By Andrew Cluley
Thanksgiving dinner is often a time for families to sit together and have conversations that might not happen any other time of the year. Ann Arbor Public Schools are hoping staff and community members will still have thoughts to share after turkey day. That’s because AAPS plans to start a community conversation later this month that will eventually lead to a new strategic plan for the district.
Planning work has been underway for months as Superintendent Jeanice Swift, her cabinet, and the Board of Education developed a framework to find out what the community wants from the district. The plan is similar to the Listen and Learn tour Swift initiated when she arrived in Ann Arbor in 2013.
Four basic questions are at the core of the community conversation:
- As we think about the future, what do we want for our children in this Ann Arbor community?
- What do you value in the AAPS that you want to be sure to hold on to?
- Where do you see opportunities for improvement?
- What else do you want us to know?
Swift says she’s particularly interested in hearing answers to the third question that focuses on making AAPS better for everyone in the community. “No one knows better than our students, and our parents, and our community members and our staff exactly where opportunities are to do better, to realize improvement,” she says.
This conversation will take place in a variety of formats including plenty of discussions with staff. “We will use the face to face meeting format, we prefer that, we love sitting around a table chatting with folks,” Swift says. “So we’ll do that in leadership meetings, with teachers, with principals, with instructional council, with employee leadership groups, we’ll do that in staff meetings in every single school, and in each and everyone of our departments.”
Students and community members will also have plenty of opportunities to share their thoughts, with a tour of schools, community centers, and other locations, as well as talks with strategic parent and community groups. Swift also wants to make sure community members who can’t make meetings will have a say, so technology will play a role. “Because not everyone will get their voice heard at a public meeting, we also are going to make sure to use the Thought Exchange online conversational tour and from our experience last year, our first endeavor with Thought Exchanges, we expect and anticipate thousands of responses,” she said.
Members of the School Board stress that it’s important to make sure outreach is made to ensure often unheard voices are included in the conversation. Trustee Harmony Mitchell says this includes students that aren’t currently finding a lot of success in school. “Make sure that we are meeting with students who are actually struggling, those who will be vulnerable and not feel like they have a voice and will not show up to the community centers or the schools because they don’t want it to be publicly known that they are struggling,” Mitchell says.
Trustee Baskett adds that it may take some tweaking of the discussion to make some in the community more likely to participate. “Stressing to the students what do you need, how can we make it happen,” Baskett says. “I think we may get a different approach, same information that you’re looking for as far as planning, but again it seems a little more relevant, engaging, and family friendly.”
After getting initial feedback over the fall and winter months, AAPS staff will compile a set of goals, ideas and values that they heard the community share. A second round of community conversations will then take place in March and April. Swift describes this as fine tuning the plan and making sure it accurately reflects community sentiment. “Well maybe we said that, but we didn’t mean it exactly that way. We think you need to make an adjustment here or there,” Swift says are the type of tweaks she’ll be looking for in this phase of the conversation.
Swift expects to share a draft report with the Board of Education sometime between April and June and then a final strategic plan would be published either in June or around the beginning of the new school year in September.
A final phase of the project will take place over the summer and into the fall, and that’s work within AAPS departments to set baselines, metrics and plans of actions on how to work towards the goals outlined in the new plan. Swift compared this to Russian Nesting Dolls, with each department having their own plan that fits into the larger overall strategic plan. In many ways this work is most crucial according to Swift. “It’s one thing to say we intend to hold these values, we intend to achieve these goals, but the question is how will we know?” she says.
While many of the community concerns that led to standing room only crowds on Swift’s initial Listen and Learn Tour have been addressed, Board of Education President Christine Stead says this plan can help AAPS navigate other internal issues and those external challenges that public education in Michigan and across the nation are facing. “How do we ensure that our district thrives, and that we might anticipate other potential things that we don’t control but we may have to survive with and thrive with,” Stead says. “And how do we create the kind of trust and morale as we do this work to stick together as a team and face that together as a team.”