Strategic Planning: Unifying a Community of Many Opinions
by Shelley Sweet
This was not an apathetic school District community; it was a highly charged community with many leaders supporting different special interests. In fact, each year eight different District Advisory groups developed specific plans to promote their focus for the students.
But when a new Superintendent came into the school District he knew he had to get the disparate voices aligned. Together the Superintendent, the Board of Education, and the city identified the need for a strategic plan that would
- Be an important vehicle in improving student achievement
- Listen to and engage all of the communities’ stakeholders
- Provide a framework for improving programs, management functions, fiscal operations, and evaluation of District goals.
In speaking about the plan the Superintendent led with his values saying, “The plan’s primary function is to IMPROVE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT. It’s about instruction, it will always be about instruction, and nothing but the best quality customized instruction!”
Most importantly, the District coalesced around the 7 initiatives. There is a unified approach and a roadmap to get there. The strategic plan is a tangible document for all to see, and the Board of Education is using it to set priorities and make decisions. Groups, such as the District Advisory Committees, are integrating their needs into the appropriate areas. As the Superintendent said, “We have created a common language and common set of expectations about student achievement.”
In addition, the District benefited from a community driven approach. It valued the voices of the diverse stakeholder base, recognizing the importance of the majority opinion, and protecting the minority viewpoint as well. Significant community involvement expanded leadership capacity so there is new blood actively engaged with the District, with students, and across community organizations.
Students were seen and respected as visible leaders–on the Design Team, at the conference and in the strategic work groups. Their voices were critical. Students from ages 8 to 18 stood up, gave their perspective, and commanded attention. They reminded all of us of the purpose of the work, and the needs of their group.
I worked with the Superintendent to determine outcomes, deliverables and a timeline for the strategic planning process. We used a five phased approach.
Stage 1: Plan the Process
The Superintendent said, “We have created a common language and common set of expectations about student achievement.”
The Board of Education selected a Design Team, a group of volunteers representing the diversity of District stakeholders to work with me, the Superintendent, and a Board member to build the plan and ensure participation from different voices in the community. Inclusion was an operating principle from the start. And, when the initial team was not broadly based, the Design Team recruited additional members to ensure all stakeholder voices were represented.
Stage 2: Assess the Current Situation
Stage 2 involved an extensive outreach into the District’s two major cities. Stakeholders were engaged in a series of “Community Assessment Meetings” held at various schools, organizational meetings, one-on-one and over the Internet. These meetings generated information on how people saw the best of the District and learning in the schools, and what they wished for the future. It also germinated the theme for the common goals conference to follow next.
Stage 3: Common Goals Conference
The conference was a first for the District-a strategic planning conference with wide-ranging community participation aimed at improving student achievement.
The conference brought together students, teachers, classified staff, parents, District administrators, child development specialists and activists, community activists, and elected officials to answer the broad yet specific question:
How should the school environment and the community work together to design the classroom of the future, with excellence in learning and equality of opportunity for all?
The question clearly focused the conference on learning for all in the classroom, the value we had seen from the beginning.
After looking deeply at the past and the present, stakeholders envisioned a classroom of the future that would create excellence in learning and equality of opportunity for all. The conference managers summarized 6 goals from the work the group had done, but the students raised their voices to include one important area they felt had been left out. So the District has seven common goals, called Initiative Outcomes. They are:
- Abundant Resources
- Standardized Curriculum
- Differentiated Learning
- Equity and Equality of Education
- Schools as Community Centers
- Optimal Class Size
- Universal Access to Quality Early Childhood Education, Family Support Programs, and After School Care
As one Design Team member said about the conference, “The conference was the best thing. It brought a mix of folks together in one room, each with their own input, to hash things out and find common ground.”
Stage 4: Strategic Work Groups
For the remainder of the school year, seven Initiative Committees worked with the District to build action plans with timelines, responsibilities, measures, and budget to guide the District over the next three years. Additional stakeholders, who need not have attended the conference, were encouraged to join these groups. As one committee chair said, “The work group was where the rubber met the road, and we created real plans to define each initiative. We were stretched by working in a 3 month time frame, but it was important not to let this drag on.”
Stage 5: Adopt and Celebrate
In June the plan was presented to the Board of Education and adopted. To ensure implementation we identified an Accountability and Implementation Team.