Welcome to the Guide
An Educator’s Guide to Community-Engaged Strategic Planning was created to assist anyone who is interested in leading a public school district through a strategic planning process–or other planning process for change–that is heavily informed by the input and guidance of multiple stakeholder groups both within and outside of the district.
The guide mirrors a process that was facilitated by New Profit, in collaboration with Salem Public Schools in Salem, Massachusetts. While New Profit was secured by Salem Public Schools as a third party facilitator of the process, this guide can also be used by district leaders to lead a strategic planning process internally, without the help of an external facilitator. It should be noted, however, that the steps included in this guide are time- and labor-intensive, so it may be helpful to build capacity by partnering with a third party facilitator to lead and organize the process. In addition, an outside facilitator can help open up spaces for dialogue and learning that are much harder to secure by an insider, even if the commitment is solid.
Why Community-Engaged Strategic Planning?
As anyone who has worked in a school district knows, district leaders have an endless list of day-to-day responsibilities. They are truly "drinking from the fire hose" and are rarely given the time or opportunity to think big about what the future could look like for their district and students. A strategic planning process -- particularly one facilitated by a third party that can help do some of the heavy lifting -- provides them with this opportunity.
Historically, strategic planning has been the province of top-level leadership, who then “roll out” a plan to stakeholders, with an expectation of immediate buy-in and implementation.
Research has shown that such an approach can backfire (Kusy and Holloway, 2014), and that a preferable approach is to engage all stakeholders in creating a vision and giving life to it. In other words, people have a stake in what they’ve helped to create. While it would certainly be faster for the superintendent or management team to develop a strategic plan in a vacuum without any community input, such a plan would be far less likely to be successfully implemented because it was not built upon the input of the key stakeholder groups who will be affected by the plan.
How to Use the Guide
This guide is divided into sections that correspond to different stages and aspects of a community-engaged strategic planning process. The guide has links throughout to various tools and templates that we created to help scaffold the process. We have also included "What We Learned" sections on many pages, as a way of distilling some of the key lessons and takeaways we learned at each stage of the process.
Finally, it is vitally important to remember that context matters, that each school district and each community is unique. Thus, there is no cookie-cutter approach to community-engaged strategic planning. In fact, part of the beauty of the process is in identifying and articulating the unique assets of a particular locale in order to harness the best of what school and community have to offer.
That said, we have tried to extract the universal lessons gleaned from the Salem experience so that many different districts can learn from it, knowing that the tools and processes contained in this guide will need to be adapted according to the unique context and history in each district and community.
A Focus on the Future
At its best, an effective community-engaged strategic planning process is also future-focused—for a couple of reasons. First, it heads off the natural tendency of a district to get mired in the past and in finger-pointing about negative data.
Second, a focus on the future enables an entire municipality to help shape the destiny of its schools, which, in turn, shapes the destiny of the city or town.
It is a hopeful and life-affirming approach.
We argue that all strategic planning projects within school districts should include the deep engagement of the community and be future-focused. Our hope is that this guide will provide an overarching philosophy, as well as useful tips, processes, and tools for those who are interested in facilitating a future-focused, community-engaged strategic planning process on behalf of a school district.
Thank you to Salem Public Schools (Salem, MA) for trusting us to partner with them on their strategic planning process and for allowing us to offer them as an example throughout this guide.
This guide was developed with the generous support and partnership of The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation.
check the sidebar!
This guide is divided into sections that correspond to different stages and aspects of a community-engaged strategic planning process.
The guide has links throughout to various tools and templates that we created to help scaffold the process. We have also included "Key Takeaways" sections on the sidebar of many pages, as a way of distilling some of the key lessons and takeaways we learned at each stage of the process.