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Lessons on Return Planning: From District Leaders for District Leaders

Lessons on Return Planning: From District Leaders for District Leaders

Strategic Planning  |  District Leadership  |  School Leadership  |  Return Planning

A bank teller, Jeff Bezos, and a Starbucks barista walk into a...school district reopening planning session. 

No, really. These may seem like disconnected personas, but in their book, Primed to Perform, authors Neel Doshi and Lindsey McGregor use all three real-life stories to explain how organizations should prepare their employees in planning a response to uncommon and changing situations. Each story, from the barista handling the inconvenience of running out of ice for a guest’s iced coffee order to the bank teller keeping their calm in the middle of a bank robbery to Bezos dropping everything to work with a team responding to a customer’s complaint in the early years of Amazon, illustrates a lesson that school and district leaders are facing now when it comes to reopening planning – the need for adaptability in an environment where the norm has been disrupted. There has been no greater global disruption in the 21st century than the one caused by the coronavirus. With school districts facing the long-term effects of the pandemic closures and planning for a reopening in the fall, the need to be adaptive becomes even greater. 

They go on to write that, “when we most need fluid organizations, we freeze them instead.” Districts are faced with an ambitious task. Across the country, education leaders are planning to reopen schools, either virtually, in-person, or some hybrid version of the two with varying degrees of guidance from the state. If there was ever a time for an organization to become more fluid, it is in this current context. We hosted a panel of four education leaders who are currently leading their district’s reopening planning to gather their thoughts on the type of fluid agility needed. Our panel included Dr. Jenny McGown, Superintendent of Klein Independent School District in Harris County, Texas; Dayna Hernandez, Associate Superintendent of Communications and Public Relations in Klein ISD; Dr. Eric Williams, Superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools in Northern Virginia; and Dr. Roberto Padilla, Superintendent of Newburgh Enlarged City School District in Newburgh, New York. Below are a few of the lessons they shared on our recent panel on return planning. 


Lesson #1: Remember who you are

One of the most memorable scenes from Disney’s The Lion King, this lesson is, more importantly, a reminder that in times of uncertainty, it’s easy to become frozen with the burden of too many unknowns. When planning a return to school in the fall, most districts already have a curated list of core values or unspoken priorities. Ms. Hernandez shared that Klein is planning their reopening with three strategic priorities aligned to their core values:

  1. Health and wellness of student and staff
  2. Excellent and equitable outcomes for student learning experiences
  3. Safe operations for facilities

These values empower their reopening team, composed of leaders across the district, to make decisions that are in the best interest of their entire community, rather than remain frozen while waiting for new information to come in. 


Lesson #2: Engage your community early and often

Dr. McGown shared that Klein is also conducting a series of community surveys to gather input on reopening planning early in the planning process. She and Ms. Hernandez have taken a transparent approach to communicating updates to the Klein community that are clear, concise, and timely. 

Dr. Padilla has taken a similar approach in Newburgh to assemble a reopening task force and aligned teams that include students, teachers, families, administrators, bargaining units, higher education members, faith-based leaders, and additional community members. While it is common to create plans and then communicate them, Newburgh is fluidly integrating communication throughout their return planning process. 

In Loudoun, Dr. Williams has engaged in a variety of focus groups where planning members are able to hear directly from and empathize with the students, families, and staff that will be most affected by their decision-making. This notion, that the district has called inclusive planning, brings in an ever-expanding group of stakeholders to provide directional clarity, even in the midst of sharing “simple, imperfect, and incomplete” ideas, as Williams calls it. This creates a better understanding of the immense pressure leaders are facing while also allowing for a variety of opportunities for additional voices to be brought into the conversation. 


Lesson #3: Plan for change, not perfection

In the book The New School Rules, Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black write that responsive organizations, the ones who are agile enough to thrive in increasingly changing conditions, focus on planning for change rather than creating a perfect plan. This notion of planning for change rather than perfection is not only a mindset for organizations to adopt during return planning; it’s a mantra of the ones who are leading the way. Dr. Padilla shares that Newburgh isn’t sitting idle while waiting for guidance from the state. His district planning team is composed of leaders and representatives that are “agile, nimble, [and able] to pivot quickly with new information.” Padilla’s best advice for leaders wanting to plan for change? Acknowledge that there will be no silver-bullet plan. “Whatever plan you adopt, you may need to be ready for intermittent closures. We don’t implement a scenario and activate it and then are done.” Teams are planning to be ready to flow in and out of scenarios if needed.


Forging a Path Forward: How to Design a Responsive Return Plan

Check out Part 1 in our comprehensive return planning guide series, as we share actionable strategies and ideas for structuring planning teams and responses.

Download Guide


Lesson #4: Work in sprints

Dr. Williams shares Loudoun’s tactic for working toward shorter goals in a lengthy process. The reopening team has planned by chunking their work into sprint cycles - a strategy Williams defines as “2-3 weeks of defined work with specific outcomes.” In their first sprint, Loudoun focused on gathering 45 division leaders to kick off the return planning process. In the second sprint, the Loudoun team brought in an additional 45 stakeholders to work alongside district leaders, and now in its third sprint, Loudoun is conducting focus groups that include parents, teachers, and students – a remarkable feat for a district that serves nearly 84,000 students. The heart of the focus groups is the presentation of narratives that show what a week in the life of a student would be if the district were to enact a specific scenario. 

