School District 65 unveiled its draft strategic plan at a Strategic Planning Advisory Committee meeting on Jan. 28 and obtained feedback on the draft from members of that committee. Since then, the District presented the draft plan at three town hall meetings, and obtained additional feedback from community members. It has also obtained feedback through online comments and a survey of teachers. While the draft is still a work in process, District 65 is reaching the end-game.
The final plan, expected to be adopted by the School Board in late March, will guide the District’s work for the next three years.
At one of the community forums, Superintendent Paul Goren emphasized that the plan is focused on strengths that the District currently has. “To reinvent the wheel, that’s not our intent,” he said. “Our intent is to take what our strengths are in the District and to really move forward on that as well as doing some new work.”
“There’s excellent work going on that we want to leverage going forward.”
The draft strategic plan is organized around five priority areas: high quality teaching and learning, a thriving workforce, a safe and supportive school climate, family and community engagement, and financial sustainability.
Dr. Goren said the first four priority areas are based on research by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research that identified five essential supports for school success. The research, conducted in part by Evanston resident Penny Sebring, demonstrates that when at least three of the five supports are present, especially principal leadership, ambitious instruction, and collaborative teaching, schools will perform at a higher level.
The District’s strategic plan captures all five of the essential supports (with supports around principal leadership and teacher collaboration combined into a single “thriving workforce” dimension), said Dr. Goren. In addition to the school-level supports, the strategic plan includes a fifth priority area around financial sustainability.
In developing the draft plan, the District gathered input through 30 focus groups, many individual interviews, five working committees, an advisory committee, and an online survey. Candance Chow, a School Board member and liaison to the strategic planning process, said, “2,000 individuals have touched this process.”
The five working committees, each assigned to one of the priority areas, developed a goal and four or five strategies for their respective areas. The committees also decided on measures of success for each goal and key milestones for each strategy, and they cite research supporting each strategy.
“I see the strategic plan as something that’s really important for those of us who are working in the District and those of us who live in town,” Dr. Goren told the RoundTable. “But for those of us who are working in the District, it helps us to think about ‘How do we create the conditions for success in all of our schools?’ and ‘How do we build upon the work that’s been done in the past and ensure that the foundation for success is built for the future?’ And that foundation – if we really look long – is how do we actually help prepare kids for high school and beyond – for success in schools, success in life, success as young citizens in the community, and, then as they mature, throughout our communities.
“The component parts of the plan are that we invest in high-quality teaching and learning, with a thriving workforce that works in a robust workplace, that provides healthy development, and engages our families. If you take that and do that in a financially prudent and responsible way, we can build for the future.
“I take that whole package deal,” Dr. Goren continued. “It’s solidifying the foundation of work that goes on in the District as a foundation for the future. It helps me and those who work with me, but it helps me as the senior manager to manage the work, it helps us set priorities and helps us to think about what we need to do and must do and what we might have to pause on, so that we can actually pay attention to our priorities.”
He added that the draft plan is researched and based on best practices and “It responds to the voices that we heard and that I’ve heard across the community.” Dr. Goren said he has personally met with more than 100 community leaders since taking over as superintendent and has met with school leadership teams at each of the District’s schools as part of the strategic planning process.
“As a Board, we were excited to launch this strategic planning process as it aligned with the start of a new administration and a renewed sense of hope and enthusiasm,” said School Board members in a letter introducing the draft plan. “From the start, we have been deeply committed and remain committed to ensuring that this planning process is fortified by the voice and input of our entire community.
“Like the community, the Board is eager to have a strategic plan that is focused, sets clear priorities and is actionable. Setting focused priorities is a challenging but necessary part of our collective work. The best way to serve our students is by concentrating our efforts and resources on a set of key action steps, tackling each with thoroughness and fidelity.”
Ms. Chow said at one of the town hall meetings, “I feel confident that through the process we followed and the community involvement thus far, that the plan we ultimately approve as a Board will be one that will truly guide us in the next three years and improve the lives of children and families in our District.”
The goals and strategies for each of the five priority areas of the draft plan are set out below, together with a short summary of the narrative accompanying each goal and strategy.
1. High Quality Teaching and Learning
The Goal: “Promote high quality teaching that prepares all students for high school by delivering effective differentiation in an environment of innovation and continuous improvement.”
With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the emphasis on college, career and life readiness, schools are responsible “for delivering very high levels of achievement for all students so that they can thrive in the globalized community of the 21st Century,” says the draft plan. While the goal is stated in terms of preparing “students for high school,” Dr. Goren said at one the town hall meetings that the language would need to be tweaked to include preparing students for high school, college and careers and life.
Strategy # 1: “Implement differentiated professional learning models that support collaboration and innovation for all adults in the District.”
