January/February 2017

Melissa Messinger is communicators coordinator for Evanston/Skokie School District 65.

In writing this article, I remembered a line from a Dilbert comic, “There’s no point in having a strategy if you aren’t going to pretend to follow it.”

This seems a fitting representation of how many organizations approach strategic planning. It’s often a box to check off an obligatory process leading to a long-winded document left to collect dust on a shelf. And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. With strong leadership by the school board and superintendent, a commitment to accountability, and authentic community engagement, a strategic plan can serve as a roadmap to guide continuous improvement across your school district.

In the fall of 2014-2015, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 launched a comprehensive strategic planning process to develop a five-year plan (originally three-year) led by the district’s chief strategy officer. With an expired plan and new leadership, the time was right to engage in thinking and planning for the future. The board and newly-hired superintendent, Paul Goren, had a shared vision to develop a “living” document that was both actionable and realistic, guiding short- and long-term work across the organization.

In order to create a strong and effective plan, the team knew it would take deep engagement by internal and external stakeholders: teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, community partners, and residents. It couldn’t be done behind closed doors or during executive board sessions. Integral to the development of the strategic plan was the district’s commitment to listening to its stakeholders.

In order to gain the necessary buy-in for success, the diverse voices within the community had to feel vested in the process and outcomes. From the onset, district leadership approached the process in an intentional and inclusive manner. As a result, more than 2,000 people participated.

While board members played active roles, their objectives were to provide oversight, encourage accountability in the long run, and reinforce the overarching commitment to community engagement. A board member served as the liaison to the process to keep the board abreast of progress and to ensure planning was on track. Knowing that communication was key, the board and administration brought in a local consulting firm, M2 Communications, and tapped their communications coordinator to develop a companion communications plan.

The District 65 Strategic Plan is grounded in seminal research conducted at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which identified five essential supports for school improvement: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, family and community engagement, safe and supportive climate, and ambitious instruction. These became priority areas within the strategic plan, in addition to financial sustainability, which was critical for the ability to deliver on goals. Through an open nomination process, five priority-area working committees were assembled to develop goals, strategies, and milestones.

Committee members were selected by district leadership to balance content knowledge and stakeholder representation. In addition, a board member sat on each committee. The board and administration were intentional about having genuine engagement and thoughtful dialogue in working committees. Through regular updates by the board liaison and superintendent, the board was able to provide the necessary oversight to ensure the established process was honored while allowing the working committees’ autonomy.

The communication plan focused on stakeholder engagement, two-way dialogue to ensure feed-back loops, and transparency. Multiple opportunities for engagement were offered — committee participation, focus groups, surveys, public comment periods, and town hall meetings. The working committees used the feedback gathered to inform plan development.

Whether it’s strategic planning, launching an initiative, or communicating a major change, it’s important to recognize that not everyone receives information in the same way nor do they participate at the same level. Offer opportunities for a heavier lift for those who want a more active role (e.g., serving on a committee) to less-involved yet essential opportunities (e.g., taking a survey) for those who want their voice heard but can’t commit to a high level of participation.

Make sure to complement traditional outreach and interpersonal communication with the use of technology. Some stakeholders get their news on social media while others may read it in your local paper. Just because you send a tweet or issue a media release doesn’t guarantee a strong reach. However, using a multi-faceted approach and tailoring the same message to a variety of mediums will do just that.

If you want to truly engage the diverse voices in your community, make sure you are reaching all audiences. Consider the languages spoken by students, whether your families have internet access, and where they may feel most comfortable attending community meetings. Remember, an informed community is an engaged community.

As a result of the comprehensive planning and engagement process, the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education could trust that the final plan, which was approved March 2015, was one deeply-rooted in community sentiment and reflected the issues and concerns of Evanston/Skokie residents. What ultimately made the plan a success was a shared vision of engaging the broader community and to honoring the collaborative process.

Nearly two years later, the District 65 Strategic Plan lives on. With a continued commitment to accountability, transparency, and an honest assessment of progress, the administration shares updates regularly with the board and community through semi-annual report cards and user-friendly quarterly reports. These documents include indicators to measure the extent and quality of strategy implementation across priority areas as well as student outcomes — the ultimate measure of district success.

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