In the spring of 2009, the Neighborhood Charter School (one of the two precursor schools to ANCS) completed a comprehensive strategic planning process. Although the process centered on NCS, the results of this process continue to hold relevance for ANCS as a merged school and the strategic plan will continue to be used by the ANCS Governing Board. Therefore, summarized below are key elements and outcomes of the strategic planning process.
Strategic Planning Background and Purpose
In fulfilling its mission, the Neighborhood Charter School’s board of directors engaged Matthews Consulting Group, LLC to manage and facilitate a strategic planning initiative, which formally began in December 2008 and is scheduled for conclusion in May 2009. In addition to planning, startup and ongoing project management, the strategic planning initiative includes three critical phases: execution of an environmental scan; execution of a strategic planning retreat to prioritize goals and begin strategy formulation; and development of strategic initiatives and project milestones.
To gain insight into the school’s current assets, challenges and priorities, Matthews Consulting Group engaged a broad spectrum of internal and external constituents in environmental scan activities, which included one-on-one interviews, focus group sessions, and an electronic survey. The Environmental Scan Report provides context for future planning and decision-making and will be reviewed in detail at the Strategic Planning Retreat in March 2009. The following executive summary provides a high level overview of the key ideas, findings and conclusions from the Environmental Scan.
Environmental scan participants were asked to share their perceptions of the Neighborhood Charter School’s mission. Overwhelmingly, all external constituent groups indicated that the current mission statement is directionally correct. Conversely, most internal constituents stated that the mission fails to describe “bedrock ideas” and that the current statement does not “describe ourselves in a way that is inviting and draws people to us.” Based on the comments of internal constituents, it is apparent that the strategic planning process provides an opportunity to revise the current mission statement, so that some of the key elements that make the Neighborhood Charter School unique are reflected.
Measures of Success
During the environmental scan process, participants were asked to share their perspective on how to measure NCS’ success against its mission. Although traditional indicators such as test scores and grades were acknowledged as important, parents and faculty/staff also evaluate performance based on non-traditional indicators that are harder to quantify and evaluate. The following categories were highlighted as areas in which success can and should be measured:
- Constituent satisfaction
- Formal assessments and standardized test
- Quality of student work/depth of student learning
- Volunteer and community engagement
- Organizational health
- Teacher quality
Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT Analysis)
The following themes were identified from information gathered during the environmental scan activities and contain perceptions of internal strengths and weaknesses and external opportunities and threats. For purposes of strategic planning, this information should assist NCS in identifying what is important to sustain or improve within the organization and what, outside the organization, may influence organizational success.
Constructivist Curriculum and the Student Development Process
Sense of Community and Community Support
Quality of Faculty and Staff
Financial Stability and Resources
Communication and Outreach
Assessment and Demonstrated Outcomes
NCS Student’s Transition to Middle School
Best Practices Model
Partnership/Merger with Atlanta Charter Middle School
Public Relations and Marketing
Assessment and Demonstrated Outcomes
Implications of Current Economic Environment
Decreased Educational Funding
Scarcity of Teachers
Feedback from interviews and focus groups provided the initial context for examining broad environmental and societal trends, as well as education-specific trends. The following areas and their implications on education were explored:
Societal and Environmental Trends
United States Economic Forecast for 2009
More Global, Knowledge-Driven Economy and Labor Force
Shifting Demographics are Changing the Composition of the U.S. Population
Prevalence of Technology at Home, Work and Play
Increasing Environmental Sensitivity
Increasing Security and Safety Measures
Reduction in Educational Funding
Curriculum and Learning in the 21st Century
Individualized, Mobile and Interdisciplinary Learning
School Structure and its Impact on Learning
Quality and Supply of Faculty and Staff
Best Practices Research
In addition to understanding general environmental, societal and educational trends, best practices were explored and summarized through a collaborative effort between Matthews Consulting Group and NCS school representatives. The data and definitions outlined in the detailed Best Practices Research report should provide a foundation for continued exploration in the following key areas as they relate to NCS’ strategy and philosophy.
