Strategic District Planning: 4 Questions to Guide Your Success

Ensuring all students in your district reach their potential begins with a strategic plan—a map to enable you to fulfill that vision. Consider these questions as part of your planning this year.
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Blog date
2/6/24
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In the dynamic landscape of education, district leaders have an increasingly challenging and multifaceted role. In addition to managing fiscal operations, creating and maintaining positive relationships with your school principals and school board, and nurturing relationships with state and local government agencies, it’s also your responsibility to define what success looks like for your district community.

This forward-thinking aspect of your role is why strategic planning is so critical. A school district’s strategic plan is a living, breathing entity—a compass that guides you and your school leaders through purposeful, continuous improvement. The clearer this roadmap is, the more confident you can be that your district’s future path is the right one.

A district’s strategic plan is a living, breathing entity—a compass that guides you and your school leaders through purposeful, continuous improvement.

No doubt, you have a myriad of strategic priorities you want to achieve: instructional excellence, cultivating an inclusive environment for everyone who calls your district home, ensuring students are future-ready. To truly dig into those goals—and discover your next best steps for making them a reality—it helps to have a set of foundational questions as a guide for effective district planning. We’ve put together a short list of our favorites, and why they matter. For more on how to communicate your plan to your community, visit: Communication is Key: Three Strategies to Activate Your District's Strategic Plan.

Where are we right now?

When strategic planning is kicked off, there’s a lot of excitement over the “what” and the “how”: what we want to do differently as a district, and how we’re going to get there. 

Before we boldly move forward in charting a new course for district success, however, we first need to consider the “where.” As in, “Where are we, right now?” Goal setting and action planning hinge on diagnosing our current state. 

Before we boldly move forward in charting a new course for district success, however, we first need to consider the “where.” As in, “Where are we, right now?” Goal setting and action planning hinge on diagnosing our current state. 

One way to answer that question is to conduct what’s called a “Situation Assessment.” Through this audit, administrators and their staff can take the temperature of the district’s current state through the lens of several key areas, such as:

  • Constituents: What’s the current perspective of the district among teachers and staff, parents and families, students, and the larger district community? What’s needed to change any negative perceptions?
  • Finances: What’s the current financial state of the district? What does our funding look like for the next few years, and what large projects do we anticipate taking on?
  • Education trends: What are the recent shifts in the industry, and what’s anticipated for the future? Are we behind, at, or ahead of those trends?
  • Performance trends: How are our schools—and students—performing at a high level? What do we have reliable data on, and where do we need to improve to ensure student success?
  • Recent goals & initiatives: What have we achieved against our current plan? How successful have we been with recent special projects or initiatives?
  • Organizational: What are our strengths and areas of improvement with regard to our district’s structure, process, technology, and culture?

An efficient way to ensure you’re capturing the answers to these is through a district SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. Having all the information in one place will make it easier for you to take the next, best steps.

Do we want to lead the process ourselves or participate in it?

When done well, strategic planning is both complex and personal. As a district leader, you know how important it is to generate a district vision that inspires action—and for that reason, it can often feel like this initiative is one that’s squarely on your shoulders.

Here’s where a reminder might be helpful, because strategic planning is not simply your responsibility. Nor can it be just your vision or your priorities. For some district leaders, this is the toughest part of the planning process: realizing your passion might not be the same as the rest of your planning committee, or even the right direction for your district. 

This is where it might make sense to have a strategic planning facilitator come in and lead your planning efforts. One big advantage of having someone else lead your strategic planning is that it can help you get into deeper conversations with your team without feeling like you’re the one that needs to keep track of the details or constantly keep the conversation going.

One big advantage of having someone else lead your strategic planning is that it can help you get into deeper conversations with your team without feeling like you’re the one that needs to keep track of the details or constantly keep the conversation going.

In addition, identifying external support that’s aligned with your district’s mission and values can help make the strategic planning process more accessible, as it ensures everyone that’s part of the planning is able to share their perspectives and thoughts. An outside facilitator can also help keep the discussion focused, identify trends in the conversation streams, and summarize priorities so they’re easier to act on. You also save valuable staff time, as strategic planning takes a fair amount of time to coordinate! 

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How can we center equity of voice in our strategic planning process?

Education leaders know that equity—making sure every student has access to the resources and educational rigor they need at the right moment in their education—begins at the district level. And, it starts at the beginning of your district strategic planning process, too. Here are a few important ways to keep equity and inclusivity at the forefront of your efforts:

  • Gather meaningful feedback: Feedback is an imperative for strategic planning. After all, you want to make sure you’re getting perspectives from as diverse of a group as possible—especially those groups who may not always be the loudest. Consider how you’ll get feedback from your community at large. Designing a range of ways to engage—community forums and focus groups, online surveys, one-on-one interviews, and more—will allow for engagement from a broad range of stakeholders, and get you the deep insights you’re looking for. 
  • Focus on accessibility: Make sure your feedback opportunities are accessible. Translate documents and surveys if you need to, and make an effort to hear from the members of your community that are most impacted by inequities in your district, such as unhoused students and families, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners. 
  • Diversify the planning committee: As you’re looking to bring a group together that will be tasked with drafting a strategic plan, ensure that parents, teachers, community members, and school leaders are represented, along with board and district leadership. This also means having representatives from different schools and backgrounds in your district to provide more comprehensive input.
  • Make it possible for students to have a say: Consider asking students to participate in this effort. For example, this charter school system invited a group of students to take part in their strategy planning sessions. During these sessions, students reviewed data from their schools, voiced their suggestions on everything from how to elevate family engagement to safety and belonging, and had an opportunity to express their agency
Feedback is an imperative for strategic planning. After all, you want to make sure you’re getting perspectives from as diverse of a group as possible—especially those groups who may not always be the loudest.

Does everyone see themselves in our district’s vision?

Your district’s vision statement is its goal for the future. Think of your vision as your North Star—guiding the initiatives you deliver, the overall experience you want everyone in your district to have, and how you make them feel responsible and empowered to maintain that experience. 

It’s also the “why” behind your strategic planning efforts. Often, the first step in creating a strategic plan is cultivating a powerful vision for your district’s future. If you’re at the beginning of crafting your own district vision statement, here are some questions that can inform the process:

  • What is the ultimate goal for all of our students?
  • What do we want our students to believe about themselves and their potential?
  • What is our vision for success for our students beyond our school? 
  • What do we want our future leaders to know and be able to do? What kind of people do we want them to be? 
  • What values should our larger district community model to help students reach these goals? 

In our book Breakthrough Principals, we say that a school’s vision is most effective if it “grows out of a school’s needs”—and this also holds true for your overarching district vision. For example, if part of your district’s vision statement is to ensure that every student can and will be ready to succeed in college and career but you have data that shows a particular student group in your schools are not getting access to engaging, relevant, and age appropriate coursework, it might signal a gap between your vision and your current state. This is where your strategic planning comes in—giving you an opportunity to work on filling those gaps. 

Think of your vision as your North Star—guiding the initiatives you deliver, the overall experience you want everyone in your district to have, and how you make them feel responsible and empowered to maintain that experience. 

Strategic planning = helping you pave the way toward educational excellence

Strategic planning isn’t simply a box to check. It has the opportunity to be an inclusive and joyful (yes, joyful!) journey in realizing your school’s ultimate potential.

By answering these key questions during the planning process, district leaders can pave the way toward a future where every person involved in the process—administrators, school board members, parents and families, teachers and staff, and of course, students—see themselves as part of the same thriving and equitable education landscape.

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