Friday, April 1, 2011

Strategic Planning in MDUSD takes a leap toward reality

In some good news coming out of the MDUSD, the "plan" for strategic planning is starting to take shape.  In case you missed item 14.11 at the last board meeting, it was all about strategic planning.  First, on the agenda was posted an Input Session plan, and a draft of a 2010-2015 strategic plan itself.  The timelines for public input on the document shows public input will begin with meetings at the various feeder pattern high schools starting in May, and continue at a middle school, then with the various district committees, community groups, foundations, seniors and staff. 

In correspondence with Brian Lawrence, a Concord father, he has some ideas of what a strategic plan should address and his thoughts.  It is worthy of sharing and I hope we can begin an open discussion about what a strategic plan should be for our district.  Below are his thoughts and questions.  What do you think?

On Feb. 23, the Mt. Diablo School Board voted unanimously to refrain from closing any additional schools at this time. School closure is unfortunate and it has certainly been a painful process here in MDUSD. We do, however, have the opportunity to consider and remedy the cause of school closures- a steady decline in student enrollment. If we don’t deal with this problem, we will inevitably be faced with closing even more schools in the future.

The District states that declining enrollment in MDUSD has not resulted in an increase in private school enrollment over the same period. It has been argued that declining enrollment is merely reflective of a low birth rate. This neglects the fact that in adjacent school districts, such as San Ramon, they are actually seeing an increase in student enrollment.

Parents of school age children are voting with their wallets and their feet—they are moving out of MDUSD. Many parents calculate the cost of private school tuition and decide the money would be better spent on a mortgage in a different school district. The number-one factor in purchasing a home for most parents of school-aged kids is the school system—the negative perception of MDUSD has a huge impact on every homeowner in the area. In aggregate, it is tens of millions of dollars in lost home value.

So how do we solve this problem? There have been past attempts to pass a parcel tax to provide more funds for the district. A parcel tax requires 2/3 approval in order to pass. There is zero chance that will happen without the District doing a better job of articulating how the money will be spent and restoring trust in the District.

Several people have offered a strategic plan as a first step towards a solution, but there has not been very much discussion about what that plan might actually look like. A strategic plan is only as good as the people who create and implement it.

In order for a strategic plan to be successful, people have to buy in to it. All of the different stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, staff, business leaders, etc.) need to have a voice in the process. It needs to be something that drives all of the decisions made by the District. It cannot merely become a forgotten document in a dusty binder that sits on a desk.

If we had a strategic plan tomorrow, would it eliminate the need for school closures? No. If we had a strategic plan a year ago, would it have changed the need for school closures? I have no idea, but it is a waste of time to point fingers and rehash the past.

We can, however, avoid closing schools in the future. Mt. Diablo can become a  district that families are running towards, not running from. We need to have a clear, common vision of how we get there and the strategic plan can play a vital role in that.

The strategic plan must address questions such as:
  • How do we best measure student achievement?
  • How do we attract and retain top teachers?
  • What role, if any, do choice schools play in the district? Charter schools?
  • What infrastructure is needed to execute the strategic plan?
  • How can we best serve the needs of Special Education students?
  • What percentage of graduates are expected to go to a four- year college? How do we best prepare them for that?
  • What role does technology play in the District?
  • Is vocational training needed for students who may not go on to college?
  • How long will it take for English Language learning students to become fluent?
  • What consultants are needed for the district to succeed? What should we expect of full-time employees?

These are just a few of the types of questions that a strategic plan will address. Part of the process of strategic planning is to actually decide on the questions that need to be answered.

Some people say that strategic planning is expensive and will require high-paid consultants. I disagree.

The best example of a strategic plan is the Constitution of the United States. It has been a framework for our government for over 220 years. It did not require high-priced consultants—no one from Bain or McKinsey was needed to facilitate the discussion. All that was needed was a group of concerned, passionate citizens to come together and develop a shared vision.

The MDUSD Board took a step in the right direction at the March 29th meeting by laying  out a format for a strategic plan. It will take a lot more than just the five board members to make this a reality.

What is your vision for a strategic plan for MDUSD? What questions should it answer? Are you willing to work together to develop it and move this school district forward?


  1. What are we going to do to help teach the kids who can NOT read or do math problems due to a learning disABILITY that goes unrecognized by the district? We need a real reading program and support for teachers to learn what works. San Ramon is doing it when will we?

