Planning the Journey
Our strategic planning began during the 2017-2018 school year. Leadership retreats and community meetings informed the authoring of foundational statements, including a theory of action to frame the development of a new vision of our school. Monthly focus groups with students, community-wide surveys, and data analysis guided by equity goals also started us on our journey.
In the opening weeks of 2018, a committee of staff gathered information from all of our conversations into a new mission, and declared destinations for the district. Focus groups with students, community workshops sessions, and continued surveying helped to provide visionary “look-fors” that we could use to imagine those destinations.
In the summer of 2018, school leaders and staff wrote stewardship principles to guide the selection, development, and improvement of programs. We are committed to the notion that this school has enormous capacity to identify the necessary next steps, and to build implementation plans to carry us forward. Amazing work happens each and every day at Central. Unfortunately, that work can often occur in silos. For Central, the challenge is not so much understanding what the work ought to be, but rather bringing that work to scale and maximizing its impacts.
In the fall of 2018, Central administered the New Jersey School Climate Survey. The survey not only provided a baseline for our planning efforts, but also revealed a threshold truth of our work. If we are to tackle serious challenges, we need to work together in ways that the sociology of teaching makes difficult. We cannot close classroom doors and work in isolation, but rather must join together with common purpose, common language, and respect for differences. We must move classroom priorities from grades and rules to growth and empowerment. The school’s culture needs to shift if we are to reach our destinations, honor our stewardship principles, and realize our mission.
A key assumption behind our strategic plan is that our community of parents, partners, staff, and students possesses the talent to innovate toward our goals. Our plan not only respects the benefits of harnessing that talent but sees that talent as necessary to our success.
For that reason, innovation is one of our primary planning ethics. Innovation in schools, however, has a troubled history. Classroom innovation always runs the risk of serving itself rather than any larger purpose. Schools thus fall into the trap of measuring an initiative’s status rather than its impact. We do not reach our goals merely by embracing innovations. Rather, we realize our mission when we measure the impact of innovations, and bring the most impactful innovations to as many students as possible.Organizations always face dilemmas and must find solutions. However, not all dilemmas are clear, and not all solutions are obvious. We have defined our dilemma as one of engagement. Students must have more room to find themselves in our program, and to achieve a full sense of belonging in our community. Schools have long-struggled with answers to this challenge.
Author Greg Satell offers a useful framework for understanding the role of innovation in this context. When we know the problem, but need to explore solutions, we must engage in “breakthrough innovation,” an effort that is focused and directed along goals and priorities as opposed to pushing boundaries in any direction for the sake of the exercise. In other words, we must bring our creativity to bear upon specific articulated challenges, and commit to measuring the impacts that we have.
We authored our stewardship principles to help preserve the necessary focus, but we know that we must do more than declare principles to channel our talent. We have therefore imagined innovation as a backbone to our efforts. We seek to write innovation into our structure, and onto our campus.
We began our implementation in early 2019 with the creation of a Supervisor of Special Projects position. This individual is responsible for finding good work, providing common frameworks for measuring that work’s impact against our goals, and then shepherding that work across the entire program so that all students may benefit.
We also believe that some of our most deeply-rooted structures, particularly the models by which we evaluate staff, must provide clear access to this shepherding by celebrating and incentivizing innovation. Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, our District Evaluation Advisory Committee began analyzing evaluation models to explore a best fit.
Our large campus offers many benefits, but can also present obstacles to collaboration. For that reason, we need to pave pathways for innovation into the campus itself. This begins with our media center. The IMC has always been a site for innovation, but we must turn every chair in the space to face innovation as the focus of the library’s contribution. Innovation will be central to our efforts, so innovation’s heart must beat as strongly as possible at the center of our campus.
If the IMC is to be a proving ground for innovation, then clear pathways must bring that innovation to learning commons, fabrication, and other flexible spaces—both classrooms and workrooms—arranged into a thoughtful network across our 72 acres. In this, we do not see a school as a collection of classrooms, but rather an integrated system. The campus itself will be a sound body, hosting a sound mind.
The “Design Process” in Education:
Education has grabbed hold of the "design process" as a pedagogical strategy as if it were a new concept. However, the construction of kownledge across all human disciplines has always honored design processes. As we personalize education for all students, at a time when technology has answered the challenge of remembering minutiae, we must move teaching, learning, and assessment away from memorization and toward invention and iteration. Engaging students in invention and iteration must be the goal of every program.
Though we need a common language for teaching in a design-focused environment, we must recognize that every discipline has forged its own design processes. While these are similar—the scientific method works the same basic functions of discovery as the industrial design process—they have each answered content-specific challenges in different ways. These answers have served specialists for millennia. Therefore, no single process can govern all of teaching and learning.
When creating solutions in a strategic planning context, however, we require an organizational improvement design process that is general enough for all stakeholders to wield. Traditional feedback loops—single-loop models like Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA)—are certainly simple and elegant, but are prone to encouraging work for its own sake. A double-loop learning design process, on the other hand, always brings us back to our assumptions and beliefs. For Hunterdon Central, such a process will both respect the talent that we possess to craft our own solutions, and also promote reflection through our stewardship principles to ensure that our designs reach toward our goals, and not just themselves.
To develop and improve programs, we will convene Design Teams. Design Teams must always honor our core beliefs, enshrined in our mission statement and destinations, while they measure their planning and implementation against our stewardship principles.
We may call on Design Teams to develop action plans. We may also ask them to implement plans, when implementation requires invention. In either case, some members of a Design Team must take on specific roles.
Our inclusion of a “Learning Coordinator” on any Design Team signals an important belief. Professional learning of staff is a crucial operation in any school improvement effort. However, professional learning must always serve the outcome that we intend for our students. It is an important means to achieve those ends, but it is never an end for its own sake.
Destinations: A Design Team Manual will arrive in July of 2019, and will offer more specific guidance.