It's Out With the Old Way of Doing Things in Elmhurst District 205
Pruneau: In education today, the only constant is change.
With a new superintendent, School Board and administrative staff, Elmhurst District 205 is ushering in new ways of doing things that are anything but business as usual.
One of the areas being revamped is the strategic planning process. Under the guidance of Superintendent David Pruneau, the district hopes to move toward planning initiatives that are more results-driven and measurable.
Revamping the district's fundamental guidepost—its vision statement—is the first step, Pruneau told board members Tuesday. A vision statement should be a "clear, concise statement" that becomes the theme of the organization and guides everyday decision-making, he said.
Board members said the current vision is wordy, meandering and difficult to remember, and should be simplified and narrowly focused.
Board member Maria Hirsch said the statement must deliver a consistent message.
"I want this to be something that from the kindergarten aide to the lunch ladies to the custodians, they all feel invested in it," she said.
Pruneau shared with School Board members some practices of his former district, in Rochester, Mich. The vision statement there consists of six words: "College ready, career ready, life ready," and it was put before the taxpayers for their input before the board adopted it.
With seven board members and nearly as many suggestions, Pruneau's cabinet members will distill what they heard at Tuesday's meeting and bring back suggestions to the board in two weeks.
"Hopefully, we'll have a couple of samples for you … you will commit to one and then we'll bring that out to the community for input," Pruneau said.
He also presented methods for goal setting and strategic planning that are new to District 205. Status quo will not move the district forward, he said, and continuous improvement means continuous change when it come to student achievement.
"Innovation and change create problems and mistakes inherently," he said. "If you're not making mistakes, you're not pushing hard enough. My sense is people want to be innovative, want to be cutting edge and change for student achievement sake. The caveat is, we shouldn't be making the same mistakes over and over again."
He said there will be a monetary cost to some of those changes.
"Innovation is not free," he said. "Corporations go through research and development. They spend dollars on those issues. Sometimes in education, we are reluctant to do R&D. Those kinds of commitments have to happen."
The district will have to look at where the problem areas are to decide where it should collect data, and assess that data on a regular basis.
"Then we can look at where you want to be in (three to five) years," he said. "Once you have that data, and you put in your benchmarks of where you want to be … that will drive your improvement process. You're not guessing at goal setting. You're actually looking at data and establishing priorities based on where the data says you need to improve."
The next step is to establish strategies and interventions to reach those goals, he said.
"That's where you start talking about resource allocation—what is it going to take to improve that area," he said. "The answers are out there with the employees and individuals who work at it on a daily basis."
Everyone in the organization will be accountable for improvement, he said.
"It's not going to happen over night, but over time you should see improvement in the system and a culture of collaboration," he said.
In Rochester, one area the district wanted to see improvement was freshman failure rate.
"We had freshmen failing at a rate of about 18 percent, and that was not acceptable. That became our performance indicator and (we created) a benchmark to start improving," he said. "Were we sure our strategies were going to be successful? No. If it doesn't work, we're going to try something else."
In Rochester, Pruneau formed a data-gathering team that presented information to the board once a year. But just because a district focuses on one goal this year doesn't mean those goals won't change next year, he said.
"It's a very fluid process in education right now—more fluid than I've ever seen in my career," he said.
Things are changing from month to month with regard to federal requirements for meeting Annual Yearly Progress, teacher evaluations and other mandates, he said.
"The performance indicators we establish this year may be obsolete by next year. The key is to be flexible," he said. "If a performance indicator is no longer valid, we'll have to throw it out. We can't waste time evaluating something that is obsolete and no longer relevant."
He said it took him a while to figure out that change is constant.
"I was always thinking that we were going to get to the point where everything was going to work. It's never going to happen. It's going to continuously change, and the rate of change is increasing," he said. "As educators, that's hard for us. We are very slow as an institution to reflect that change and we need to get better at it."
Another goal of the district has been to instill a culture of trust, which is difficult to measure. Data is collected by surveying employees on their level of satisfaction.
"You may be embarrassed by the results, but you have to collect that data," Pruneau said.
The strategic planning process is just one of several areas the district is revamping. Last month, at Pruneau's recommendation, the board formed four standing committees to focus on specific work: curriculum and instruction, finance and operations, board improvement and policy, and performance management.
One of the outcomes of the Board Improvement and Policy Committee has been to develop a board liaison to each of the district's 13 schools. Each board member adopts two schools per year so the board can connect with staff and students within each school. Board liaisons will rotate schools from year to year.
This year, Chris Blum will be aligned with Jefferson and Churchville; Jim Collins, Lincoln and Bryan; Susan DeRonne, Jackson and York; Shannon Ebner, Field and York; Maria Hirsch, Sandburg and Hawthorne; John McDonough, Fischer and Madison; and Karen Stuefen, Emerson and Edison.
A community forum also is being planned for Nov. 1 at York High School as an informal opportunity for parents and community members to share their thoughts with school board members.
All these elements are designed to create a better organization for students, staff and community, board members said, but it will take time.
"We've got a lot of work to do," McDonough said.