  2. If Brian Lawrence's thoughts prevail in our SP process, then we will have gotten off on the right foot. He focuses on important things like the role of School Choice, which MDUSD has never really addressed with a coherent position. The only small comment I would have concerns the second bullet regarding teachers. Yes, we want to attract and retain the best teachers, but we need to aim higher than that: we want the best corps of teachers, overall, that we can have. Attracting/retaining lots of "good" teachers and just ignoring the "bad" ones is not enough for our students. (And ultimately, it will undermine recruiting and retention as well.) We need to pursue a comprehensive solution of recruitment, evalution, development, and "problem resolution" systems to have the best teacher corps overall. Just as "one bad apple" can do disproportionate and untold damage, both to peer morale as well as to student achievement, an environment where good teaching is cultivated and expected from everyone can help turn MDUSD into the district "where all of the best teachers want to work".

  3. Another question for the plan should be "How to attract and retain highly qualified administrators?"

    Also, "How to better serve the middle of the road students who ARE NOT Special Education students or English Language Learners." The amount of the budget spent on these two groups of people, outweighs the amount of time and money focused on the "General Population" of students.

  4. "How to better balance the funding between special ed vs. middle-of-the-road vs. advanced students". Because the latter two groups are most likely to include our community leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow, we all (including the special ed students) may eventually rely on these people and should recognize the importance of their education.

    "How to more fairly raise funds for public education." The parcel tax idea shows a complete unawareness of the current ecomony. There are homes in foreclosure and many people out of work - to ask these families to pay more property tax is like asking the district to fund more programs they can't afford. There is no reason to single out homeowners, struggling or otherwise, when there are renters who should also pay their fair share.

  5. Here's a question: "How quickly would a strategic plan be implemented and when will the students receive the benefit?"

    Having high-achieving middle-schoolers in GATE that barely have a need to study and are bored, we must contiually supplement their education to keep them interested and challenged in learning.
    We are expecting to have no choice but go private or move as the high school appears even less likely to provide what is essential in their education. Due to the economy, that most likely means out of state.

    We are among the majority of families in our area, all asking the same question..."Do we go elsewhere for the very important, developmental High School years or do we stay in a failing system? If a new system is in place, what are the chances the high schools could even remotely improve fast enough to benefit our children?"

  6. Anon 2:15
    My children are almost finished with MDUSD. If I had children in middle school, I would make sure I attended the strategic planning meetings. I would want to make sure our district moves forward in a way that recognizes that this generation of learners have different needs and will be required to have a more complex skill set for career and college readiness than we did coming out of high school. Their lives outside of school are so content rich that it takes more to engage them.
    The strategic plan is just the first step in the process. I would guess that the kind of reform that will engage our children and raise the level of rigor in this District will probably take some time. I hope there is a real emphasis on mastering the core subjects while aligning them with content that encourages the development of problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity skills. I hope we have a service requirement some day and that our students experience learning globally through the use of technology.
    Individual school sites can make a huge difference. I understand Mt. Diablo has done great things with their digital safari and food service academies. Northgate has worked two years on a strategic plan that is beginning to be unveiled. It will address many things including relevance and rigor in the classroom. There are also plans for an Engineering Academy.
    I can tell you that the most difficult thing as a parent is to watch a bright student "skim" through school with grades good enough for college but lacking the excitement or engagement that we all want for our kids.

  7. GATE kids are fleeing to private schools next year for high school, more than I've ever seen before. Many of them are the younger siblings of students who went to or are attending MDUSD public high schools. What can we offer them to encourage them to stay? So many of the middle school extra programs such as Model United Nations and Mock Legislature have been cut. You want a program that excites you and that you can be proud of.

  8. You may want to attend the upcoming community meeting for Flex Academy Charter High School. Over 250 families have expressed an interest and over 170 students have already applied.

    Flex Academy Charter High School
    Informational Meeting
    April 13th
    7pm - 9pm
    Winslow Center
    2590 Pleasant Hill Road
    Pleasant Hill, CA

  9. @ anon 3:02
    "I can tell you that the most difficult thing as a parent is to watch a bright student "skim" through school with grades good enough for college but lacking the excitement or engagement that we all want for our kids."

