Getting the Skinny from District Leadership

To deepen our learning about the district and its leaders’ aspirations for the future, we conducted extended interviews with members of the Senior Management Team, including the Chief Academic Officer, the Director of Special Education and Student Support Services, the Chief Strategy Officer, and the Director of Community Partnerships, during which we asked key questions about their desired future for the school district, their perspectives on the current state of the school district, and their thoughts on the upcoming strategic planning process. The process of conducting these interviews provided us with valuable baseline information about the strengths and challenges of the district and helped us get to know district leadership on a personal level. We heard over and over again that the district had experienced significant turmoil in recent years and that there were wounds to heal.  Therefore, we knew that it was important for the strategic planning process to highlight the assets of the district and the city rather than any weaknesses or limitations. By focusing the strategic planning process on existing strengths, and by asking them to envision an ambitious vision for change, we were able to move people from complaining about the past to embracing a more hopeful future. The history of the district was honored, but in the name of learning and moving forward.

We took copious notes during these interviews and synthesized them into a summary document. We referred back to the interview findings time and again throughout the strategic planning process.

Diving In:  Senior Management Team Retreat #1

Following these initial interviews and the approval of the scope of work by the School Committee, we held a full-day retreat for the senior management team to design the strategic planning process in earnest.  We drafted a detailed facilitator’s agenda and worked in partnership with the superintendent to do some fine-tuning based on her experience with the team.  

Postcards from the Edge

The day began with an icebreaker in which we laid out a set of postcards, each featuring an evocative photograph or image, and asked each member of the senior management team to select a single postcard to represent their answer to the following question: “How do you hope your personal role in this school district will effect positive and lasting change in the district and community?” (As a side note, we used this same set of postcards throughout the planning process for various icebreaker activities. We purchased ours here.) This activity served the purpose of helping the senior management team continue to get to know us and one another, while also encouraging each individual to reflect on their desired role in the strategic planning process. In this way, each member of the senior management team could see how their particular role might contribute to the whole and how others’ work might complement their own. 

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Learning Together About the Change Process

A strategic planning process is an exercise in change management; therefore, we believe that it is critical for those leading the process to understand the characteristics of such a process—complete with the most common pitfalls. For that reason we asked the senior management team to read and analyze “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” by John Kotter (Harvard Business Review, 2007). We then led the team in a “text rendering” protocol, developed by the School Reform Initiative, in which they discussed key takeaways from this article. While we found the Kotter article to be particularly helpful, there are many others in the change management and organizational development literature that could work well. The point is for the group to arrive at a shared understanding of the key features of any organizational change process.

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The Necessity of Norms

Oftentimes, leaders believe that there isn’t sufficient time to develop group norms, as they seem “soft” compared to the nitty-gritty work of curriculum and instruction or budget and finance. We believe that developing and adhering to group norms creates a strong relational foundation for the difficult conversations that will inevitably ensue in a strategic planning process. Having a set of shared norms helps create a safe space, and keeps members accountable to one another.  At the retreat, the senior management team agreed to a set of group norms for the strategic planning process that carried over into other meetings. We put these norms on a piece of foam core board and hung them in a prominent place at every meeting.

Navigating the Swamp of Ideas

We believe it is vitally important for district leadership to have a shared understanding of the “swamp” of ideas, i.e., the assumptions and expectations about public education—both positive and negative--that are carried by the community and the U.S. population at large. The idea is not to dwell on these narratives, but rather to simply know what one is up against so that the strategic planning process can include ways to open up a more imaginative conversation within the district and the community as a whole. The Senior Management Team created its own “swamp” on a giant felt board. This exercise gave the team a chance to vent a bit, but more importantly, it helped them create a more aspirational story to share with others. Please see here for more information.

Using Video Prompts to Introduce Learner Variability

To provide the Senior Management Team with additional fodder for envisioning a bright future for the district, we then shared an excerpt from a video of a TEDx talk by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Todd Rose entitled “The Myth of Average.” This talk makes the point that there is no such thing as an average learner and that education systems should be designed “to the edges.” As you’ll see elsewhere in this guide, we used this video in many different meetings as a way of helping various stakeholders understand the need for change and the importance of designing educational systems that meet a wide variety of learning needs. It should be noted that we looked far and wide for compelling—and relatively short—introductory videos that could serve as prompts for productive conversation about the future of education. While there is an increasing number of videos about personalized learning and the importance of 21st century skills, many of these videos are about specific topics, not general surveys of why schools must change to meet the demands of a new economy and society. The Todd Rose video worked well, both as an introductory primer to 21st century teaching and learning and as a prime for thinking in unconventional ways about education. It worked well with many different audiences.

Developing a New Mission & Vision

Many districts will want to revisit their mission and vision statements during a strategic planning process, though every district has its own unique history around these activities that must be fully understood and honored.  If, on the one hand, the school district has a mission and vision that are well established and fully socialized in the district and community, these statements can become the guiding lights of the strategic planning process. If, on the other hand, the mission and vision are a bit dusty and not reflective of the district’s desired future, it may be time to hit the reset button.  In either case, this is a conversation to have with the superintendent and other district leaders, as they are best suited to gauge the receptivity of various stakeholders, including the School Committee.

At the retreat, the Senior Management Team determined that the draft mission and vision that had been created just a year earlier by the School Committee did not reflect some of the latest developments in the district and merited revising.   We asked them to reflect on what about the drafts did or did not resonate for them, which helped us begin to gather input on what the revised mission and vision statements might contain.

In the final analysis, the most important consideration is that all stakeholders have some role in shaping these symbolic statements; they help set the priorities of a district and community and keep participants grounded in their intended outcomes.

Strategic Planning Governance

Finally, we used the remainder of our time with the Senior Management Team to begin to set up a governance structure for the strategic planning process.

Initiative Mapping:  Senior Management Team Retreat #2

The vast majority of school districts have dozens of initiatives in place; and very few school districts have a coherent strategy for managing and monitoring district and school-based initiatives, that is, determining whether a given program aligns with the vision and priorities of the school or district, and is grounded in the core principles of the learning and developmental sciences.   At our second retreat with the Senior Management Team, we facilitated an elaborate initiative mapping exercise to uncover, analyze, and rank each and every district initiative. Almost 100 district wide initiatives were identified through this process. We used the Center for Secondary School Redesign’s initiative mapping exercise for this activity.

Once the rankings revealed the initiatives that were deemed to be of highest priority, we then asked the team to evaluate the effectiveness of each through a high, medium, or low rating. This served as valuable context for us throughout the planning process.

With the lessons from these early meetings with the Senior Management Team under our belts, we began the core work of the strategic planning process.