By Shawn Hime
I know that must seem like a pie-in-the-sky question. This has not been the year anyone in education hoped for or imagined a year ago. School district leaders went into the 2015-2016 school year with cautious optimism. By the time January rolled around, revenue failures began dominating the headlines and decimating school budgets.
Public education in Oklahoma is woefully underfunded; the teacher shortage, growing class sizes and lack of resources are evidence. Underfunding makes the job of providing a high-quality education for all students more difficult but no less important.
This is a difficult time to dream. The teacher and staff layoffs at many schools are demoralizing — for those let go and those left behind. Districts will start a new school year with less money compared to a year ago despite having more students. Schools will become even more reliant on their communities to help fill critical gaps, even though communities suffer, too, amid employee downsizing.
But as I think about the nearly 700,000 children in our public schools, I’m convinced there’s never been a more important time for local districts to engage the community and dream together about the future. There’s never a wrong time to tackle important questions: What are your community’s academic goals for students? What knowledge and skills are most valuable? What do school buildings of the future look like, and what’s the role of technology? How do we recruit and retain the best teachers and administrators? What are we doing well, and where are opportunities for growth?
The answers to these types of questions create a shared vision and can be transformed from dreams to a plan for the future. The results are important:
*The vision becomes the district’s guidepost, driving financial, staffing and programming decisions even in a budget crisis.
*Engaging the community encourages ownership of the vision and empowers community members to become more involved.
*Community members who better understand the district’s strengths and challenges and who are invested in the district’s success are positioned to become powerful advocates — both locally and at the state Capitol.
Over the last several months, I’ve seen this play out in a powerful way in Duncan. Last fall, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association partnered with the K20 Center at the University of Oklahoma to launch the Continuous Strategic Improvement service. This new offering is an outgrowth of For the People: A Vision for Oklahoma Public Education, the two-year effort to create a unified vision for schools with heavy emphasis on district-level transformation.
Duncan was the first school district to launch its CSI initiative. Educators, school board members, parents, business leaders and other communities spent several months reviewing survey responses related to the planning effort, studying student achievement data and dreaming about the future. They answered two key questions: Where do we want to go and how do we get there?
I encourage you to read Duncan’s strategic plan at www.ossba.org/csi. Just a few highlights include the district’s plan to phase in standards-based grading, a greater focus on STEM areas, aligning teacher training with strategic goals, developing a teacher mentor program, increasing technology and conduct a facility review related to maintenance, safety and the ability of current facilities to meet academic needs.
Wagoner Public Schools also recently completed its CSI initiative, and the final report is available on the OSSBA website. Strategic planning is also under way in Clinton and Sayre.
The excitement in these communities as they imagine the future is a reminder our students can’t wait for an economic turnaround; this is their time to learn and grow. Be visionary. Dream big. Students are counting on us.
You can learn more about OSSBA’s Continuous Strategic Improvement service at www.ossba.org/csi.