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3 Ways Your Next School Strategic Plan Can Break the Mold

Posted by on September 30th, 2020
Posted in Blog, Independent Schools, Strategic Planning   

In order for your independent school to remain sustainable, you must demonstrate relevance. Educational programs designed even a decade ago no longer hold the same significance as the world continues to evolve. Periodic strategic planning presents independent school boards and school leadership a golden opportunity to vigorously study our ever-changing world so you can make the necessary course corrections to ensure student learning needs are met, and your school is indispensable.

But strategic planning has a bad rap; and it’s no wonder because schools invest a whole year (sometimes longer) and tens of thousands of dollars in a process that yields a plan strikingly similar to their previous, expired plans. Or worse, that are so indistinct it could be the plan of any number of competing schools.

At Mission Minded, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all solution to strategic planning – neither the process nor the result. It needs to be said; to inspire your community to action, you need an inspired strategic plan!

The old mold for strategic planning: If you produce an expected strategic plan with four or five “commitments,” and only one of them obligates the school to optimize its program as the others focus on operations (facilities, finance, fundraising, etc.), your plan is likely to be both expected and uninspiring, missing the chance to launch you powerfully forward with purpose.

Here are three fresh strategic plan models that break the mold.

Learning Outcomes Plan

Ask yourself, “What do young people need from their education in the coming decades and how can we deliver it?”

This model is for schools who resolve to use their educational program as the frame for their strategic commitments signaling that operations are in service to program.

In this model, strategic commitments are articulated in terms of student learning outcomes which, of course, are specific and relevant to YOUR school. Learning outcomes would differ greatly between a “STEM” school, a parochial school, a developmental elementary school, a performing arts school, or a college preparatory high school, etc. and can be about academic mastery, skills acquisition, cultural competence, creative expression, social/emotional wellbeing, moral/ethical development, health and wellness, religious/spiritual development, the list goes on. A good plan doesn’t pick ALL of those things, it prioritizes the right outcomes for its mission.

When schools articulate their strategic commitments in terms of learning outcomes for students, naturally, their most pressing priorities concern teaching and learning—things like curriculum development, student assessments, professional development, and faculty and staff recruitment, retention, and evaluation.

Take a look at Curtis School’s (DK-6) inspired, learning outcomes strategic plan whose mission is: Develop, in every child, a sound mind in a sound body, governed by a compassionate heart.

Curtis School embraced a strategic plan rooted in the commitments to four learning outcomes for their students, articulated in terms of literacies:

  • Intellectual literacy – our students will have the ability and agility to make meaning out of information in both a reflective and innovative way.
  • Human literacy – out students will have the ability to understand their own emotions, listen to others and empathize with their emotions, and express emotions productively in order to understand and connect with other human beings.
  • Wellness literacy – our students will develop the ability to be aware of, and have the skills to make choices that lead to, healthy mental and physical wellbeing.
  • Cultural literacy – our students will develop the ability to communicate across cultures and boundaries in order to interact fluidly among people of different social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

Thematic Strategic Plan

Is there a big idea that unites your strategic commitments?

Strategic planning work is best when done in phases – the first is to deeply understand your school and the environment in which it exists, and the second is to envision what it can become. Often times, while ideating about the latter, planning teams or steering committees will recognize a theme emerging through the words they use to describe the work they need to do or their school’s future. For one school the theme may be about connection, for another it may be about exploration, and for another yet, it may be about transformation.

This model is for schools who resolve to use a thematic idea as the frame for their strategic commitments.

Marlborough School (7-12) recognized the need for disruption when their planning committee rolled up their sleeves and practiced blue sky thinking. Guided by their legacy as a leader in girls’ education (and inspired by a Head who often quoted Blue Ocean Shift, by Mauborgne and Kim, with senior leadership), the school was in a unique position to imagine their plan as one that would serve as a standard bearer for other independent schools by boldly seeking to redefine excellence in education.

Here’s Marlborough School’s inspired, thematic strategic plan, guided by their vision for a future world in which Equity Leads Education, and leveraging the theme of transformation:

  • We commit to TRANSFORMING our community so that equity is at the heart of a Marlborough education.
  • We commit to TRANSFORMING the way we define excellence in our program, reaffirming our role as a national leader among academic institutions.
  • We commit to TRANSFORMING our culture into one that integrates health, wellness, and kindness as foundational priorities.
  • We commit to TRANSFORMING our partnership with Los Angeles, ensuring that our program and campus benefit our students, our city, and our planet.

Branded Strategic Plan

If you’re drawn, like a magnet, to “the mold,” fear not: there’s still a way to distinguish your plan.
It may be that your school—perhaps because of the population you serve—simply isn’t in a position to articulate strategic learning outcomes, or your blue sky thinking didn’t yield a particular thematic idea, OR, you simply have looming operational priorities as a school so, no matter how hard you try, your committee is drawn, like a magnet, to the “the mold” described above (four or five commitments, and only one of them commits the school to optimizing program while the others are operations focused). Fear not, it’s still possible to create a strategic plan that is distinctive from your previous plan and from that of your competitors, by leveraging your school’s unique brand in the way you articulate your commitments.

This third model is for schools who resolve to use their brand assets as the frame for their strategic commitments.

Here’s Sterne School’s (4-12) branded strategic plan leveraging Sterne’s brand promise: Start with strengths, and using the schools’ name in each commitment so as to further distinguish (and brand) the work to be done:

  • The Sterne Academic Playbook – We commit to optimizing the curriculum by creating a playbook that guides educators to amplify and teach to the strengths of all learning profiles.
  • The Sterne Staff Development Program – We commit to a staff recruitment and retention program that sets new standards for compensation excellence and best-in-class training for everyone.
  • Sterne Student / Community Life – We commit to offering a Sterne community experience that is fulfilling, enriching, and made to stick.
  • Sterne Operational Excellence: We commit to excellence in institutional infrastructure and operations to cement our reputation as a West Coast thought leader for neurodiverse education.

Note: under each of the strategic commitments you see here, Curtis, Marlborough, and Sterne Schools listed anywhere between four and six strategic priorities: the steps they will take to implement their strategic commitments. You can read those details by following the links to the individual plans.

Have a strategic plan approach in mind? Mission Minded can help!

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Director of Education Strategy Romayne Levee leads our education practice, working with independent schools and educational organizations to raise their profiles with strategies that benefit school leaders and their communities immeasurably. She has developed dynamic strategic plans and brand strategies for Mission Minded clients from coast to coast, including San Francisco Day School, Friends School of Baltimore, and Marlborough School (LA). Romayne is the founding Board Chair of Vistamar School, an independent high school in LA, and currently serves on the Board of Lewis & Clark College.

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