Sprint planning is so successful in the business world, organizations like Google, General Mills, Spotify, and even LEGO use this as their main planning model. And it works, too. The LEGO brand is valued at more than 7.5 billion dollars, making it the top toy producer in the world, ahead of Fisher-Price, Barbie, and even Hasbro (sorry, Uncle Pennybags). In the education world, sprint planning, Dr. Williams adds, enables his team to make decisions on reopening with increasing community involvement so they are able to pivot as needed. 


Lesson #5: Commit to an action with the knowledge that you have

In a state of uncertainty, it’s easy for district leaders to feel frozen in their ability to make decisions. There is so much uncertainty about what the fall will look like, and vague guidance and recommendations from both state and federal levels, yet each leader recommended some version of having a bias toward action. Ms.  Hernandez shared that her advice is “to move as fast as you will, but as slow as you must.” Dr. McGown added that there are less than twelve weeks to the first day of school (less than seven at the publication of this blog) so it’s important to start with what’s known and unknown while drawing from existing guidance when possible. “When you do this, it helps you to feel like you have a greater locus of control.” 

Dr. Padilla says that he encourages leaders who feel paralyzed to move forward until there is definitive state direction to commit to a single action to start. “You can’t do it all at once anyway, so you might as well look at which [action] is going to yield the most right now.” He is inspired by how his community has modeled this in the age of school closures, citing how the Newburgh reopening task force is taking this time as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the future of learning in his district.


Lesson #6: Design with equity at the center

Finally, the coronavirus has shed a light on inequities that educators have known about long before 2020. The leaders engaging in reopening planning with a design thinker’s mindset are keeping their stakeholders at the core. While equity is often spoken about, it’s a common feeling among district and school leaders to feel like they want to move to more actionable steps. Dr. Padilla recommends starting with honesty. “If we are truly going to reimagine anything, then we have to name the barriers and conditions for children to learn. We have to move from rhetoric to action.” One example of how Newburgh did this in the early weeks of COVID-19 closures was by finding more than one way to connect with students. By week two of closures, Padilla cites, there were still 1600 students who the district hadn’t been able to connect with through traditional channels. The Newburgh team’s goal was to connect to ensure students were getting the support they needed – not to complete assignments, but just to make sure they were okay. By knocking on doors and leaning on community partners for support, Newburgh was able to lower that number to less than 100 families in the first few weeks. 

In Klein, Dr. McGown and the team define equity as “[knowing] every student by name, strength, and need, and [closing] gaps by personalizing learning.” She and her team first reflect on the biases and experiences everyone brings to the table and acknowledge that everyone enters conversations around equity in different ways and depths. 

In Loudoun, Dr. Williams states actionable steps his team has taken to truly design with equity in mind. For example, when faced with potential budget cuts, budgets for Culturally Responsive Instruction and professional learning opportunities to build awareness of systemic racism have been protected. Loudoun has even established a protocol for responding to racial slurs, as an example of moving toward actionable ways to create more equitable experiences for students. 

Reopening planning is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to systemic changes that educators and leaders are longing to see, but it is the first step toward reimagining learning in an emerging “new normal.” Operating as a school or district in ever-changing conditions involves more planning for change, more engagement with previously excluded stakeholder groups, and additional trust, transparency, and communication to bring communities and the highest levels of leadership to the same table. After all, your biology teacher and the local barista would likely say the same thing – those who survive uncertain environmental conditions (whether a pandemic or an ice shortage) are the most adaptable to change.

Are you working on plans for reopening schools this fall? Check out this free guide as part of our return planning series, with frameworks to help return planning teams plan for variable known and unknown scenarios.

Boldly Reimagining What is Possible: Return Planning for K-12

About Gabrielle Hewitt

Gabby Hewitt is a Partner at Education Elements, working directly with large and small schools and districts to impact student growth and success. She spent six years in the classroom as an 8th grade U.S. History Teacher, first in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and later with KIPP DC. In her first year in the classroom, she was selected to receive the Maryland Association of Teacher Educators Distinguished Teacher Candidate award. During that time, Gabby also wrote the county-wide history curriculum for middle schools and assisted the Prince George’s County Social Studies Department with the rollout and integration of the Common Core State Standards. Gabby led teams as both the Social Studies Department Chair and Eighth Grade Level Chairperson before leaving the classroom to train and manage the development of resident teachers in her charter network. As the Manager of Professional Development for the Capital Teaching Residency program with KIPP DC, she developed skills in planning and facilitating adult professional development, project management, and effective teaching evaluation models. Gabby holds a B.S. in Political Science and a B.A. in Mass Communication from Louisiana State University. She earned her M.S. in Educational Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Born and raised in New Orleans, Gabby currently lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and three little ones. When she is not working, you can find Gabby pursuing her passion for photography or enjoying a good cup of coffee.

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