Providing effective professional development is a key part of the plan. Professional learning is embedded in each of the four priority areas that aim to improve student learning, a thriving workforce, school climate and family engagement.
The strategic plan recognizes that two years ago District 65 began to develop Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in each school. The District plans to strengthen the PLCs as a vehicle for professional learning, and to provide a model for small groups of teachers to come together regularly to share expertise to improve their practice. In addition to professional learning, PLCs can foster greater collaboration, reduce classroom isolation and spread best practices throughout a school building.
Many high performing school districts have been implementing PLCs not only to improve “the skills and innovative capacity” of their teachers and staff, but also “the job satisfaction and retention of excellent teachers,” says the draft plan.
Strategy # 2: “Improve curriculum quality and reinforce curriculum implementation by equipping teachers with a coherent instructional framework used to define high quality curriculum and instruction.
The District’s 2014 achievement report shows that 43% of the District’s students enter high school without attaining college-ready test scores in reading. For math, the percent is 56%. “Continued and accelerated improvement in the quality and consistency of our curricula is vital for the success of our educational efforts,” says the draft plan.
“We have to be at the cutting edge of what’s important in our fields,” said Dr. Goren.
As a first step, the District will assess the quality of its curricula and of its implementation. Simultaneously, the District will move forward with several priorities. As an example, the draft plan says, “[W]e will adopt a new curriculum for English as a Second Language (ESL) from kindergarten through eighth grade so that we can better meet the needs of our growing population of English learners and their teachers.” At a townhall meeting, Dr. Goren said this did not signal a termination of the Two Way Immersion (TWI) program.
District 65 will also move forward in implementing “Disciplinary Literacy” – an approach to literacy instruction that will challenge students in grades 3 through 8 to read, write, speak and reason as practitioners of various disciplines, such as language arts, science, social studies, and the arts. This approach is designed to increase critical thinking in each discipline, said Ms. Chow at a town hall meeting.
Because Disciplinary Literacy requires a solid reading and writing foundation for all students, the draft plan says, “District 65 will continue to focus on building that foundation based on work already accomplished in early literacy.”
The Joint Literacy Goal that was adopted by Districts 65 and 202 in January 2014 calls for the implementation of Disciplinary Literacy.
Strategy # 3: “Employ additional specific research-based instructional strategies that address diverse student needs to ensure children meet their full potential.”
“We will work to improve instruction for all students: both those who are academically advanced and require additional challenge and those who are lagging academically and need additional support. In this latter category, our approach focuses on three groups: our lowest performing students, students with disabilities, and English-language learners.”
The draft plan explains that the District will focus on these groups because the number of District 65 students in the lowest national quartile increased during the last four years, and that group includes high percentages of students who are English-language learners and students who have a disability. In addition, the number of English-language learners in the District has shown “tremendous growth” in recent years.
“Although we have selected three student groups to focus on,” the strategic plan says, “this work will also build a strong foundation for excellent instruction for all students. It will do so by further building teacher capability with differentiation (i.e., meeting the instructional needs of students at varying academic levels in the same classroom).
Strategy # 4: “Use evidence-based feedback for individuals and groups of students to improve differentiation and target instruction.”
This strategy focuses on differentiated instruction, which was mentioned over and over again in the community forums. The Committee agreed that differentiation is essential to help “both students who are struggling and those who need additional academic challenge to meet their potential and stay engaged.” To accomplish these objectives, “the Committee heard that teachers need additional tools and skills.” This strategy identifies ways to build those tools and skills.
“We need to double-down and triple-down to make [differentiated instruction] work better,” said Dr. Goren. He added that the District will have to “tap into different styles of differentiation” to develop “critical thinking” and “creative processes.”
Strategy # 5: “Build students’ executive functioning skills to promote academic and personal success.”
The strategic plan says improved executive functioning skills (e.g., focusing on what is important, how to organize the day) will assist students in achieving academic success. The District plans to develop teachers’ knowledge about executive functioning, so they can integrate it into the core curriculum and work with each student to set personal goals.
Dr. Goren said executive functioning includes preparing kids to come to school with a “willingness to learn,” “ready to learn” and “knowing they can do well today.”
2. Thriving Work Place
The Goal: “To foster a collaborative, creative, and inclusive workplace that attracts, develops and actively supports the best talent.”
“Our talented employees are the heart of District 65, and a thriving workforce is the heart of this strategic plan,” says the draft plan. “Without a skilled and knowledgeable workforce, we cannot successfully implement any of the strategies we have developed. District 65 has 1,121 full time and 314 part-time employees, spending approximately 80 percent of its operating budget on human capital.
“This plan builds on the foundation of exceptional work already being done by these employees.”
Strategy # 1: “Design an infrastructure to support and monitor high-quality professional learning for all employees that is aligned to the priorities outlined in this plan.”
