In the best of times, school boards may face a variety of challenging issues. Normally, they might encounter enough thorny issues to fill a box, but the past year has presented enough challenges to fill a box truck! With so many twists and turns required to navigate obstacles, how can a board remain focused on student outcomes? For the Federal Way Public Schools Board, the answer is straightforward—stick to the (strategic) plan.
A strategic plan is a document that describes the vision a district has, the accompanying goals that serve as markers for achieving the vision, plus the strategies that will support attaining those goals. The plan serves several purposes, including setting expectations for staff and students, and providing parents and other community members with the district’s improvement strategies. The main focus of most strategic plans is to improve outcomes for students and deliver the best possible school experience in ways that reflect the uniqueness of each district.
Dr. Tammy Campbell, the former Federal Way superintendent, said it all starts with a vision for each and every scholar and that it is critical to co-construct your vision by engaging in “large-scale listening.” For the Federal Way team, that meant gathering a large number of people to hear them describe what success looks like, with a focus on student voice.
One aspect of their strategic plan that took years to perfect was Federal Way’s vision for equity and excellence. This vision encompasses not only students but also the staff and families within the district. “[It] really calls out what behaviors would be ideal and what you would see if all of these things are working in concert with one another at the staff, student and family level when it comes to equity and excellence,” explained Dr. Dani Pfeiffer, the current Federal Way superintendent.
After you have determined a cohesive vision of district success, you need to determine the strategies you will apply to accomplish that vision. Dr. Campbell said that student voice is their super strategy. “We partner with students every step of the way. As a result, we’re able to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of our strategies and our plan.”
Using student voice ensures students have a say in their own outcomes and provides data on how the strategies are working. “Ultimately, students are the reason schools exist so we focus on positioning their voice as a key indicator of organizational effectiveness,” continued Dr. Campbell.
Once you have gained a vision and determined the strategies to achieve that vision, you can set clear-cut goals. Establishing your goals is truly where your plan begins to take shape. The goals are what drive the plan, and therefore the district. They are what you continue to look back on when you are determining success. They are what you present when a stakeholder asks where your district is headed.
For Federal Way, equity is braided across all goals, and like they did with their vision, the district included students when setting their goals. “Students actually provided one of the goals within the strategic plan. It wouldn’t have been there without them. It’s very important to listen to their voice,” said Dr. Pfeiffer.
Once you have set your goals, you need to figure out how you will measure them. The metrics you choose should be specific to the outcomes you wish to see. For example, if your district is looking to close achievement gaps within your district, it is essential that you use multiple measures to capture both small gains and large gains.
You can also use student voice, or scholar perception data, to gauge success. “Scholar perception data is an important part of our data points,” said Dr. Campbell. “We focus on scholars’ experiences, as a means to ensure we are leading with equitable practices.”
Once your plan is developed and in action, it doesn’t end there. “You can’t just plan and then walk away. You have to have a system of accountability, mutual accountability, focused on student outcomes,” said Dr. Campbell.
Board President Geoffery McAnalloysaid that the school board plays a specific role in ensuring your strategic plan sees positive results. “For one thing, we align the board’s policy-making with the strategic plan. Then, we make sure we see success.” Commensurate with their role, the board gives feedback to the superintendent on results shown by the data.
But McAnalloy also made it clear that promoting success means being disciplined and operating with a clear understanding of the board’s role, which means staying at the policy level. “You don’t go into a surgeon’s office and tell them how to do surgery,” McAnalloy says. “We’re not the experts in day-to-day operations. We’re responsible for the scholars and their parents, and we need to make sure that things are working for all of those people, so we monitor results, support the superintendent and the team, and ensure we have policies that guide improvement.
There are many positives to leading via strategic plan. In the last five years, Federal Way has seen increased graduation rates, an increase of completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid applications, a lower number of students experiencing in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, and expulsion. But the strategic plan hasn’t only improved outcomes for students; it has also helped drive a specific way of thinking at Federal Way Public Schools.
“This is the culture in Federal Way,” said Dr. Campbell. “Leading for equity starts with the culture and ensuring equity is embedded. By crafting a vision of equity and excellence, then launching our plan from this vision, we are focusing on lasting shifts in practice by our staff that ensure every scholar belongs and thrives.”
Board President McAnalloy said, “Federal Way is the most diverse district in the state and fifth-most in the nation. . Therefore, it is important that we provide an educational experience that takes all of this diversity into account. We need to make sure every student feels welcome from the moment they walk in the door as a kindergartener.”
And so, guided by the voice of their community set in the framework of a vision, goals, and strategies, this 2020 Board of the Year uses their strategic plan like a compass to navigate challenges. But as Dr. Campbell pointed out, “The work is never done, and we have much work to do.”
This article was originally featured in the Fall 2021 issue of Direct. Visit wssda.org/direct to see all the latest issues.