ASHWEST 2021: A Strategy for the Future
Dr. Gary F. Mazzola, Superintendent of Schools
Ashburnham Westminster Regional Schools Support Powerful Teaching and Learning
As we approach the mid-point of the school year, I’d like to provide you with an update regarding the work associated with the district’s strategic improvement initiative and begin to engage our educators more actively in the process. At the opening of school this year, I shared with you the conceptual understandings associated with the book, Strategy in Action, by Rachel Curtis and Elizabeth City. This book, along with the findings from the Superintendent’s Entry plan that I shared, were used to strategically identify priority focus areas for continuous systematic improvement.
The central focus of this work is on the instructional core: the interaction of teachers (instructional practices) and students in the presence of content (curriculum).
Each point of this triangle is critical and the interactions between the three produce high levels of learning. The purpose of developing a strategic and systematic continuous learning plan is to relentlessly focus on the support of the instructional core. Curtis and City contend that:
“School systems that focus on the core with a coherent strategy, executed and refined over time, are making progress in fulfilling their vision of supporting all children to learn at high levels, to contribute to their communities, and be ready for career and college. To be sure, this is harder than it sounds; school systems face numerous compelling demands. But it is the only path toward improvement.” (p.12)
The Administrative Cabinet began the process by conducting a “brainstorm sort” of all of the initiatives taking place in the district. Those initiatives were grouped and regrouped, resulting in six categories that would eventually lead to the development of strategic objectives. To determine if there was a clear strategy for continuous improvement which guided these initiatives, the cabinet assessed each category using a rubric. The need for focus, coherence, and synergy between initiatives became evident.
The next step in the process was a review of the District’s mission and vision statements. The vision describes what the District is working toward, while the mission describes how the District is going to get there. The Administrative Cabinet engaged in a “Back to the Future” activity that encouraged “audacious imagination” about future possibilities for students, adults, and the systems that support them. “Be audacious” became our mantra! From there, the cabinet described where the District is and identified what needs to take place between now and five years from now to realize the vision. This exercise helped to better define the vision and the strategy needed to get there. Then, the Administrative Cabinet drafted a new vision and mission statement, revisited and revised both, and shared each draft with district faculty, staff, and the School Committee for review and feedback. Changes were made, resulting in a new and revised mission and vision statement that was presented to the School Committee for their review and endorsement on October 18, 2016.
On opening day, I described the notion of identifying the “big rocks” for our district as a metaphor for focusing first on the priority strategies and then filling in around those strategies with objectives and initiatives. The Administrative Cabinet revisited district initiative categories and began to prioritize and make connections between them. This grouping and regrouping of initiatives, reflective of the vision and mission, culminated in the identification of three major strategy areas or “big rocks” to drive continuous systemic improvement:
- Excellence and Innovation in Teaching & Learning
- Information, Media, & Technology
- Readiness to Wellness
Each strategy area will be focused on the instructional core and on a few things that are coherent and synergistic, as well as being balanced in solving the issues in pursuit of the District’s vision. A theory of action and a small number of strategic objectives and initiatives that frame the areas upon which the district will concentrate were then developed for each strategy area.
In early fall, three strategy area subcommittees were formed to develop an action plan for each “big rock”. To develop an action plan that included strategic objectives, priority initiatives, persons responsible, timelines, resources and evidence of effectiveness over a five year period, each strategy area subcommittee did research, conducted site visits and consults on how to design these strategy areas.
Another important step in the execution of a strategy is aligning resources to the strategy. Strategy drives the budgeting process and the allocation of resources such as time, staff, and money. The implementation of a strategic continuous improvement plan provides a laser focus on where precious resources will be allocated which may require shifting resources by making difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decisions. Funding priorities are directly connected to the three major strategy areas and are supported by the work of the Administrative Cabinet in their implementation of a continuous improvement plan. The development of the budget is a collaborative process, the responsibility of which is shared by the Administrative Cabinet, the School Councils via the school improvement plans, and the School Committee. The identified funding priorities may require the School Committee to adopt budget goals beyond a level services budget that will move the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District closer to achieving the vision.
As educators, our business or “product” is learning. School systems exist to facilitate student learning. School systems also need to be intentional about facilitating adult learning. In schools where educators are actively engaged, it is quite likely to see students actively engaged.
“Strategic engagement as acting in purposeful ways to focus first and foremost on children; looking within and beyond the system to imagine what is possible and be inspired; organizing work in the ways that value people, engage them, and hold them accountable; and reflecting in action and learning to guide improvements are habits of high performing organizations that will serve school systems well.” (p. 193)
The Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District is well on its way toward realizing the potential of strategic action. In the months to come, faculty and staff will engage in activities designed to move this strategic plan forward. Much of the work is already underway, and I continue to be impressed by your dedication to “learning” and to the students of AshWest. Thank you and dare to be “audacious!”