Entering into District Planning?

Consider how your team will approach input-gathering.

In general, a planning process at any level that is designed to drive outcomes should include three phases: 1) a comprehensive input-gathering phase, 2) an intensive planning phase aligned to a defined framework, and 3) and an implementation phase that includes progress monitoring. The intensity applied to each of these phases can vary considerably. In this post, we will focus specifically on the input-gathering phase.

Input-gathering can take a variety of forms. In some cases, input-gathering may entail compiling and analyzing data and information that already exist. Resources could include, (but are not limited to), the most current district strategic plan, school improvement plans, student achievement data, student enrollment and demographic information, teacher retention data, teacher evaluation data, current financial statements, and more. On the opposite end of the spectrum, input-gathering could take the form of a full-scale, third-party district review. A few framing questions can help determine what level of input gathering will best meet the district’s objectives.

WHY is the district entering into planning?
Is the district charged with refining a previously established plan? Is the district coming to the end of a multi-year plan? Has district leadership recently changed? Have the needs of the students and families in the community shifted in recent years?

The planning “why” will help determine how much overhaul the district is expecting as part of the planning process. In general, if district stakeholders anticipate (or if circumstances necessitate) a significant shift in the priorities addressed by the current plan, more time and resources should be allocated to the input-gathering phase.

WHAT are the requirements of the resulting plan?
Essentially, what are the “buckets” that must be addressed in the plan? Is the objective to develop an improvement plan focused on academic goals, or a strategic plan that must also encompass financial and operational goals? Will the resulting plan focus on a single academic year, or will it define 5- or 10-year goals?

To help create a vision for the resulting plan, it may be helpful to map out state-defined requirements and examine a few exemplary plans. Establishing a clear vision of the resulting deliverable will provide insight into not only the volume and type of data that must be considered, but also into which district stakeholders must be involved in the process.

HOW will the district determine which priorities to address in the plan?
In other words, does the district have an adequate grasp on the challenges that must be addressed, or is some additional digging needed?

In general, evidence collection activities should be introduced to ensure that there are no gaps in the data “story” that informs the plan. For example, if existing parent surveys are used as community input, the district may introduce additional data collection methods (such as a focus group) to ensure that all demographic populations have a voice.

In some cases, a more comprehensive evidence collection and analysis process (i.e., a district review) is a valid consideration. A third-party district review and the resulting report can help surface trends that are not immediately evident to stakeholders who are immersed in day-to-day district operations. Furthermore, a district review can also depoliticize the planning process. (If friction exists among stakeholder groups and their perceptions of district priorities, an objective evaluation and written report can ensure that the resulting plan is fully aligned to codified areas of need.)

A District Improvement Planning Scenario

Let’s consider an example of a district embarking on the planning process. In 2021 SchoolWorks was engaged by a mid-sized Massachusetts district (15 schools) to support the development of a district improvement plan.

WHY: In this case, the district had an interim superintendent in place, who wanted to ensure that the planning process was executed with objectivity and transparency in preparation for a change in leadership. For this reason, the district opted to utilize an external facilitator.

WHAT: In Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires that both districts and schools establish a multi-year improvement plan and annual action plan for implementation. The state posts agency-level performance targets and associated strategies that may serve as a framework for district planning, and also publishes both a guidance for district planning and a collection of exemplar district plans. The resulting district improvement plan, as defined by these standards, would focus on academic goals.

HOW: Within the state-supplied district planning guidance, inputs were defined as district performance data, educator evaluation data, and community feedback. With these parameters, the district determined that it had access to the necessary input data that would inform the planning process. No additional, supplementary evidence was collected to inform the process.

To determine the priorities that would be addressed by the plan, the district relied on its district leadership team. All ten district leadership team members were asked to independently identify the district’s three greatest strengths and three greatest areas of need, as supported by data. During the early stages of planning, the facilitator created a collective list of all input, and stakeholders independently ranked the collectively generated list of strengths and challenges in order of priority. The top three collective challenges were presented back to the group at large. Once these “buckets” were determined, stakeholders entered into root cause analysis, goal setting, and strategy selection.

Consider the Why, What, and How
In sum, while there is no prescriptive way to “plan for planning,” some thoughtful consideration of the Why, What, and How can inform a smart strategy for input-gathering.

In this case, the state-defined parameters of the plan allowed the district to make use of existing data sets and forgo an investment in pre-planning evidence collection. (The district also maintained confidence that district leadership had an adequate pulse on priorities.) The circumstance of impending changing leadership inspired the district to consider the use of an external facilitator, who introduced and led a prioritization process that resulted in unified consensus around the goals of the plan.

Find Out More. If you’d like to learn more about SchoolWorks facilitated planning supports, reach out to us. We structure our planning engagements to meet your specific needs. As always, we’re here to help.

Plan your work and work your plan!

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