District creating strategic plan to guide future

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Whitefish High School

Whitefish Schools Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt wants to lay the groundwork for the district’s success moving forward.

Davis Schmidt last month introduced a draft strategic plan for the district that would set measurable goals and directions through 2025. The draft is the result of several work sessions with the Whitefish School Board Trustees, staff, administration and members of the public, which focused on nailing down what the district is and isn’t doing right and how the latter can be addressed moving forward.

Davis Schmidt said the district’s plan has existed in more of a vision format, so getting the plan down in writing is the next step.

“We don’t really have a strategic plan. We have a strategic vision and an idea of what we think is important, and now we’re moving to that next step of saying, ‘OK, we have this plan, this vision, our foundation, but how are we going to measure our effectiveness. And what are the strategies we’re going to put in place to ensure that we continually improve?’” she told the Pilot.

The plan sets three priorities: improving academic achievements in literacy, mathematics and deeper learning skills; ensuring educators are effective leaders, teachers and support staff members; and making Whitefish Schools a safe, inclusive and welcoming learning environment for students, families and staff.

Each priority is broken down with measurable goals that, if reached, would indicate the district has been successful in its plan.

For academic achievement, the measurable goals are split between test score numbers, graduation rates and survey results. Improving test scores has been a priority for the district since a report last fall on Star testing and assessment data showed a slight decrease in scores over the past three years. The goals set out in the strategic plan call for 90 percent of students reaching proficient or advanced scores in some of the test scores that have been declining.

Davis Schmidt said one reason behind dropping scores is a lack of consistency in curriculum and professional development across the district.

“They have been declining over the last three years, and we need to get to the bottom of why that is. I believe the reason is we don’t have a solid core curriculum in critical areas, like English language arts and mathematics,” she said, noting that a shift to more workshop-style approaches of teaching or new tests shouldn’t have a big effect on scores. “I’m a firm believer that if you’re doing it right, then the test scores are going to reflect that either way.”

Reaching the 90 percent proficiency would mean increases of about 30 to 45 percent depending on the grade level and tests.

It’s ambitious, but Davis Schmidt stressed this isn’t all supposed to happen immediately.

“It’s important that we look at this as realistic and also with the right measures,” she said. “So we’re not necessarily just looking at boosting our percentages up by 30 percent between now and next year. This is a six-year outlook, so we’re looking at improving ourselves continuously over those next six years by focusing our efforts. We talked about a 5 to 7 percent per year kind of growth that we’d be looking for, and we also talked about ways to measure individual student growth.”

The achievement priority also sets out for a 90 percent graduation rate and 90 percent agreement in survey questions like “students believe we are preparing them for life, career, and citizenship.”

In the second priority of ensuring educators are effective leaders, improvement would also be measured by a 90 percent agreement in surveys given to educators, students and their parents, with a focus on making the classrooms an exciting place to learn and stressing professional development for staff and administrators.

To get there, the plan details ways to create infrastructure for more data-driven instruction, develop a consistent onboarding plan for teachers, invest in virtual coaching for teachers within their first year and provide ongoing professional development and support.

As to the third priority of making the schools a safe and comforting environment, that would also be measured with a goal of 90 percent agreement in student, parent and teacher surveys, with focuses on building school to family partnerships, getting students involved in community volunteering and putting students through a social/emotional learning curriculum.

When Davis Schmidt debuted the plan to the board, administrators, teachers and parents during a recent school board work session, she said she gathered a lot of valuable feedback on the pluses and minuses of the plan.

A big focus within the plan is the balance between test-taking skills and what she calls “deeper learning skills,” which includes critical thinking, social, behavioral and other skills.

“You can’t focus on just one or the other. If you focus only on the core academic achievement and you don’t do it in a relevant, project-based way, then students lose interest,” she said. “We need to balance both of those things. I think deeper learning has become a strength of ours, I think that’s something we’re doing a much better job — of creating a workshop based model of learning in our classrooms, where students are really engaged in the process and teachers are really committed to that. But doing so within a clear expectation of what student outcomes should be is absolutely critical to ensure that they learn all the skills that are needed.”

Davis Schmidt also said there was a lot of feedback on the need to share data in context.

Rather than just presenting a report with some student achievement data for the board to discuss, in the future it could be administrators or educators working directly with the data presenting it.

“We talked about the ways we can do that in terms of bringing teacher teams to the board to share their perceptions, even bring students to the board to share their perceptions, as these kinds of data are shared with the public,” she said.

The strategic plan will be an ongoing process. Davis Schmidt is reviewing and making changes to the draft based on the feedback she gathered.

Davis Schmidt is set to present a second version of the strategic plan at the April 9 School Board meeting, and a work session later in April will likely follow. She said she hopes for final approval from the board to adopt the plan in May, but wants to make sure to take the time to get it right.

In the meantime, she’s happy to keep working with the board, administrators, staff and parents to nail down what the district needs should be, she said.

“When you get everybody together in the same room, you can really start to see the themes of what’s working well and what we might need to consider doing differently. And it’s not just me or me and the board sitting over here thinking that we know, as opposed to having more input,” she said. “It’s always easier to make something better if you have something to react to, than if you’re starting from a blank state.”

The draft plan is available on the school district website at https://www.wsd44.org/ by clicking on the School Board tab and within the March 19 Board Work Session Agenda link.

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