to need calculus. And if you don't need that because you're not going to go be a mechanical engineer, that's completely fine. But you may find that the math skills you need are more applicable to doing something in diesel mechanics or having something that's more related to graphic design and some of these other skills that are needed. And so I was able to, working with our Legislature this last year and with support of our Governor, to get a $45 million grant that will be available for our schools to use grades seven through twelve to create really specific answers to some of these questions of what are we going to do in our area to support industry needs, to support student interests all around our state. And so I'm excited. We've been able to grant $16 million this fall and it looks so different place to place. 

Idaho is geographically different. We've got our big urban areas towards our state capital in Boise. We're also an agricultural state, and top to bottom we look very different. And so I'm excited to see that our career technical investments are taking in something that reflects where they are. So in the north of our state, forestry, logging, timber, that's a huge industry. And you get into other parts of our state and it's more farming, manufacturing, mining. And so schools are now being able to take a look at that and saying, what class can I develop to help our kids be able to, again, get that jump start when they graduate? You've got all kinds of opportunities in front of you.

Tyler Vawser: Do you see schools within Idaho talking more to business leaders because of that curriculum and or because of the needs that the businesses are having. I'm very curious what that relationship looks like. And if it's evolved, it's going to.

Debbie Critchfield: Look better and it's going to so, you know, that's one of the goals that I have. We haven't really had those avenues of communication, and I think that that's created a lot of these gaps because we hear industry and local businesses say, hey, you're graduating kids, and we appreciate that, but they don't know some of the things that we need them to know. And so we're opening up and encouraging these types of conversations where we're matchmaking, so to speak, industry with education and hoping and assisting them in developing the curriculum that is needed to satisfy some of these things.

Tyler Vawser: That's interesting. I am kind of curious almost at a personal level about how you see schools thinking about both career technical education and also soft skills. Right. Because you look at the professional world, it's very much a mix of both. You need to be very good at a skill or an activity or a particular industry, but you also have to have these communication skills. You need to be able to show up on time, these kind of basic life skills that I think we sometimes take for granted. And so I'd be curious to know, is that part of the curriculum, as you're thinking about CTE and what does that look like when you're trying to match those two together?

Debbie Critchfield: Those are just absolutely critical elements of any learning that we do. And I think that the nature of our CTE classes lends itself to really supporting some of those things, maybe a little bit better than being in a PE class. However, having those transferable skills. As to what you're commenting on here, we want students to show up. We want them to be prepared. We want them to finish the project. You need to be able to work with people. You need to be able to follow instructions. You need to know how to be safe in a work environment. Those things really get highlighted and emphasized in our career technical classes. And again, the goal of education isn't just the knowledge for knowledge sake, but what do we do with that knowledge? Well, we want to apply it to whatever the circumstances or environment is that you choose. And so we want our students to feel like they have options so that when I graduate, I'm able to go drop into somewhere because I can talk to people. I know how to look someone in the eye. I know how to finish a project. I know how to report back what I've done. I know how to do all of these. Just these are lifelong skills.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really important. Debbie, I'm curious, as we get close to wrapping up, what have you taken from your communications director experience into this state level position?

Debbie Critchfield: Communication is where everything begins and start. You don't reach your goals, you're not going to get to the outcomes, you're not going to be able to collaborate unless you're communicating. And that means listening as much as it means sharing out. I can never overstate the importance of the communication, the listening, the understanding, how we take all of that information, who are we needing to talk to? Who do we share that out with? How are we going about this? And any goal or policy or objective or anything that we want to have accomplished? It really begins with effective communication.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's a great place to end it. Well, Debbie Critchfield, thank you so much for joining school. CEO conversation.

Debbie Critchfield: Thank you so much.

Tyler Vawser: SchoolCEO magazine publishes original research, interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in K12 Leadership Administration or in Communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you. Go to, click subscribe now, and check the box to receive the print edition of the magazine. 

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