In September 2018, the Worcester School Committee adopted Defining Our Path: A Strategic Plan for the Worcester Public Schools.
What role does the School Committee have in ensuring that the strategic plan is implemented in good faith? What role do you see for the community in supporting and monitoring its implementation?
Cara Berg Powers:
If we are to take the Worcester Public Schools Strategic Plan seriously, there are few more critical responsibilities for the School Committee than making sure it is implemented in good faith. Since the School Committee officially adopted the recommendations of the Strategic Plan, we have a responsibility to center it as the guide post for every decision, investment and measurement we’re introducing into our schools. I have spent over a decade at the helm of a non-profit, and have, as an Executive Director and as a Board Member, overseen a number of strategic planning initiatives. One way to look at the School Committee’s role is like that of a Board of Directors, providing support and oversight for the Administration. So, to that end, the School Committee should be requesting regular updates, not only on the 20 or so annual benchmarks, but on the dozens of tactics and objectives that lay the groundwork for those measurements. And yet, according to Telegram and Gazette Education Reporter Scott O’Connell, the annual report on the schools earlier this summer, “didn’t have much to share yet about whether the school system has met many of the plan’s specific benchmarks for 2019.”
Every single School Committee meeting should include an update on progress toward an area of the Strategic Plan, and any items on the agenda should be tied back to their impact on the Strategic Plan. We can also more deeply engage the community by being more transparent about HOW the benchmarks in the Strategic Plan are being met through active community meetings that invite community input, ideas, and participation for what can be done in the coming quarter to tackle the goals that we have committed to. At the first School Committee Candidate’s Forum, many current members touted the Strategic Plan as the solution to some of our schools most pressing challenges- lack of teacher diversity, school discipline disparities, gaps in data collection, and welcoming school communities- which are all things the Strategic Plan does address. However, if we’re not centering this plan as the tool it should be in our planning, measurement, and execution of all school activities, than it is just a nice idea.
The Defining Our Path: A Strategic Plan for the Worcester Public Schools from 2018 was a great way to communicate with the parents, staff and administration to engage in authentic conversations from which this strategic plan is supposed to help. I am happy to say that I was apart of the Social Emotional section of the strategic plan.
What role does the school committee have ensuring that the plan is implemented?, the school committee has a Major role to play and needs to ensure that it is being upheld from top down. The school committee needs to let the children and families of Worcester know that they are the Top Priority.
The school committee needs to ensure that these items that were heard from the community are answered and that the objectives tied with them all are done properly so that all students are having the same outcomes and standards. The school committee should ask the superintendent and district to give a report (the raw data) out on what aspects of the strategic plan have been addressed and what the plans are to move the work forward. Also make sure that we are collaborating with the organizations in the community. All while bringing ideas to the table as well to make sure the strategic plan is met.
The theory of change utilizing the strategic plan as a tool to support success and the review of challenges is part of the vested interest of school committee members. Supporting a vision that prepares our students for a successful future and the continued offering of numerous opportunities while fostering innovation in our schools will be part of the focus as we move forward as School committee members. Our discussions are transparent and informative at both standing committee meetings and school committee meetings ensuring the balance of ideas with identifying items on the agenda to review and keep the district accountable. Reviewing benchmarks , data and initiatives including addressing success and challenges with in our district support and embrace accountability in our district and our community. examples of additional presentations at citywide parent planning advisory Council meetings would be a recommendation including an additional community presentation held at one of our school sites would also be an effective alternative. Monthly meetings are held at school sites with teachers and staff members possibly could also include part of what the district would like to highlight in addition to our monthly principal meetings the Presentation of success , data review and challenges could be part of their discussion.
The overarching goals of the strategic plan have been accepted by the school committee and the administration. These were developed in collaboration with school department personnel, members of the school committee, civic and business leaders, parents, the Worcester Research Bureau, the Worcester Education Collaborative, and other members of the community.
The role of the school committee is to ensure that the strategic direction for the district and the superintendent match up with the goals present in the plan. Along with quarterly reporting, an annual discussion should take place to examine the tactics employed to achieve the longer term goals and whether they are being successful in moving the district in that direction.
The most recent report from the superintendent showed some of the steps taken to achieve the plan’s goals with very preliminary data from year one. The school committee members must evaluate the data, observing trends and suggesting changes in the approach, if needed. My concerns with the initial report are that it is heavily weighted on “inputs” (what is being done) without enough emphasis upon outcomes and the success of some of the initial interventions. Although the longer term goals of the plan are “complete” in 2023, the school committee must have the means necessary to gauge success early in the plan.
The strategic plan represents the aspirational goals of the greater community and it is incumbent upon the district and the school committee to report out regularly on the progress and the data outcomes. The community needs to hold the school committee and the superintendent accountable for both reporting and success.
The Worcester School Committee Defining Our Path: A Strategic Plan (2018-2023) is a five-year plan. Every goal or objective stated in the strategic plan should have a measurement criterion to be evaluated at multiple time points before 2023. In the interim, the School Committee, along with DESE, WEC, and community stakeholders, should meet to discuss any strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) to meeting these objectives. A snapshot of the objectives should be generated to keep the community aware of the outcomes. If the measurements were not met by the given time stated, it is the duty of the School Committee to review areas in the objectives that were not met with key education stakeholders and device plans for future success. When the measurements are clearly stated, interest groups in the community should advocate (working with parents and children) for the success of objectives or outputs, and hold the School Committee accountable when not met. However, because it takes a whole community to ensure equitable opportunities for all of our children, every party invested in the education of our children should also be held accountable. So, accountability would work in cyclical operation rather than work in one direction.