    May I suggest that hyperbole really isn't the best way to stress your point of view?

    I too have a GATE student coasting through high school. I believe that the teacher is the most significant factor in whether he finds a particular class exciting and engaging, and yes, I believe it's important that we find a better way to support and challenge these kids while throwing money at English learners and special ed in programs that are not nearly as effective as they could be...

    However. You feel that "the most difficult thing as a parent" is watching your gifted child get by with minimal effort or enthusiasm? You have clearly led a very blessed and sheltered life. Try raising a child with a life-threatening illness. Try raising a kid with significant developmental delays. Try raising one with both. And then try watching that same child be stigmatized and ridiculed by his peers while administrators throw up there hands and his sibling cringes in mortification.

    Yes we all want our kids to be excited and engaged. We also want them to be SAFE, healthy, and happy... Any strategic plan needs to address all those goals (to the extent a school system can) and as a community member and taxpayer, you could step up and get involved regardless of the fact that it won't come to fruition in time to benefit your own kids.

  10. Anon 5:11

    Wow, I hit a nerve. I am very sorry if you are dealing with a child with the issues you speak of. We all want what is best for our children and the children in our community. All children EQUALLY deserve an exciting, engaging, safe, healthy, happy, etc.... educational experience.

    I am a bit taken back by your insinuations. You don't know me. You don't know about my life. You don't know whether I have chosen to be part of the strategic planning process. You do not know my thoughts on strategic planning. You don’t know IF, WHAT or HOW LONG I may have already been working on the strategic planning process in this district.

    I was speaking within a very specific context addressing a very specific comment from someone else. You need to go fight a different fight; you truly don’t need to fight me.

  11. Our "comprehensive" high schools should provide classes for advanced students to prep for college, ROP classes for job training, remedial classes for struggling students, and inclusiveness for special ed students. We should all look forward to Supt Lawrence's upcoming high school plan. We should all hope there will be an inclusive atmosphere for every student. The new strategic plan should help implement this for all students.

    Bi-weekly Supt Newsletters would be a great way to keep families informed. The last one was March 11, almost a month ago.

  12. I have a request for Anon 5:11 and other authors of posts containing similar admonitions. Could we try to refrain from belittling the aspirations and concerns that other parents have for their children, and for this district, just because their needs don't rank among the most profound needs out there? There is no question that a child's health and emotional state are the top priority. Problems there can pose some of the biggest challenges that any family could ever face. But there are many types of children and families in MDUSD, and even those without the most dire needs still have understandable aspirations for their children and legitimate expectations for the public schools that we all pay for. These people are not demanding that we suddenly have AP courses in Urdu or Mandarin, or that we devote resources to making sure that every school has a 3D animation lab. In my experience, what many parents want most are some simple basics: teachers who show up to class with an appropriate background in the topic and a commitment to teaching it; assignments that incorporate the learning that the course is supposed to cover; appropriate feedback on those assignments so that students can use that work to improve. I could name half a dozen classes in my son's school where those simple requirements are not even close to being met.

    Any child who skims through school getting good grades, but without interest or engagement, still represents a failure of our system to cultivate learning. It is still a legitimate point of frustration when a parent sees a motivated child waste time in school watching irrelevant videos, waiting for the teacher to show up for class, or trying to decipher instruction from an incompetent teacher with little knowledge of the topic and/or no interest in classroom teaching. Our society benefits immensely when we can help all children develop to their full potential. (When I've read about top scientists and researchers who are tackling major diseases and technology problems, more often then not, they had studied in challenging academic environments throughout their school years. Every generation produces students with that potential, and they deserve our support.)

    I also appreciate the "step up and get involved" directive, but I suspect that many of the participants on a blog like this are already doing that. Some participants on this blog, I know, are as involved in our schools as any parents around. In fact, for many of us, volunteering in our local schools has provided the on-going, eye-opening experience that shows just how broken things are and how much change is needed! It just seems so counter-productive, when we are discussing the very real challenges faced by MDUSD and other schools in CA, to berate certain parents because they don't work hard enough for our schools, or because they don't seem to appreciate how bad circumstances can be for other parents. Do we really benefit from such beggar-thy-neighbor thinking? Anyone who lives in the MDUSD attendance area deserves at least a little bit of sympathy, in my view, and their concerns certainly warrant consideration.