The District plans to provide high-quality professional learning that is delivered in an effective way, recognizing research that found that depending solely on workshops is ineffective. The plan says that professional learning will be built on the foundation of school-based PLCs, that it will draw on professional learning models that are compatible with school-based PLCs, that it will be aligned with teachers’ needs and interests, and be aligned with the District’s priorities.
The District also plans to develop a professional learning calendar that will include a priority-setting process to ensure that the time and money spent on professional learning are well used.
Strategy # 2: “Develop and implement an annual recruitment plan that addresses timing, candidate sourcing, the diversity of the workplace, the hiring and interview process, and new-hire orientation and support.”
“By investing resources in this strategy, the committee envisioned attracting a larger number of outstanding candidates, increasing the knowledge and skill level of candidates selected and hired, making more timely offers of employment to maximize likelihood of acceptance, and increasing the likelihood of retention through an effective onboarding process,” says the draft plan.
The District also envisions that this strategy will help increase the diversity of the District 65 workforce in terms of skills, experience and demographics.
Strategy # 3: “Create a culture of collaboration, trust and support across the system.”
Research shows, “Collaboration and trust between employees are highly correlated with improved outcomes for students.” Building this culture is “likely to also improve the satisfaction of employees and the District’s ability to recruit and retain top candidates for all job categories,” says the draft plan.
The District plans to “implement this strategy in collaboration with its employees.”
Strategy # 4: “Articulate career pathways that provide multiple growth opportunities for teachers, educational support personnel, and administrators.”
“The committee affirmed a vision of District 65 not only as the best place to start a career, but the best place to develop and grow in a career,” says the draft plan. Not only do we want to attract the best talent, but we also want to honor, support and develop the teachers and educational support staff who currently work in District 65.”
To implement this strategy, the District plans to “create opportunities for staff to develop and grow professionally, in and out of traditional career pathways.” In addition, the District plans to explore pathways for professional growth that do not require a teacher to give up his or her work in the classroom.
3. Family and Community Engagement
The Goal: “Cultivate and strengthen intentional and meaningful partnerships with all families and community agencies to serve and benefit families and children.”
“District 65 is committed to creating a variety of ways to engage and welcome families into our schools,” says the plan. This includes strengthening existing relationships with families and community organizations and being more intentional in order to reach all families, including “those who are not connected, have historically been disengaged or who simply do not feel welcome, heard or comfortable in our schools.”
If family engagement is increased, the draft plan says, “student learning and growth will be positively impacted.”
Strategy #1: “Create a variety of opportunities that connect, engage, and sustain families as partners. Families and school staff are partners in supporting each child’s school experience.”
“A variety of barriers to family involvement during and after the school day exist,” says the draft plan. The District will conduct an in-depth assessment of what is happening in each school; it will modify and expand the number and type of engagement opportunities to help more families to overcome these barriers and find ways to connect to the schools; and it will strengthen the school infrastructure needed to create and sustain engagement pathways.
Strategy # 2: “Match community resources with the highest priority needs through a District and school community engagement system and infrastructure.”
The draft plan says the programs provided by community organizations at and around the schools are “not always driven by need or connected to specific outcomes.” In addition, “some community organizations report difficulty in understanding how to partner with schools.”
The plan says, “the District will clarify and simplify the process for potential partners by creating a means to make each school’s priorities and needs more transparent, ultimately matching resources with need.”
Strategy # 3: “Leverage lessons learned from the Community Schools model as a way to make schools a hub for resources.”
The District is piloting a “community school” at Chute Middle School, which is designed to empower parents and to bring programs and resources into the school. “It’s a rich model with lots of potential and excitement,” said Dr. Goren. At Chute, staff reports an increase in the level and frequency of family involvement and an increase in the programs offered by community partners at the school.
The District will assess the pilot at Chute and consider modifying and expanding the community school model to other schools or to expand some of its successful practices to other schools.
Strategy # 4: “Build school and District level staff capacity to effectively engage families.”
Again, professional development is key.
4. Safe and Supportive School Climate
The Goal: “Ensure all District 65 Schools have positive school climates built upon clear and equitable policies and practices where all members of the school community feel emotionally and physically safe, included and accepted.”
“A positive school climate – consisting, in part, of the web of relationships between a school’s staff, students, families and community members – provides a strong foundation for engaging families, ensuring collaboration between adults and delivering high quality instruction to children,” says the plan. “Creating healthy relationships between members of the school community creates an environment where all children can learn and grow.”
Strategy # 1: “Implement Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs at all schools in the District.”
