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The 4 Biggest Questions You Need to Ask Before You Start District Strategic Planning

By: Andrea Goetchius on July 24th, 2019

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The 4 Biggest Questions You Need to Ask Before You Start District Strategic Planning

School Districts  |  Innovative Leadership  |  Strategic Planning

In The New School Rules, Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black write that every district has experience putting together a strategic plan, and most follow the same process.  “We labor over these plans—sometimes over the course of 12 to 24 months—dreaming up the path ahead and detailing the resources we’ll need...Unfortunately, once we’re set to go, we find the situation has changed before we’ve gotten started. Technology programs or platforms may have changed or been discontinued. People have changed—in districts with a high number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, teacher turnover can be over 22 percent (Di Carlo, 2015)—and the new team isn’t up to speed. Policies have evolved and buy-in has dropped off.”  And with many strategic plans expected to expire in 2020, and many districts reporting that they did not hit their previous strategic-planning intended outcomes, we recommend you bring in different considerations for your next 5-year strategic plan. 

1. What does your district do best?

Before you start thinking about all of the things that you want to improve, take a moment and take stock of all of the things you have going for you!  What comes to mind when parents, alumni or community members think of your district? Are your schools the center of your community? Have you recently experienced a change in industry or an influx of new jobs in your region? Are your parents highly involved?  Do you have a state-of-the-art STEM program? It is important to celebrate what works! 

Celebrating what works serves two key purposes: First, we frequently hear teachers and school leaders lament that change can feel constant, overwhelming, and purposeless. By celebrating what your district is most proud of, you are communicating the progress you have made, successes that your previous plan supported and showing what needs to be a continued priority. Second, change can be difficult, and if you are considering a new strategic plan, there will certainly be some fear of loss or of the unknown by stakeholders in your community. By staying grounded in what makes your community unique you can reassure your stakeholders that you plan to honor the values your community holds dear. This will ensure folks are resilient when it does come time to adjust course.

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2. What did you learn from your previous strategic plans?

It is important to begin with reflection to consider where your district succeeded and where it might have fallen short in meeting the ambitious goals of your previous plans. Consider the language of your plan and determine if it was student-centered and family-friendly. What parts of your plan gained the most traction and how did you notice the momentum manifest in your communities? You might even consider if your plan was bold enough. Did you take a firm stance on certain beliefs or values? Does it represent you and what you do best?

Create a timeline for yourself to outline the process your team went through that led to your strategic plan. Include who was involved, the vision and purpose of the team, and how decisions were made. Then map out how you executed on your plan. Consider which initiatives took off most rapidly and why. We have found that involving your team in a group reflection of the process can be incredibly powerful, using a protocol like the Customer Journey Canvas.

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3. What do you want people to say about the process?

Strategic planning, as we know it, began in the private sector in the 1950s as a way to set clear objectives and actions in the business world. Strategic planning gained popularity in education in the 1980s, and school district planning incorporated a critical element that the business world failed to include - community involvement. School districts traditionally “decide, then engage” with their stakeholders. In this approach, stakeholders typically see the following: a five-year plan with some form of vision or mission that includes every current education buzzword with complex goals with numerical values and a laundry list of action items. When I ask teachers or parents about the strategic plan guides their district, I am often met with blank stares. When I think back to my time in the classroom, I cannot remember my district’s strategic direction. Districts put so much time and resource into the strategic planning process, we want to involve stakeholders early and often to make sure it sticks.

At Education Elements, we believe the process is just as important, if not more, than the plan itself. Engaging your stakeholders early is key to ensuring their voice throughout the plan. In our most recent work with South Brunswick School District in New Jersey, we aimed to create a planning process that represented the highly engaged community they represent. The strategic planning core team held public forums, a planning night, administered student surveys, and conducted empathy interviews in order to cull out the priorities of their community. In their resulting South Brunswick 2025 Strategic Plan it’s clear that the feedback from the community led to representative core values, mission, vision, and strategic objectives.

See how the leadership team in South Brunswick School District has approached strategic planning in their district and schools – watch the video.

4. Do you want to lead the process yourself or do you want to participate?

When done well, strategic planning is complex and at times, personal. It is difficult to narrow down your priorities or generate a vision that inspires action because your passion might not be the passion of the group or the right direction for your district.  You might be attached to certain words of syntax (you would be surprised at how many conversations we have been a part of where teams debate the merit of “an” vs “the”). Having a neutral facilitator can help focus the conversation, identify trends and summarize priorities. Consultants also have experience across multiple districts so they come equipped with tried and tested protocols that lead to meaningful discussions.

We hope that asking these questions developed from our experience with school districts across the country will provide some clarity, and guide you in defining your own direction and processes. If you'd like to take a deep dive into learning about effective strategic planning, and growing as a leader, join us at the Strategic Planning Leadership Institute! There are very limited spaces available, so register today to save your spot!


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About Andrea Goetchius

Andrea Goetchius is an Associate Partner at Education Elements, working with schools and districts to best meet the needs of all learners. Andrea enjoys collaborating with and connecting clients across the country to leverage a community of innovation as schools embark on a personalized learning path. Andrea began her career as a Special Education Teacher in Glendale, Arizona. During her time in the classroom, she coached and supported student teachers and led staff development. Andrea then worked for Teach For America as a Manager of Teacher Leadership Development where she coached and supported teachers to match their strengths and skills with the needs of their students. She has coached in pre-school to twelfth-grade classrooms with a focus on implementing Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in the classroom. In her current role, Andrea specializes in projects that bring personalized learning to scale across districts, regional centers, and state entities. She is passionate about the development of innovative leaders.

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