Yellow Springs School Board

Class of 2020 Initiative—Schools eye strategic plan

Change in any organization can be brought about by a shift in leadership, a shift in demand for service, or a shift in budgetary balance, or, as in the case of the Yellow Springs Exempted School District, it can be induced by all three forces at once. This fall the district will tackle the Class of 2020 Initiative to formulate a strategic plan to guide the schools through the next 10 years. The plan is an opportunity for the school community and for community members at large to help design the kind of school system they want for Yellow Springs.

“It’s an opportunity to look at the academic components, the financial components, and the core composition of the schools to create a sustainable model of education,” School Board President Sean Creighton said last week. “It’s also an opportunity to create an environment that fosters a sense of creativity and excitement, so that students are excited and want to be there.”

Even more than an opportunity to create a new way forward for Yellow Springs, according to board member Richard Lapedes, the 2020 Initiative is an imperative response to a tightening economic environment and a rapidly advancing “tech” generation that schools across the country must adapt to and be ready to serve.

The Yellow Springs school district has a mission statement and an education plan created by the superintendent each year stating the goals for that year. But the district has not had a long-term strategic plan that specifies goals and objectives with a timeline for achieving them, Creighton said. While the schools have talked about creating a strategic plan for several years, the momentum for change emerged only recently, when last year Benji Maruyama joined the school board, and this spring when the schools hired two new principals and a new superintendent. With increasingly demanding state testing mandates and competition for public funds as well as other regulations that increase credit flexibility for high schoolers, the timing felt right, Creighton said.  

“With the timing of the new administration and the changes that education is going through, it seems appropriate for us to be thinking about the future in an intentional way — not just reacting but defining who we want to be,” he said.

Local parent Amy Scott feels the initiative is a necessary way to create cost-saving solutions and hopefully come out with innovative and progressive ideas that are “really in line with our values,” she said.

“This is a really unique opportunity, with new [leaders] and a built-in challenge with the economy,” Scott said. “We have to think outside the box…take some risks and not rely so heavily on traditional educational academic and disciplinary models — we have the perfect community to do this.”

The district last week released a request for proposals from educational planning consultants around the country, one of whom will guide the Class of 2020 process this fall. The request asks for an experienced firm that can lead the district through a six-month process to develop a plan “in the context of the current social and economic environment as well as in consideration of future expectations about the type of 21st century skills young people will need in order to meet the challenges they confront personally and professionally. In particular, the Yellow Springs Board of Education is singularly focused on ensuring that each graduate is college and/or career ready.”

From the perspective of District Superintendent Mario Basora this week, the ultimate goal of a strategic plan is to meet the students where they are academically and “ensure that everybody learns.” While most districts have three- to five-year strategic plans, he feels Yellow Springs is smart to plan further ahead.

“Our kids are preparing for jobs and job markets that don’t exist yet, and they’ll need to learn how to adapt, because these kids are going to start the new 21st-century economy,” he said. “And Yellow Springs has a lot of intelligent, progressive-minded people who are open to creative ideas — we can really be the leaders.”

Some things that could be considered during the process, according to Basora, include inquiry-based learning models of teaching (including hands-on learning by doing), integration of technology into the curriculum, ways to teach students how to solve complex problems on an individual and collaborative level, and fostering creativity and critical thinking. Other components that could emerge from the process include developing a comprehensive fundraising program for the schools, becoming an arts or math and science magnet, figuring out how to offer more advanced placement courses, perhaps by partnering with the local colleges, and reassessing how teachers are evaluated and compensated.

Individual teachers have already engaged in hands-on methods to some extent, Maruyama said, and the schools received a $34,000 Energy-STEM grant this spring to connect the upgrading of the high school HVAC system to the high school curriculum, and the rehabilitation of Mills Lawn’s photovoltaic system to the elementary curriculum. But a strategic plan could provide a school-wide structure to support a constructivist, problem-based teaching model across the curriculum for the entire district, if the community wanted that, he said.

“There’s tons of good stuff about the schools, but there’s a lot of pent-up demand for new things, too, and for doing things better,” Maruyama said. “We need to get the whole community behind it — the reality is that it takes investment to do it.”

That investment is critical right now, according to Lapedes, as the local district suffered a 20 percent reduction in income tax revenue last year and expects to end the 2010–2011 budget with a $750,000 deficit, according to numbers prepared over the summer by District Treasurer Dawn Weller. State funding, which provides about 15 percent of district revenues, has also dipped slightly and is projected to keep declining, Weller reported at a school board meeting in June.

Lapedes also feels the schools desperately need a plan to update the technical skills of their own personnel, who will need to teach a technically savvy student body how to use digital tools creatively to see the connections between disciplines and become innovators.

Comparatively speaking, “The Internet, social media and electronic communities are just as impactful as the introduction of the printing press was,” Lapedes said last week. “Native users of electronic communities are arriving at our schools and are being met by people who are immigrant users,” he said, comparing the technological skills of students with even the youngest teachers, most of whom are just old enough to have missed the explosion of the digital age. Architecting a new approach to education in Yellow Springs must include training the school community to “understand what’s walking in the front door.”

“The trick with the 2020 Initiative is not only to make education relevant to the needs of our students, but also financially sustainable,” Lapedes said.

The planners of the 2020 Initiative want input from the school community and the community at large, they said. As co-chairs of the Class of 2020 Initiative, Creighton and Maruyama are joined by Basora and Treasurer Dawn Weller on the committee, which will also include representatives from the school’s faculty, staff and administration, as well as parents and community members. The committee plans to hear presentations by the leading consultant firms and choose one by Aug. 26. The planning process will be defined with the help of the firm in September, with implementation beginning in October and November. By December, the co-chairs hope to have a draft strategic plan for adoption in January.

The district won’t know how much the process will cost until the contract with the firm is negotiated, but Creighton estimated that the fee could be in the range of $25,000. The board also hopes to raise some or all of the funds through private donations or in-kind services, and Creighton said that fundraising could slow down the process.

The leaders of the process have some ideas and examples of methods that work well elsewhere, but all of them said that ultimately, the strategic plan must come from the community as a whole.

“It’s important that we all come together and collectively come to the answer,” Basora said. “In co-creating the plan, everyone feels accountable to and responsible for it, and will do what they can to support it and make sure that it works.”

To see the request for proposals, go to the school Web site at www.yellow-springs.k12.oh.us .

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