“The committee concluded that incorporating instruction on social and emotional competencies into the academic curriculum must be a focus for District 65,” says the draft plan. “By investing effort in teaching students skills such as resilience, perseverance, self-regulation, empathy, focus and interpersonal relations with diverse classmates, we can not only contribute to positive school climate, but also equip all students – those with behavioral problems and those without – for success in life after school.”
“Committee members agreed that social and emotional skill instruction need not come at the expense of academic subjects; rather, it can enhance students’ ability to participate well in academic areas.”
The District plans to conduct an audit of programs already in place that contain elements of SEL, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS), Peace Circles, and Restorative Justice, and “leverage what is already in place as we work to expand the consistency and quality of SEL across the District.”
The District also plans to pilot promising programs.
Strategy # 2: “Develop staff knowledge of social and emotional development in children, and its application to classroom routines, so that they can work with all students, particularly those with challenges.”
Here again, professional development is key. The District plans to provide staff with training to increase their knowledge about the social and emotional development of children, including those with particular challenges, and to assist them to apply that knowledge in the classroom.
The District also plans to pilot a more-intensive coaching model in two schools.
Strategy # 3: “Create school climate action teams in each school that will review data on student academic progress, student social and emotional learning, school wide disciplinary activities, and access to culturally responsive instructional and support strategies.”
This strategy puts a focus on a culturally responsive curriculum. “The committee agreed that when schools incorporate culturally responsive educational practices within the core curriculum, it promotes students’ belief in themselves as effective learners, improves student motivation and increases a respectful engagement in academics,” says the draft plan.
The District plans to create “school climate action (SCA) teams” that will review data and practices within their schools and coordinate with the PBIS teams in their schools. The SCA teams will build a vision and plan for promoting school climate that is shared by the school community; oversee implementation of SEL; develop a comprehensive system to engage or re-engage students; and create an environment where all feel safe, welcome and supported,” says the draft plan.
5. Financial Sustainability
The Goal: “Ensure long-term financial stability of the District with resources aligned to priorities.”
District 65 is facing projected operating deficits and a backlog of capital needs. Maintaining a strong financial position “is foundational to all other areas of this strategic plan.”
Strategies 1 and 2 include revising the budget documents to ensure they are “easy to understand and easily accessible;” and creating a new budgeting process that “will ensure resources are allocated to priorities that align with District goals.” Strategies 3 and 4 recommend the District consider both a capital referendum and an operating referendum.
Strategy # 3: “Effectively communicate to the community District 65’s long-term capital needs and financing options including the consideration of a capital referendum.”
“Like most districts around the state, District 65 has a backlog of unmet capital needs,” says the draft plan. “Some projects have been on the Capital Project List for more than ten years. The cost of the capital project backlog exceeds $100 million. Projects are funded based on a series of priorities, including building condition, emergencies, life-safety or other legal requirements, or current technology needs.”
In order to ensure transparency and foster community understanding of the District’s capital needs, the draft plan calls for the District to post the lists of its capital projects and needs on its website in an easy-to-understand format. The committee also recommends the District consider a capital referendum.
Strategy # 4: “Seek additional revenue sources including the consideration of an operating referendum.”
District 65 has projected significant operating deficits beginning in fiscal year 2017. These deficits may increase due to a low consumer price index, which limits the amount the District may levy for property tax revenues. The operating deficits may also increase if State income taxes are not increased, if the State freezes property taxes, if the State changes the way in which it funds education, and if the State shifts the cost of funding pensions to school districts
The strategic plan calls for the District to explore securing additional revenues, such as payments from TIF funds, new or increased fees, special or competitive state or federal grants, payments in lieu of taxes, or additional revenue that could be secured through a successful operating referendum.
Each goal in the draft plan is accompanied by specific “Measures of Success.” For example, one of six measures of success for the High Quality Teaching and Learning Goal is the “percent of students at or above college readiness benchmarks established by NWEA in reading and mathematics on the MAP test at the end of second, fifth and eighth grades.”
In addition, each strategy contains “key milestones” which are action steps to be taken to implement the strategy in the first year of the plan. Administrators are also developing a “detailed work plan” that specifies how each strategy will be accomplished in three years.
Once work plans are complete, the administrators will develop tools to evaluate how well the strategies are being implemented. The District will also track whether the measures of success identified for each priority area are being met.
The School Board is scheduled to meet on March 2 to discuss a revised draft plan and to select several overarching student-outcome measures to serve as the ultimate measure of the District’s success, said Ms. Chow.
Dr. Goren told the RoundTable it was a rewarding process to work with the community in developing the draft strategic plan. He added, though, “Our work doesn’t end with just the issuance of the strategic plan. The commitment is to stay connected and to connect with those who we haven’t engaged in the strategic planning process. I want to celebrate the engagement, but not to rest on our laurels. I think there’s more and more that we can do to engage people as we move forward.”