All of us would like to see the goals of the strategic plan met immediately, we know that making changes and meeting goals is a process that takes time, and patience, and hard work, and measuring, and adjusting and changing. We can read the data, examine our charts and graphs, but we need to listen to our community partners, our parents, educators and especially to our students to determine if we accomplishing our goal. Our business partners can tell us if our students coming into the workforce are prepared in the areas of technology, math, literacy, social skills and applicable experience attained through internships and on-site participation. We need to hear from students if they feel prepared for further education and participation in the workforce. We need to work with our partners in higher ed. to develop programs at our community colleges that will acclimate and prepare our students to for further education and or to develop the necessary skills for the workforce. Sometimes it requires years to achieve these goals. As school committee members we need to listen to everyone involved in the process and to procure as much assistance necessary to meet the demands of the job.
Last year in their draft release Dr. Jennifer Carey of the Worcester Educational Collaborative and Mr. Tim McGourthy of the Regional Research Bureau, in collaboration with Superintendent Maureen Binienda, stated, “A Strategic Plan for Education in Worcester articulates a commitment to continue Worcester’s renaissance by placing the city’s children and the future that they represent at the center of our shared work. It calls for the resources of a community, not just a school district, to fulfill that mission. Achieving the goals of the plan will demand hard work and unflagging support from each sector of the city. It will also require the dedicated involvement of the state. We must ensure state funding levels realize the vision of the 1993 Education Reform Act and guarantee equitable outcomes in both high- wealth and low-wealth communities. The results of these actions will be well worth the effort…”
The Superintendent early on embraced the plan and felt that the strategic plan was a strong document that includes the input of families, students, educators, and the community and business leaders. She has vetted the plan with staff and we have had information given to the school committee. However, more information will be forthcoming as we implement the plan during this school year. There are five broad goals: Culture of innovation, Academic Excellence, Welcoming Schools, Investing in Education, and Technology and operations.
From the start, I have endorsed this plan for it is not only a road map for accomplishing excellence in education but education is the key to the economic engine within our community. The plan is excellent for our city for it highlights the importance of education and when middle class families look to move into a community they are always looking to settle in a city that has education as a priority.
I have no doubt that the plan will be implemented in good faith for the superintendent and the school committee have embraced the plan and I have suggested that we take up one goal at a time to review its progress and ask for input from the community.
The plan’s movement will be transparent with periodic updates given throughout the school year. As I stated before this plan is a moral document for the city of Worcester and we need the community to embrace it and have the state make the necessary changes in the Foundation Budget so that we don’t have any barriers to the success of this document. We all need to be on the same page in moving forward and as I stated before we need to ask the community to move forward with us. Let’s get the plan moving!
For any plan to be successful, it must be grounded in the community. It cannot be written and spend most of the year on a shelf, referenced only once a year. The strategic plan should be part of an ongoing community conversation.
That means the plan cannot be static. We must continually ask: does this reflect what we, as the Worcester community, want our schools to be? Does it reflect all of us? We must have all voices--students, parents, teachers, community members--at the table to set and check priorities and reporting. That needs to happen not once every five years or even every year, but it needs to happen on an ongoing basis.
The strategic plan should reflect our state requirements, certainly, but they must also reflect our highest and best aspirations for our children and for our city.That means that the Worcester School Committee and the Worcester Public Schools administration must really listen.
Just as district and superintendent goals must be the focus of every meeting of the Worcester School Committee, so too the strategic plan must be an ongoing touchtone of discussion and accountability at the district level.
“Defining Our Path,” the five-year Strategic Plan of the Worcester Public Schools (“WPS”) has strong support from the current School Committee. Several of us participated extensively in the Plan’s formative process, beginning with its thoughtful community listening sessions, and we believe that the Plan reflects well the advice offered insightfully by the session participants. Collectively, the Plan provisions set forth an ambitious, realistic and feasible construct for extensive positive change and meticulous evolution of the WPS by 2023. Its benchmarks of progress targets are well-formulated, and can be achieved with reasonable financial investment.
The Plan purports to be, and is, “aspirational, inspirational, and innovative.” As it states in its “Letter to the Worcester Community,” it “articulates a commitment to continue Worcester’s renaissance by placing the city’s children, and the future that they represent, at the center of our shared work.” It urges “a student-centered approach.” The heart of the Plan, though, is the precisely-developed set of “priority benchmarks,” which are defined and quantifiable initiatives with specific timelines and cost estimations. The Plan urges a “Culture of Innovation,” a focus on “Academic Excellence,” an emphasis on “Welcoming Schools,” and extensive “Investing in Educators” actions.
The Plan is eminently workable, and the funding and effort required to implement it are both practical and reasonable, in light of the prospective benefits to students which they can provide. The key to the Plan’s success will be careful monitoring of progress made by the WPS school community. Here, the School Committee must advance the Plan in the following respects:
(1) holding quarterly public assemblies which will review Plan progress and invite public input. The Committee has agreed to do so. Both Miss McCullough and I - and perhaps other Committee members as well - have taken steps to schedule such an assembly.
(2) reviewing regular updates from the Superintendent as to Plan progress. The Superintendent presented such an update to the Committee at its July 18 meeting, and the update can be found in the Committee’s online archive for this meeting (Item gb #8-153.5, Annex A).
(3) revisiting the Plan during the annual budget process, to assure that Plan priorities and initiatives are fully funded according to timeline targets for the year as established by the Plan.
Strategic Plans are most vulnerable to “benign neglect.” They fade from memory, lost in a sea of competing priorities and distracting developments. “Defining Our Path” is a superb plan, and it deserves to be the pivotal force in policy and fiscal prioritization for the WPS through 2023. It is the responsibility of the Superintendent and the School Committee to make sure that it remains so.