With a robust background in district leadership, strategy, and change management, ERS Partner Angela King Smith brings a wealth of knowledge around strategic planning and implementation. In this Q&A, King Smith shares key insights for districts navigating challenges around planning, especially amid fallout from the pandemic.
She also explores the takeaways from her most recent experience with Holyoke Public Schools, a mid-sized and mighty district that garnered inputs from hundreds of community members to make the right steps now that will lead the district toward a better future. Here’s what she had to say about how districts can learn from Holyoke’s success.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did your experience in the public school system prepare you for working with district partners?
Prior to ERS, I worked with Atlanta Public Schools for more than 17 years—first as a teacher, then later in the strategy office. I worked with a team focused on developing an overall district strategy that improved performance and drove transformation. We thought hard about which moves to make in order to reach districtwide goals. Part of that involved thinking through the plans, initiatives, and benchmarks we need to set to progress toward those goals. At ERS, I apply this same critical thought to working with districts to help them achieve their unique goals.
What are some of the common challenges that districts face when it comes to strategic planning and implementation?
Many districts have trouble zeroing in on their high-level vision or getting alignment among stakeholders to build a shared vision. They sometimes come up with great plans, but don’t outline the year-to-year projects that will help them reach their goals.
Districts tend to overinvest in vision-making, but underinvest in detailed implementation planning.
I also think districts don’t spend enough time on change management, which involves anticipating reactions from stakeholders, helping them understand plan details, and helping everyone involved shift toward a new direction for the district.
How has the pandemic exacerbated some of these challenges?
Leading up to the pandemic, many districts had great plans in place. They had a shared vision, and they likely started on the change management component. When the pandemic hit, everything went out the window, and districts had to focus on day-to-day operations, rather than long-term plans.
Districts are still trying to figure things out. Do they reset plans altogether? Do they go back to pre-pandemic plans? Do they adjust for this new reality? Do they just start planning from scratch?
There’s no cookie cutter way to answer those questions. In some cases, it might mean making small tweaks to a plan. In others, it might mean changing course altogether. For some districts, starting from scratch isn’t entirely feasible, so we’ve seen a “Do Now, Build Toward” approach work well in those cases. In this approach, districts make small, data-informed decisions now that will make the biggest impact later, all while keeping the bigger vision in mind.
Can you tell us a bit about your strategic planning work with Holyoke Public Schools (HPS)?
HPS has been in state receivership for a number of years, and their new superintendent brought us on to help craft a new strategic plan that would improve student performance and, hopefully, lead them out of receivership.
I call HPS the “little district that could” because they always strive to give their students their best, create opportunities for them, and help them achieve great things, even when the district itself is working on improving in key areas. They embedded this commitment into their mission and vision statements, which set the expectation for all families that this is going to be a great school district.
They put out community surveys to gather input from the teachers, staff, parents, and students. The superintendent got hands-on in the work, listened to everything, and helped make the final decisions based on the community input.
That’s what makes this project special. The superintendent is from Holyoke, so he helped ensure the plan was driven by Holyokers, for Holyokers.
What were some of the biggest challenges that HPS leadership faced during this work, and how did they address them?
One thing they struggled with was gaining community alignment. For example, a major sticking point was the debate around including explicit language focused on students attending college after graduation. Some families felt including it helped set the expectation of what they want their students to strive for. Other families felt it was an unrealistic or limited expectation.
After much debate, the community came to a consensus around including language around helping students graduate feeling “prepared for life, career, and college.” They agreed that this inclusive language validates and honors the many choices students have post-graduation.
Discussions like this aren’t just about words on paper. If we want the plan to come alive, everyone needs to believe in it and live it. Engaging in hard conversations is how you get that belief. The whole community was committed to this work, so we didn’t experience some barriers I thought we might.
Strategic planning is about powerful facilitation. My job is to create the environment for them to work through it themselves, not for me to figure it out for them. I really believe that in two years, they’ll see that transformation and it’ll be because of this strategic plan. And that’s so special.
What advice do you have for districts working on strategic planning? What can other districts learn from how the HPS leadership team approached their strategic planning process?
My advice is to set aside time and commit to the process. Teachers and district leaders are stretched thin right now, so bringing in outside assistance can help them find the time and resources they need for the strategic planning process. With an expert leading you through the process, you can create a plan within three to six months.
Districts can also learn from the way HPS engaged community stakeholders, including senior leaders, school leaders, parents, and students. It’s an undervalued part of the process. You need that buy-in to create major transformational shifts. Too often, leaders talk at—rather than with—the community. The single mom with no college degree, the low-income families facing challenging circumstances—they all have valuable things to share that can help shape and develop a plan.
One of the most powerful things that an HPS student said was that in order for things to change for students, the adults need to listen to each other. There’s value in talking and listening to each other for the betterment of the students.
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