(Part Two of a Two-Part Series)
Four months ago, as the Friday team prepared to spend the summer taking school leaders through a strategic-planning bootcamp, the following questions were top of mind:
- Will a short-term crisis turn into an everyday reality?
- Can long term-strategic planning be valuable in a crisis?
- Could a pandemic actually present a unique opportunity to innovate?
- Will the level of overwhelmedness and uncertainty decrease for school leaders, students, and families?
After helping 15 school leaders develop strong reopening plans grounded in a long-term strategic vision, we have more clarity on these questions, as well as some guidance and resources for schools in need of support.
Unfortunately, the crisis has turned into our everyday reality as many school leaders returned to school by extending their distance-learning model. And school staff, parents, and kids are exhausted from the continuous scramble. On the flipside, strategic planning has proven its worth in times of crisis, revealing “lightbulb moments” and helping leaders get a clearer understanding of their ultimate goals.
“The connection between short-term planning and long-term planning is now clear in my mind—and becoming more clear in our strategic plan. Now, when I think about reopening our school, I have a much better sense of both the forest and the trees.” —Stacy Emory, Executive Director, San Carlos Charter Learning Center
Before we share more about our process and provide you with tools to start your own planning, here are some takeaways from our summer cohort:
- Long-term planning provides short-term motivation: Leaders were able to get out of survival mode by establishing a vision for what’s possible on the other side of the crisis. Leaders’ confidence was restored by connecting short-term decisions to long-term solutions, and leaders felt empowered to seize the opportunity presented by the crisis to not only respond, but adapt and re-invent.
- A design thinking approach to strategic planning provides structure and flexibility: With frameworks for continuous evaluation, leaders were encouraged to reflect on past circumstances and plan for the future. For example: What did we need before that we don’t need now? What do we need now that we never needed before? What do we have that we can re-purpose in new ways?
- School leaders need a space where they can be vulnerable about failures, open with questions, and generous with resources: During and after the cohort, school leaders reported lower levels of anxiety, a high degree of learning, and access to a wealth of new resources and knowledge.
- Engaging staff in strategic planning exercises enriches the process and outcomes: After modeling strategic-planning exercises with the leadership group, we discussed how they might adapt these exercises to engage their staff. Many reported repeating the exercises with staff, and those diverse viewpoints strengthened their planning even more.
- Strategic planning is a meaningful way to train new leaders: Schools participated in teams of 3-4, some of whom were newly appointed vice principals early in their leadership career. At the end of the cohort experience, these new leaders reported greater awareness of the skills and responsibilities of school leadership and they felt more equipped to step into the role.
- It’s possible to build relationships and community virtually: Our entire process was facilitated in a virtual environment—through the use of breakout rooms, virtual whiteboards, and play, we were able to collaborate and communicate effectively and build enduring relationships. Our summer cohort requested 3-, 6-, and 12-month check-ins to stay updated on each other’s progress.
As noted in our last post, our process was structured around a four-question framework. For inspiration, here are some sample insights that our cohort participants reported at each phase of the process. And for guidance, we’ve also included some of the tools we developed to help you guide your own strategic planning exercises:
1. What opportunities and challenges do we face? Develop a clear picture of our new reality and identify the most pressing challenges and risks to our model and the communities we serve.
We asked school participants to complete a PEST Analysis: a summary of opportunities and threats due to Political, Economic, Social, and Technological forces.
We then asked schools to assess how their organization is equipped to respond to these changes by completing a SWOT Analysis: What are the strengths and weaknesses of our program (S&W)? How are we positioned to capitalize on opportunities (O)? How can we mitigate threats (T)? Lastly, we asked schools to put it all together: Based on our external analysis (PEST) and our internal assessment of our organization’s readiness to respond (SWOT), identify our top five strategic priorities.
Through the exercises, one school identified the challenge of redirecting parent volunteers while campus was closed. The school team established a strategic priority to revamp family and community engagement, ultimately developing a system for parents to teach enrichment classes via Zoom.
Another school reflected on their community’s differing views on social justice issues in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests. Leaders identified the need to create and implement (in whatever medium) an engaging and effective curriculum aligned with a learner-centered approach, through the lens of social justice and critical consciousness.
2. How will we adapt? Sharpen your focus on critical academic model and operational shifts, and opportunities for innovation.
We guided school leaders through the essential shifts in developing a new academic plan, illustrating how to: be responsive to students’ changing academic and social-emotional needs; support clear communication and progress monitoring; maintain a commitment to the school’s instructional philosophy and approach; and adhere to new compliance requirements.
“Circumstances may be changing, your process may be changing, but your vision remains the same.” —Jennifer Reyes, EdTec, Guest Facilitator
Through these exercises, one leader recognized the importance of keeping grade-level learning top of mind, adopting a “high expectations and high support” approach. Another school team reiterated that students craved feedback, so they decided to use formative assessments, hoping students would be motivated by seeing their own progress.
Second, based on their new academic plans, we walked school leaders through three steps to understand the operational and financial implications, asking them:
- What new people, materials, resources are needed?
- What existing people, materials, resources can be leveraged in new ways or redirected?
- What existing people, materials, resources, can be eliminated or reduced?
“The program drives the budget.” —Dena Koren, EdTec, Guest Facilitator
School leaders saw opportunities to redirect robust professional developments budget to technology needs. Existing resources such as noise-canceling headphones used in Special Education classes were made available for students to check-out for home use. Another team decided to leverage classroom instructional aides to assist with implementing new health and safety protocols.
3. What’s our plan for making it happen? Map a realistic and financially viable short-term action plan; brainstorm near-term opportunities and long-term vision.
We asked school teams to reflect on five design-thinking questions to ensure each organization not only responds, but adapts, and reinvents through this period of change. (Many leaders repeated this exercise with staff using a virtual whiteboard—something we recommend for every school.)
One school team recognized that moving to a distance model has given them the opportunity to re-envision some foundational instructional approaches.
During week 6 of the 8-week process, we helped leaders collect their planning efforts into a 2020-2023 Strategic Plan Framework, with a focus on what makes their school unique, three-year core goals, key strategies, and vision for success.
4. How will we communicate effectively? Develop your message and communicate key shifts to your students, families, staff, and partners.
Communication is foundational to effective change management. We helped school leaders to engage in a stakeholder-mapping exercise to generate communications strategies and tactics that emerged from the following questions:
- What is our compelling vision for each stakeholder group? How is that message communicated and reinforced?
- Where are people now, and where do we want them to be?
- What are the range of perspectives in each stakeholder group?
- What initial and ongoing communication is needed to support desired changes?
“Put yourself in the mindset of the stakeholder, what’s the first question a teacher is going to ask when you announce a new change?” —Elise Randall Hill, Rocketship Public Schools, Guest Facilitator
One school team decided to establish weekly one-on-one check-ins with teachers who were struggling with distance learning, as well as more frequent all-staff meetings for greater communication, camaraderie, and support.
It was a whirlwind eight weeks, but we agree with the school leader who commented at the end of our final session, “Can we start again from the top next week?”
We hope these resources and insights are helpful. And if you need more help to generate a new strategic plan in the midst of this constantly changing landscape, call us. Friday is launching more cohorts this fall, and we invite you to join us.