Our approach to this strategic planning process was guided by several core principles that defined how we aspired to conduct ourselves:
Acting as Facilitators
First and foremost, our role was facilitative. We believe strongly that the school district and the community as a whole are the creators and owners of the strategic plan. While we brought valuable strategies, tools, resources, and perspectives, our role was to enable district leadership and other stakeholders to develop a robust and effective strategic plan, one that is both ambitious and doable. Reflecting on the district’s relationship with New Profit after the conclusion of the planning process, one member of the district’s Senior Management Team said “We wanted to be the lead agents in the process but also needed a partner to help with ideation and logistics. This needed to be OUR process and New Profit got that beautifully. This is exactly why we had such a rewarding relationship with them.”
Because of our primary role as facilitators of the strategic planning process, we purposefully ensured that we were rarely at the front of the room making presentations. In a truly community-engaged strategic planning process, it is essential for both the community to feel empowered to provide their input/feedback and for the district leadership to own the process and stand behind it. This enables the district to respond directly to community feedback, which is much more effective than if the district were passively allowing the third party facilitators to address feedback and questions. To this end, we often prepared talking points for the superintendent and mayor to adapt to their own respective styles when presenting at events. We believe – and the leaders concurred – that they engaged with the process much more authentically than they would have had we been the presenters.
Our project lead also had regular one-on-one meetings with the superintendent. In between meetings, we kept a running list of agenda items and questions to discuss with the superintendent. If something truly urgent arose, our project lead sent an email or text message to the superintendent. Over the course of a few months, they developed a very close working relationship, which increased the trust the superintendent had in us and in the process as a whole.
Understanding City/District Context
As outside facilitators who are not residents of Salem, we attempted to enter with humility and to make clear that they, not we, were the experts on their city and district. In addition, we made sure to do work upfront to understand the city and district context. In order to gather more nuanced information on Salem, we reviewed administrative data from the U.S. Census Bureau (ACS 5-year estimates) as well as from the U.S. Department of Education (NCES IPEDS), and drew insights from in-depth interviews conducted with the district leadership team. This process was crucial as it allowed us to begin building relationships, identify specific trends, and understand the local context. It also equipped us with baseline information that allowed for well-defined and targeted discussions with district leaders.
To develop a deeper understanding of the city of Salem, the teams studied the following city level metrics:
- Economics (household income, wage distribution, occupation & industry review, etc.)
- Demographics (age, citizenship, race & ethnicity, language etc.)
- Trends in education (popular majors, degrees awarded by gender etc.), and
- Trends in housing & living (property value, occupancy rates etc.)
We identified underlying district-wide characteristics by analyzing patterns in enrollment, student achievement, and retention. We also examined statistics on educators and trends in funding to deepen our knowledge of the district. Finally, comparative analyses with other similar districts helped us draw insights on the relative needs and position of the Salem Public Schools.
Building on Assets
Oftentimes, in trying to improve an organization, it is natural to focus on what is not working. While every school district in the country wrestles with challenges, we believe there is much to be gained by assuming a stance of “appreciative inquiry,” (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) that is, by recognizing the existing “bright spots”—those aspects of the organization that are valued by internal stakeholders and produce value for the external stakeholders. Change can often be accelerated when these "bright spots" are identified and amplified, with an eye toward replication or the application of larger lessons learned.
A Whole-Child, Student-Centered Focus
All domains of development—cognitive, social, emotional, and physical—are intertwined and important to success in school and in life. Emerging science tells us understanding the whole child (Jones, 2015) and adopting a “student-centered” approach enables successful students to shine even more brightly and creates the opportunity for students who struggle to benefit from a variety of innovative practices that are showing promise around the country. A perspective that puts students at the center also helps us gain much better clarity about what the adults who serve children need to succeed.
The focus of a strategic plan is on the future. An effective strategic plan is regularly used and frequently revised to reflect new trends or developments.
It helps focus on the distinctive capabilities of the organization in its specific context, sets a formal direction for the organization with a proactive orientation, creates an environment of teamwork, where all participants can make more effective decisions and utilize their skills more fully; and provides external audiences with a concise basis for analysis, evaluation, and input. Our hope is that this guide will help districts develop a strategic plan that provides direction now – outlining priorities and a pathway to achieving them in the near term – but also serves as both an analytical tool and a working document that will guide the district’s action for years to come.
In our work with Salem, we aspired to put relationships first, believing firmly that so much more can be accomplished when relationships between and among people – within and across stakeholder groups – are continually strengthened. Given the wide diversity of the community, we also sought to design meetings that were inclusive and culturally sensitive. A relational model of leadership (as opposed to the more traditional hierarchical model) views leadership as residing not in individuals, but rather in the spaces among individuals. This relational orientation formed the foundation of the governance structure of the strategic planning process, which brought together heterogeneous groups for purpose-driven decision making.
In our work with Salem, we aspired to put relationships first, believing firmly that so much more can be accomplished when relationships between and among people – within and across stakeholder groups – are continually strengthened.
Given the wide diversity of the community, we also sought to design meetings that were inclusive and culturally sensitive. A relational model of leadership (as opposed to the more traditional hierarchical model) views leadership as residing not in individuals, but rather in the spaces among individuals. This relational orientation formed the foundation of the governance structure of the strategic planning process, which brought together heterogeneous groups for purpose-driven decision making.