    Looking ahead, I suspect that this district is going to require some major re-engineering, if it is to come even close to meeting its mission in the years ahead. To make those adaptations, the district will need input about the legitimate needs of ALL of the people who depend on it -- even those who are not in the most dire circumstances.

  13. It appears that MDUSD continues to spend like a drunken sailor -- flying all over, in state and out of state, to "conferences", sending multiple people to the same conference. The "excuse" is that it is "categorical" money, money received from grants. What is it that they don't get, that a tax dollar is a tax dollar, whether or not it is a federal tax dollar or a state tax dollar ? Spend, spend, spend, but none of it ends up in the classroom. Instead, its in hotels, expensive meals, and airlines. Gary's declaration of "travel stop" hasn't stopped a single trip.

  14. Anon 7:03 AM

    I am curious if part of receiving the Grant they have to attend these conferences. Maybe a parent who attends the PAC meeting tonight could ask about this? Do you have specifics on when, where and what about these conferences? Do you know who attended. Thank you!

  15. It would be astonishing to me that grants required attendance at out of town conferences. I think Gary should be able to get a list of every conference this year, who attended, what it cost and how it was paid for. Gary's comment was spot on a couple of meetings ago that even if it is grant money, it can be better spent in the classroom. I think the Board needs to vote to approve all out of town conferences since apparantly the administrators can't restrain themselves.

  16. Anon 7:03 & 1:23
    I don't recall that any of the SIG grants "required" any out of town conferences.
    Doctor J

  17. "What role, if any, do choice schools play in the district? Charter schools?"

    If MDUSD wants to attract and retain the kinds of families who really care about education to the district, these need to be expanded. What about a classical model school similar to the Ridgeview Classical schools in Colorado?

  18. To follow up on Anon 7:49, EducationNext has a great article on new types of schools that are delivering great results for students, teachers, and parents:

    Also, the March/April Harvard Education Letter has a worthwhile article on "hybrid" schools that combine online and onsite instruction:

    Interestingly, because of their use of technology and more efficient use of teacher and student time, many of these schools have turned out to be more economical to operate than traditional schools. That may become a more pertinent factor as California continues its budget meltdown. The Flex Academy that Linda mentioned above is one of these schools, but clearly, there are many interesting alternatives out there. It is time for the District to be more explicit about how they will (or won't) accommodate these kinds of innovative educational models. Will MDUSD continue to try to control everything that happens at each site and in every classroom (not usually a recipe for success), or will they get out of the way and give some of these other options a chance?

  19. While it may not be our superintendent, there has been plenty of "interaction" among administrators in MDUSD -- why not the same sanction against them ?

  20. Why a "closed door" meeting? What about transparency?

  21. Speaking of closed door meetings. Why does the closed door session for this week's Board meeting have an item called "confidential." Going back I can not think of another time when confidential was ever used to describe a closed session agenda item. It is my understanding that by government code, even closed session agenda items still have to have a description. Again it is all part of transparency and leads to establishing either trust or distrust.

  22. "Confidential" ? Hmmmm. Maybe that Grand Jury investigation has kicked in ????

  23. I have looked and cannot find the term "confidential" on the Agenda. Someone please point it out to me.

  24. They changed it tonight -- not 72 hours notice since the Dent Center was closed and not available to the public. I have it printed out. More incompetence of the "Gang of Five" More hide the ball. More bait and switch. Total disregard for the Brown Act -- but what's new -- remember Buttercupgate ?

  25. What exactly does, "Public Employee Discipline" mean?

  26. Anon 11:55p -- Since that specific terminology has never been used before on any MDUSD agendas, I think that means that Steve Lawrence was reading the blogs and tried to correct the mistake before any of the board members found out.

  27. Doesn't it also says 3 employees? Very interesting that 3 need discipline at the same time. Maybe someone caught them standing up for school/student/faculty rights? Lawrence wouldn't like that.

  28. g: It says "Three certificated employees." which likely means teachers or administrators. It will be pretty obvious if they are terminated and yes it is interesting that it is designated as three, which is a new addition to the agenda. It will be interesting to see if they are related somehow. It would be very intersting to see if they are from one of the closed schools. If the Board takes any action less than termination, it will be pretty hard for the public to know. At least we have the Board making the decision, not the Superintendent. A split vote will tell us a whole lot.