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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


November/December 2017

Practical PR
Combine strategic planning, community engagement
by Brett Clark

Brett Clark, APR, is a school board member for Itasca SD 10 and director of communications and marketing at the Consortium for Educational Change.

While every school district in Illinois must have a strategic plan, the impact and power of the plan are directly related to who helped create it. Enlisting the participation of all stakeholder groups — including the board of education, certified staff, support staff, union leaders, administration, parents, students, and community members — ensures the plan reflects the values and beliefs of the community

While in many districts the superintendent and/or board of education create the strategic plan independently, a stakeholder-engaged process is more likely to result in a plan that is owned by the entire community and that will function as a guiding document for the future direction of the school system

 The advantages of including stakeholder voice throughout the strategic planning process include:

  • Increased knowledge about the current state of the district by stakeholders
  • Higher likelihood that all ideas are considered for improving the school district
  • Opportunity for the school district to gather community perceptions
  • Embracing stakeholders that may feel left out of the school district
  • Support for the implementation of the strategic plan both internally and externally

While the advantages are persuasive, successful implementation of community engagement in strategic planning takes a dedication of time and resources. It also means truly listening to the ideas of individuals outside of the inner circle of a school district. There are many ways to include stakeholder voice and input into the strategic planning process. The Consortium for Educational Change (CEC), a non-profit organization that supports school districts in many areas including strategic planning, has developed a specific process to engage stakeholders in the strategic planning process

The approach includes establishing a strategic plan team, which typically includes about 40 members

The team can be larger or smaller depending upon the size of the district, but the actual number is not as important as ensuring that the team represents a cross-section of the school district community. A good guideline is for one-third of the participants to represent leadership (board of education, central office administration, school principals); one-third to represent schools (union leadership, teachers, support staff); and one-third to represent community (parents, non-parent community members, students). Using a consensus decision-making model, the plan team participates in three full-day and two half-day meetings over the course of approximately five months to create the plan. Following all that work, a draft plan is presented by the superintendent to the board of education for its consideration

 Transparency is a key aspect of successful community engagement. One main way to achieve that is by creating a website dedicated to housing all of the data, presentations, and information provided to the strategic plan team. This allows anyone in the community the opportunity to follow the process and understand the information that is influencing the draft plan

In order to allow all stakeholders the opportunity to provide feedback on the strategic plan, several strategies can be employed. Within the CEC process, this means gathering input up to four times to ensure the team is reflective of the opinions and ideals of the community as a whole

The first opportunity occurs prior to the first strategic plan team meeting through a survey to gather perceptions and opinions of staff, students, parents, and community about the future direction of the school district

This helps the team understand community perceptions at the start of the process

During the first full-day meeting, the strategic plan team produces a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis

Community engagement sessions are then held to provide the community with an opportunity to provide feedback on the SWOT analysis. Separate sessions are held for staff and community. Typically, those sessions begin with an overview of key data and information about the district to provide context. The attendees are then invited to interact with the SWOT analysis. They can suggest additional items to the SWOT and provide their opinions about which items they agree with strongly and which they disagree with strongly

For those unable to attend a community engagement session, a survey can be created to gather similar information. This process produces themes that are shared with the team so changes can be made to the SWOT analysis, a document that strongly influences the final plan. By engaging stakeholders, it ensures that the team is on the right track, provides an opportunity to educate the community about the current state of the school district, and sends a clear message that stakeholder feedback is important to the school board and school district

 During the second meeting, the strategic plan team creates a preferred future statement (or vision statement). That information is shared with the community and feedback is gathered through a survey

Based on that feedback, themes are again gathered and shared with the team, which determines if changes need to be made to the preferred future statement. By looking at themes within the data, it ensures that only thoughts and opinions shared by a large segment of the community are considered when looking at potential changes to the direction set by the team

A draft of the strategic plan including mission, vision, values, goals, and strategies is produced during the third meeting. That draft plan is shared with the community through a survey that provides an opportunity for both qualitative and quantitative data. In this survey, stakeholders are asked to consider each aspect of the draft plan and provide feedback. Trends in the data are shared with the strategic plan team and are used to consider final changes to the draft plan during the final half-day meeting that occurs prior to presentation of the strategic plan to the board of education

Throughout the entire process, the board of education is provided updates. This means the final plan presented for approval is a document that contains no surprises for the board of education

This process ensures that the approved strategic plan represents thinking and ideas beyond just the seven board members and superintendent

Following approval, there needs to be a focus on communicating the progress toward reaching the strategic plan goals to both the board and the community. One of the best ways to accomplish this is for the board of education to receive periodic progress monitoring reports and a yearly update

Including community engagement in the strategic planning process is a time and labor-intensive process. Unless the board of education and superintendent are willing to listen and implement a direction set by the community as a whole, a process like this should not be considered. However, if that willingness exists, several goals can be reached by engaging stakeholders including more informed internal and external communities, a strategic plan that reflects the ideas of all stakeholders, and perhaps most importantly, a deep investment by stakeholders in the future direction of the school district

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