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Community-Centric Strategic Planning: Insights From Erin Linville, Chief of Strategy and Turnaround at Holyoke Public Schools

As Chief of Strategy and Turnaround at Holyoke Public Schools (HPS), Erin Linville played a crucial role in the development of the district’s refreshed strategic plan.

We sat down with the district leader to hear about HPS's strategic planning process, how they aligned community stakeholders, and how they overcame challenges along the way.

You started as the Chief of Strategy and Turnaround at HPS in 2015 and helped shepherd the district through both the pandemic and a transition to a new superintendent. How has your role changed over time?

Strategic planning has always been a constant anchor to my work. I’ve always supported leaders in being systematic about their improvement efforts and lead teams through performance management activities.

Overall, I view my job as helping make sure the Superintendent can “win” at his job. When the district didn’t have a CFO, I helped the Superintendent implement an autonomous budgeting system. When we didn’t have a Chief of Human Resources, I was in contract negotiations. Today, we have more capacity, so I can focus on big change efforts. Right now, for example, we’re redrawing school boundary lines and separating K-8 schools into elementary and middle schools. 

As HPS embarked on its strategic planning process this year, what were some of the main goals you set? What impact did you want the planning process to have on students and the community?

First, we wanted to better understand the district’s strengths and areas for improvement. Superintendent Soto and I had both worked in the district for about six years, and it was especially important for us to listen to more voices instead of seeing things through the lens of our individual roles.

Second, we wanted to be genuinely inclusive. This wasn’t going to be the superintendent’s plan, but the community’s plan. Superintendents often feel pressure to come up with the right answer. But the great part about having inclusive processes is you get to rely on the community's assets to develop a plan that will help the district move forward.

Our third goal was to paint a clear picture of the path forward so that all stakeholders understood the priorities and their roles.

One of the things that we know is critical to the strategic planning process is ensuring that all stakeholders—including the community—are operating from the same shared fact base. How did you help everyone align on the district's needs?

Superintendent Soto implemented an incredibly thoughtful five-month entry plan process, which included classroom visits, focus groups, surveys, community meetings, informal conversations, and document review. 

He heard from more than 1,200 people—including 200 students and 400 family members within a school population of just over 5,150 students. We systematically took notes and analyzed the data from every interaction, which served as a launching point for the strategic planning committees. 

We invited everyone to participate, but then noticed gaps in our membership, especially from non-staff parents and guardians. Our Family and Community Engagement (FACE) team compiled a list of families to call to ask for feedback, using a set of questions they developed. Superintendent Soto and I reviewed and incorporated their sentiments into the entry plan findings report.

Do you have any other examples where you actively brought in other voices to inform the planning process?

Yes! We invited non-HPS district leaders to serve on committees and paid them a stipend for their work. We know people don't do it for the money, but paying them showed that we valued their time and recognized that the money could help make it possible for them to participate by, for example, paying for childcare or compensating for a missed shift at work.

At our first advisory meeting, I also presented data about the composition of our team, so we could understand which voices weren’t in the room and which we, therefore, needed to lift up. We noticed we didn’t have anyone on the team who preferred to speak in Spanish, so we relied on bilingual staff and families to seek out voices who weren’t in the room in ways that would make those people feel most comfortable. Engaging trusted community members can help bring different voices to the table and help leaders listen more effectively.

Districts are facing some tough challenges right now, including staffing shortages, finding strategic ways to spend ESSER funds, and continuing to adapt to new schooling models following the pandemic. How did HPS address these during the strategic planning process?

I’m not sure the strategic planning process can fully address the emergent things that come up. That’s part of the beauty of the strategic plan—it sets a clear path forward so that we don’t get distracted by emergencies.

Pain points like staffing shortages did pop up, though. We developed staffing contingency plans, for example, so that if one school had vacancies, we could redeploy existing staff to fill essential roles. We’ve also developed a pipeline program to support paraeducators without bachelor’s degrees on pathways to teaching positions.

What other challenges did you face during the planning process? How did you approach those challenges?

Our biggest challenges were time and timing. Ideally, districts release strategic plans before budgeting so they can invest in their stated priorities. We didn’t have that luxury, so we broadcasted themes as early as possible to enable leaders to build anticipated investments into their budgets. 

Creating new mission and vision statements took more time than I anticipated. Our ERS Partner, Angela King Smith, recognized we had less agreement on the statements that I thought we had, so we spent more time developing new statements. This meant that we didn’t have time to complete the learner profile, so we published an initial strategic plan in June, hosted a learner profile workshop in July, and published a complete strategic plan in August, before the start of the school year.

Having a great plan is important, but you also need to be flexible and react to situations and needs as they come up during the process.

How did the district come up with some of the mottos and taglines associated with the refreshed strategic plan?

Some of the mottos, taglines, and quotes came from post-session feedback that we solicited via surveys. Others came up in discussions. It was really due to the power of being together.

“Juntos podemos! Together we can!” exemplifies our planning process and our community, which is around 80% Hispanic/Latinx. It’s also become part of our vocabulary—Superintendent Soto signs almost every letter with it.

When Superintendent Soto, who is from Holyoke and is an HPS alum, came in, he wanted the community to know how much he values them. One advisory group member shared a quote, “Nothing about us, without us, is for us,” which he and others just loved. It shows value and power in community-driven solutions and working together.

What advice do you have for other district leaders hoping to build or refine their strategic plan?

You need to invest the time for this work to be meaningful and have a strong impact. You need to dedicate time to planning the process, and your leadership team needs to dedicate time to being intentional about their involvement. When you commit to being inclusive and take time to engage everyone, you can all move forward together. For us, having ERS as a partner was critical. Their involvement led to a better process overall and gave the Superintendent and me the space to engage in strategic planning as learners and listeners, rather than facilitators. 

 

 Holyoke Strategic Plan Resources

   A Plan By Holyokers, With Holyokers, for Holyokers

 

 

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