Call them strategic plans, master facilities plans or visioning processes.
No matter the nomenclature or the emphasis, there’s a whole lot of planning going on in school systems across the metro area — and probably will be for some time to come.
Part of the planning surge stems from a relatively new crop of superintendents — and in the case of the Omaha Public Schools, a mostly new school board — seeking to draw a road map to the future. Eight of the metro area’s 12 public school superintendents started their jobs within the past four years.
OPS is not alone. Several other metro area districts — from Bellevue to Elkhorn and Springfield Platteview to Westside — have recently completed or are in the midst of planning processes. The Archdiocese of Omaha’s Catholic Schools Office is working on a plan, too.
While schools routinely engage in planning, pushes for accountability through standards and assessment tests have created a need and a means to measure progress.
“Without a clearly identified direction and prioritization, it doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard and aren’t making progress, but we don’t really know where we’re making progress,” said Mark Evans, OPS’s new superintendent.
Here is some of the planning and goal-setting that is going on in the metro area:
Omaha Public Schools
OPS is about to launch a top-to-bottom needs assessment and begin work on a four- to five-year strategic plan. The district has been working from a document based on school board goals from more than a decade ago.
Evans said he expects to hear feedback on matters ranging from school security to building upkeep. The input from staff, parents and students will be used to craft clear goals, such as benchmarks for ACT scores, narrowing the achievement gap among ethnic groups or creating a technology plan for schools.
“Identifying a direction and course will be critical for us to show and demonstrate success,” Evans said.
The school is also conducting a study of its buildings. The district has built several new schools and renovated its oldest buildings, but those built in the 1950s or ’60s are starting to show their age, Evans said.
The initial plan should be completed by late January or February. But the district’s three-year deal with Cross & Joftus, a Bethesda, Md., consulting firm, includes periodic follow-ups and help implementing changes.
The total cost — a little more than $653,000 — will be shared equally by OPS, the Peter Kiewit Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Andy Rikli, who became superintendent July 1, said there is an increased emphasis on planning in education, driven in part by the accountability movement.
“If a school’s going to adequately address all those pressures, they have to have a road map,” he said.
Papillion-La Vista, he said, has a number of well-crafted plans in areas such as human resources and curriculum and instruction. Now the district wants to bring them under one unified plan so it can start talking about long-term goals and aligning resources with those goals.
He plans to start discussing planning with the school board today and spend the school year getting ready. He hopes to bring in someone to lead the discussion. Sometimes it can be difficult for people within an organization to take a truly objective look, he said.
Omaha Catholic schools
Patrick Slattery, superintendent of archdiocesan schools, said strategic planning is just good practice, and the kind of thing that businesses have been doing for decades. The archdiocese has been going through the process over the past two years, with the help of a Wisconsin-based company. Now his office is refining its response to that vision and providing a template for schools to prepare their own.
Brett Richards, Springfield Platteview’s superintendent since July 2012, said it’s too easy to get distracted without a plan.
With accountability, he said, districts are getting good at looking at data and seeing where they need to improve and at setting goals and determining how to measure them.
The district, once known as South Sarpy, went through a strategic planning process several years ago. Its current name was one result of it.
The district’s mission calls for creating 21st century learners, Richards said. An initiative to provide each junior and senior high school student with an iPad grew out of that. The district also is looking to increase college credit offerings.
It also is looking at its facilities. Science labs and media centers aren’t meeting today’s needs, Richards said, and safety features are lacking. Earlier this month the school board agreed to put a bond issue before voters to fund building renovations and additions.
Douglas County West
Douglas County West recently began assembling a steering committee to launch a review of its educational programs and facilities.
Most of the district’s buildings date from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, said Superintendent Dan Schnoes, now in his second year. They weren’t built to accommodate today’s technology or programs such as special education.
The study also will look to see whether programs need updating and at enrollment growth, which has picked up in recent years. The district’s nearly $42,000 contract with BCDM Architects, an Omaha architectural firm, will take the district through the study to a bond issue, if it goes that far.
The rapidly growing district did its first plan at least 25 years ago and has updated it about every five years. At first the plans largely dealt with growth, said Superintendent Steve Baker. Over the years, however, they’ve become more closely tied to curriculum and educational programs. The availability of student achievement data has aided that shift.
“It’s gone from ‘It feels like we’re doing a good job’ to ‘Either you are or you aren’t,’ ” he said.
The DLR Group this year updated the district’s master facilities plan for less than $20,000.
Blane McCann, superintendent since July 2012, said the district’s vision-setting process will look at enrollment trends, education programs and building functionality.
Westside’s facilities study will explore how educators will teach in the future and whether buildings are geared to meet that. It will focus in particular on the district’s elementary schools, the newest of which dates from 1975.
Its middle and high schools have been updated within the past decade, and the high school’s design already fits the school’s college-like modular schedule. The study will be conducted by the DLR Group and two other firms for a total of $223,000.
The district, led by longtime Superintendent Keith Lutz, has been guided by a strategic plan that was written in 1990 but is updated frequently. The most recent update came last year.
The $79.9 million bond issue voters approved in May emerged from an earlier version of the constantly evolving plan.
The school completed a three- to five-year technology plan and is working on plans in two other areas. It aims to have all three in place by next fall.
It has had an annual goal-setting process the past few years. On Oct. 7, the school board is scheduled to discuss whether the district is ready to move on to more long-term planning.
Forums offer chance to give feedback on your school
Is your child struggling under a too-heavy homework load?
Do you want to know how the district will phase in new technology in coming years?
Are you concerned that too much money is spent on administrators instead of classroom instructors?
If you've got opinions about those or other school-related subjects, Omaha Public Schools officials want to hear them.
“I'm of the mindset you have to look at the whole picture: the good, the bad and the ugly,” OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said.
As OPS crafts its first strategic plan in years, parents, staff and community members will get the chance to comment on the district's strengths, weaknesses and future direction at a series of community forums scheduled the week of Oct. 20.
The forums will include a short presentation explaining the strategic planning process. Then participants will break into small groups to identify what the district has done right or gotten wrong and what future direction it should take. Anonymous surveys will be available to allow participants to weigh in without identifying themselves.
“We want to make sure we're processing this in a way that doesn't make mom, dad, staff members or community members feel uncomfortable,” Evans said.
Those who can't attend the October forums can still weigh in via those anonymous surveys and the community forum website MindMixer.
Community forum dates are:
» Oct. 20, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Teacher Administrative Center board room, 3215 Cuming St.
» Oct. 22, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., North High School, 4410 N. 36th St.
» Oct. 23, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., South High School, 4519 S. 24th St.
» Oct. 24, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Burke High School, 12200 Burke Blvd.
— Erin Duffy