Great cities, great schools - Time for a strategic plan

Originally posted here with the Telegram & Gazette

Why would the Worcester Public Schools, which turned itself into a “high-performing” urban school system, need a strategic plan despite going without one for a quarter century? School Superintendent Maureen Binienda announced on Friday that with the help of private funding, she expects to have a plan completed by January.

Strategic plans, often drawn up with great fanfare, can turn into well-intended exercises that can gather dust or, even worse, lead people astray in predicting trends. Even though Kodak invented the digital camera, for instance, it didn’t fit with its business dominating the manufacture and sales of film – you know, that thing that no one buys anymore.

The school system last developed a strategic plan in 1992. And yet, without an updated strategic plan, Worcester was described at Friday’s announcement as starting “from a position of strength. It’s an atypical, high-performing urban district,” according to a Boston-based education think tank.

So why do we think this is a good time? For reasons that come down to the trends, the people and the opportunities at a unique point in Worcester history.

The city has worked its way to an inflection point in its transition from a midcentury manufacturing city to an increasingly diverse community with a strong bioscience and health care presence. Decisions going back decades to things like siting the state’s medical school in Worcester and also demolishing the closed downtown mall, which opened the way for new housing in the core, have led us to this point. A number of community leaders have figured in all this. And we’re now seeing smart moves by local government and investments of billions by developers who believe in a bright future.

At the same time, we’re seeing our school system challenged even more, both with recent student growth, including growing numbers of students whose first language is not English - just about 54 percent - and with more than a third of its student body classed as English Language Learners, highest in the state. We are, after all, a Gateway City, where people come for jobs, lower housing costs and also with three organizations here resettling refugees, even if at a slower pace from recent years.

Last year, we had said that the hiring of a new school superintended might be the city’s most important decision because – as visionary leaders such as Frederick H. Eppinger Jr., then CEO of Hanover Insurance Group had been saying – good schools help bring about and maintain vibrant communities. In her first year as superintendent, Ms. Binienda has used her on-the-ground perspective from having come up through the Worcester schools in applying innovations across the system that she first put into practice as principal at South High Community School. Some go to basic needs, such as food pantries at schools and even a washing machine and dryer to boost attendance so kids are not without clean clothes. Others feed academic growth, as in the systemwide effort getting students into advanced placement classes that offer college credit but also open student eyes to what they can accomplish, and a program expanding and celebrating the number applying for and getting into college. Graduation rates have gone from percents in the 60s seven years ago to recently topping 80 percent.

But as good as this sounds, it’s not enough. Challenges will continue to mount. And that’s where a strategic plan comes in.

Ms. Binienda, from the start, has been reaching out to leaders in business, local colleges and institutions. Just 100 days in, she announced the Worcester Compact, getting commitments from a broad swath of local leaders. A template and rationale leading up to this appeared eight months ago in an “As I See It” column by Michael P. Angelini on a communitywide effort toward creating the best urban school system in America. Specific goals and methods of the strategic plan will need stakeholder buy-in: the teachers union, institutions, businesses, individuals and, yes, taxpayers. A strategic vision and plan around which the entire community can unite is exactly what’s needed now. Great cities need great schools.