Schools Notebook: Autonomy central to updated strategic plan

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August 14, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Up for a board vote in September, the Acceleration 2020 plan leverages school autonomy to foster innovation and boost achievement. A previous strategic plan, just as ambitious, fell short.

A new district strategic plan sets ambitious goals for Minneapolis Public Schools, aiming to eliminate the achievement gap by 2020 in part by giving individual schools more power and flexibility.

The plan, dubbed Acceleration 2020, builds on a key element of the SHIFT initiative Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson unveiled last year: granting schools some amount of autonomy in order to foster innovation and spur badly needed change in a district that struggles with large disparities affecting poor students and students of color.

“Schools are where the action happens, and that means shifting more decision-making, resources and support to schools so that the staff there can serve the diverse needs of their students and student populations,” said Meredith Fox, director of research, evaluation and assessment for the district. “We believe that providing more autonomy to schools is really the foundation for the system transformation and the results that we’re seeking.”

The plan debuted at an Aug. 12 School Board meeting abbreviated because of that night’s primary election. There was little chance for discussion, but it was clear some School Board members still have questions about Acceleration 2020, which they are tentatively scheduled to vote on in September.

The board’s longest-serving member, Carla Bates, said it was “very frustrating” to see, after all the work put in by district staff, a new strategic plan that looked “very much the same” as the five-year strategic plan adopted in 2007. That plan, too, set ambitious goals for raising student achievement, but the board lowered the targets before extending the plan by two years.

“This is strategic plan redux,” Bates said.

She expressed support for putting more power in the hands of schools, but wondered what happens when a school freed from district strictures fails to boost achievement. Bates asked what the district would do if it fell short of its goals once again.

Although half a dozen top-level staff members who helped develop the plan were assembled for the strategic plan presentation, the need to adjourn by 6 p.m. on an election night meant those questions went unanswered during the public meeting.

The goals set in Acceleration 2020 are referred to by the shorthand “5-8-10”: a 5-percent annual increase in all students meeting or exceeding state math and reading standards; an 8-percent annual increase in students of color hitting those same targets; and a 10-percent annual increase in the graduation rate.

“When you play that out … we will have effectively eliminated disparities and the achievement gap,” Fox said.

District-wide reading proficiency was at about 42 percent last school year but only 24 percent for students of color, according to district estimates. The goal is to hit 72 percent proficiency for both groups by the 2019–2020 school year. Gains in math would have to follow a similar trajectory to hit their targets in six years.

Just over half of the class of 2013 graduated in four years. The goal is to reach 85 percent in six years.

District CEO Michael Goar said “study after study” show school autonomy is one tool high-performing districts use to accelerate student gains. It creates opportunities to test innovative approaches while at the same time giving school staff “a sense of ownership regarding success and failure,” Goar added.

“As long as the ownership is at central office, there’s no ownership at school level,” he said.

Schools will be offered autonomy in four main areas: finances, staffing, curriculum and the time and length of the school day.

A request for proposals will go out to principals this fall, and schools that have support from staff and families can request relief from district rules in any or all of those four areas. Before autonomy is grated, schools will first undergo a “readiness assessment,” Goar added.

One member of the 2007 School Board that approved the last strategic plan was in the audience for the Aug. 12 board meeting. African American Leadership Forum Director Chris Stewart said that plan sputtered as the district lost many of the top managers charged with implementing it, like Jill Stever-Zeitlin, who was chief of accountability and strategic partnerships when she left in 2013.

Stewart said the district has demonstrated “complete incompetence … to maintain a strong bench.”

Goar, too, recognized that an “inability to execute and implement what was designed” contributed to the failure of the 2007 strategic plan. But he said Acceleration 2020 was different, with a management plan that “directly” linked the annual performance evaluations of department chiefs to goals outlined in the strategic plan.

“The old plan did not have a management plan, as I looked at it,” he said.