A well-developed and thoughtfully executed strategic plan can motivate and unite an entire school community, ensuring that students, educators and board members are all working toward common goals. It shapes the direction in which the whole district must travel as a team and aids in establishing realistic objectives that are in line with the overall mission—ultimately leading to better student outcomes.

However, the strategic planning and implementation process can prove challenging, as most districts are large and complex, consisting of multiple stakeholders with varying opinions. Below are some best practices we have found to smooth the process and help move the needle with strategic planning:

Step 1: Work From the Outside In

A strategic plan will not be successful without a strong level of community involvement and support at the district level. The fabric of this community is made up not only of families, students and educators, but other key constituents such as local business leaders and taxpayers without children in the district that offer an “investor” perspective.

Surveys—particularly those that include open-ended questions—are a good starting point to gather input, collect feedback, and help the community understand key issues. There are many outside resources available to help facilitate and interpret the data, as most of us are staffed only for the work we are in. Especially in large districts, bringing in a partner to do the heavy lift of evaluating and presenting the key findings in a digestible way can be invaluable.

Also, it’s important to provide continuous communication to your community to maintain a high level of engagement and support. Regular emails that celebrate successes like awards and recognitions, as well as address challenges facing the district, will help to further educate the community and help them understand how resources (both time and money) have been allocated. Additionally, a simple, one-page report or brief summary can be sent in the mail one to two times a year, offering assurance that the community’s input was valuable and that their voice was heard. This also creates confidence by demonstrating progress toward meeting short-term goals.

Engaging the community with a district’s strategic plan allows the board to understand multiple perspectives and identify key issues from all stakeholders, ultimately building trust and adding value on both sides.

Step 2: Identify Overarching Objectives

As leaders within the district, the role of the Board of Education in the strategic planning process should be to identify and prioritize all high-level objectives. In order to achieve success with a strategic plan, it’s important to initially agree on what that success will look like with each goal. It is also crucial that every objective be quantifiable and measurable in order to track progress.

These long term, overarching goals should always revolve around student success, framed as working toward academic excellence, achievement or growth. Other high-level objectives might include the development of essential skills—i.e. the ability to collaborate, and develop a sense of teamwork, respect and belonging, etc. Additionally, many boards have begun including safety as a priority objective—making sure students feel and are safe at school, both physically and psychologically.

Step 3: Develop a Tactical Plan

As the “boots on the ground,” staff play an integral role in executing the strategic plan by breaking down the board’s broader goals into smaller subcategories, and creating tactical action plans to connect to these objectives in the classroom.

For instance, if an end goal is to improve academic growth and achievement for students in order for the state to consider the district accredited with distinction, staff must divide this into smaller goals—perhaps honing in on literacy. This could be achieved by first obtaining baseline measurements of current performance via local and state assessments. Next, a new goal of how many students should read at or above grade level would be established, along with a timeline and an action plan to implement evidence-based reading strategies in the classroom. These smaller benchmarks also create opportunities for achievement that are easier to recognize and celebrate.

Step 4: Maintain Flexibility

Finally, educators, administrators and board members know all too well that educational priorities can change in the blink of an eye. The ability to adapt to unexpected circumstances can be challenging, but leaders must be versatile enough to switch gears when necessary. Strategic flexibility is critical; be ready to engage with your community to meet them where they are, and then help bring them to where they need to be.

Every district’s strategic process is understandably unique, as each community has its own dynamic set of needs and different visions of success. Ultimately, by engaging the community and connecting classroom tactics to big-picture objectives, school districts can create far-reaching opportunities for growth and become well positioned for success.

Step 5: Partner Up

A seasoned strategic planning partner who aligns with your district’s philosophical approach can be extremely beneficial in facilitating the implementation, communication and measurement of a strategic plan. An outside entity has the ability to objectively identify goals that are in the best interest of your district, and they can leverage the knowledge and experience they’ve gained with other similarly structured districts to help guide the planning team through a smooth process.

About the authors

Erin Kane is Superintendent of the Douglas County School District in Colorado, serving over 63,000 students. She is a member of the Institute for Education Innovation.

Dwight Jones is a 38 year educator who served as the Superintendent in Fountain Fort Carson in Colorado, the former Commissioner of Education in Colorado, the Superintendent of Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Interim-Superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

Mike Poore is a 38-year educator who served as the Superintendent in Sheridan School District in Colorado, and Bentonville Schools in Arkansas and Little Rock School District in Arkansas.