Insights from a strategic district realignment: Doing right by all students
By Javier Baca and Pam Betten
In Sunnyside Unified School District (SUSD), located near Tucson, AZ, we serve nearly 18,000 students. In the fall of 2013, our administration was faced with some tough decisions, because additional funding didn’t pass in an override election. Our student population is comprised of 91% Hispanic Students, an 86% free and reduced lunch population, and a highly mobile population. We had to ask ourselves the question, how do we maintain the high quality programs offered in each of our schools with less money?
It was determined that the district would have to make several potentially difficult changes including the temporary closing of one of our middle schools, and the permanent closure of another which would inevitably lead to the realignment of various school boundaries within SUSD. While all programs in each of our schools are standardized, meaning students have the same core programs across all campuses, the questions of how we serve our student population best, with the fewest changes possible still remained.
The proposed changes represented a major enrollment shift that would affect nine elementary and four middle school buildings, impacting over 50% of our student body. We knew our approach to each of these changes needed to be thoughtful, strategic, and more importantly, we needed to ensure transparency in the process so all stakeholders, students and parents included, were informed and had a voice in the decisions being made.
Creating a Communications Plan
We began the process by conducting extensive research to ensure that we had the right information to build a strategic and comprehensive communication plan, making certain stakeholders were accurately informed of any and all proposed changes. With so many proposed changes affecting so many of our students, we needed everyone to know what we were doing, why the changes were happening, what the benefits were and who would be impacted. We recognized these changes could be disruptive to student’s families as well as our staff, inasmuch, focus was put on the needs of students, families and staff first and foremost, while still meeting financial obligations.
We believe that there is no such thing as over communicating! We held multiple meetings on various, critical topics crucial to the success of the proposed changes: Governing Board meetings, Town Halls that were open to the public, face to face meetings with students and their families as well as with staff at each building affected. It was important to us that we had meetings at the buildings, especially those receiving the new students in order to answer questions, meet with principals and set a welcoming tone. This type of change needed to be strategic, student centered and community-focused, not just operationally driven.
Increased class size was the overwhelming concern for all families within the district. It was important to us that this was addressed immediately; communicating to families that class size would remain the same in the face of any proposed change.
Deploying the Right Technology Tools
The hard decisions that we had to make were inevitable; however we did have a choice about how we approached these changes. By enlisting the help of various tech tools, we were able to navigate the process more efficiently, accurately and with more clarity.
Our administrative team had made the decision to implement GuideK12, a geovisual analytic software solution, with the knowledge that it would be instrumental in scenario planning for each individual change being proposed. The platform gave us the ability to visualize student data mapped against existing and changing school boundaries; allowing for better understanding of potential impact, real-time scenario analysis, and scenario comparisons. During our meetings with families, at board meetings and more, we were able to take these scenario-maps and visually show the impact of proposed changes, highlighting details that could very well be lost in spreadsheets.
Understanding Needs of All Stakeholders
SUSD used the platform to determine projected enrollment and school boundary changes, allowing us to assess staffing levels and specialties currently in each school as they determined the impact due to building closures. The ability to understand individual student needs geographically was vital throughout the creation of a comprehensive plan.
We were very careful to determine the needs of special populations programs, their proximity to new buildings and the capacity of new buildings to receive the programs. This information was instrumental to determine the best location for each location based on district and individual school resources.
When making large changes that affect so many of your students, you need to be comfortable with the process being a little messy, in order to minimize the disruption for students, families and staff in our community. Looking solely at the numbers may be easier, but does not automatically result in what is best for students. By moving thoughtfully, strategically, having a strong understanding of your community’s needs, as well as utilizing a strong communication plan you too will see a much smoother transition with minimal disruption!
From start to finish, we were able to gain approval and make all necessary changes in just five months.
Insights from Experience
Advice to other districts:
- Create a cross-functional team of people (PR, Operations, Curriculum and Instruction, IT, Transportation, etc.).
- Include people on the team who understand the culture of the community you serve.
- Create a communication plan to clearly communicate and address the concerns of each group of stakeholders and address them early and throughout the process!
- Clearly define the what, why, and who of your strategic plan and determine the benefits and risks.
- Be sure you have solid data and excellent systems to analyze data and make decisions.
- Think through all affected areas: Food Service, Transportation, HR, Academic Performance, Special Ed., etc.
- Communicate frequently and clearly about “why” the changes are needed to parents, students, school board, faculty, community, and all affected stakeholders.
- Enable the organization to work as a team, break down any silos.
- Most importantly, Keep students, staff and learning front and center!
About the authors:
Javier Baca is the Executive Director of Information Technologies at Sunnyside USD, he oversees more than 10,000 devices and a 35-member team. He can be reached via email at [email protected].
Pam Betten is the Director of Middle Schools and One-to-One at Sunnyside USD, she can be reached via email at [email protected]
The district’s twitter handle is @sunnysideusd