Vision and Priorities for the Future
The purpose of the environmental scan and the depth of analysis are to identify the opportunities, which if seized, will create a relevant, robust and innovative learning experience for NCS students. The qualitative SWOT analysis, trend and best practices research, and the quantitative survey revealed key areas of importance and priority to NCS’ constituents:
Values and Culture
Values provide the foundation, and culture provides the context for ensuring that NCS’ learning environment is physically safe, nurturing and student-centered. The school can build on its identified strengths of strong constituent communication, a high level of parental involvement and sense of community, by finding creative ways to identify and leverage volunteer skills and continuing to forge new relationships, partnerships and connections with the broader community. As the school faces the implications of shifting demographics in local, state, national and even international communities, open dialogue and inclusiveness will be critical to creating a shared definition of diversity and building a plan to assure understanding and appreciation across a variety of dimensions.
Curriculum and Supportive Programming
The constructivist curriculum and the student development process were identified as both strengths and weaknesses for NCS. To prepare students to compete in a global market place, they must be critical thinkers and problem-solvers. The hands-on, interdisciplinary, learner-driven, and team-oriented approaches characteristic of constructivism are often viewed as models for teaching students to think and apply their knowledge. For these reasons, many constituents believe that NCS should elevate its visibility as a best practice model/laboratory school. However, other constituents highlighted the need to better integrate and/or improve offerings relating to arts, foreign language, conservation practices, technology, and information literacy to encourage whole-child development and prepare students for the 21st century. Strengthening special needs, gifted, and out-of-school programming will further enhance the curriculum and ensure that all students’ needs are addressed effectively.
Assessment and Demonstrated Outcomes
The constructivist approach teaches students how to think critically, solve problems and apply their knowledge versus simply giving feedback or regurgitating information. The approach encourages holistic development, a high-level of academic achievement and seeks to foster a student’s curiosity and interest in life-long learning. Students’ “in class” experiences do not exist separately from their “real life” experiences, as they connect, volunteer and engage with the local and even global community. Though these outcomes seemingly prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s challenges, there are concerns over how to consistently and reliably assess, relate and compare progress and achievement. Thus, it is important for NCS to develop a comprehensive assessment and measurement approach that will (1) support NCS’ efforts to continuously improve the curriculum, (2) provide greater clarity about the value of the teaching and learning approach for both internal and external constituencies, and (3) contribute to more effective fund development and public relations efforts.
Public Relations, Communications and Marketing
Although constituents felt that internal communication (i.e., between parents, teachers, students, administrators and board) was a strength of the school, most agreed that NCS needs to improve its external marketing and public relations efforts. Clearly articulating the school’s niche, documenting its history, and raising the visibility of the program will support fund development efforts, recruitment of teachers, staff, students and partners, and also position NCS as a best practices model.
Resources: Human Resources, Financial Resources, and Facility and Infrastructure
Although the current administrator is lauded as a strength and champion for the school, given the complexities and volume of both academic and operational priorities, a great deal of demand is placed on her time. From a leadership perspective, there is an opportunity to build administrative “bench strength” by either separating or sharing the academic and operational leadership roles and responsibilities, and formalizing succession plans. Additionally, implementing formalized orientation and board development, relating to policies and decision-making processes, would strengthen the effectiveness of board members.
The retention of quality teachers and staff at NCS is a strength of the school. However, given the scarcity of teachers nationwide and the potential implications of large numbers of retiring baby-boomers, the school must strive to maintain a competitive edge. Implementing effective recruitment strategies, maintaining a competitive compensation package, providing sufficient support systems and professional development, and actively engaging teachers as decision-makers and stewards of the innovative learning environment should allow NCS to be more competitive.
All constituent groups raised questions and concerns about the long-term financial viability of NCS. Developing a solid, comprehensive financial plan with diversification of income streams will be important for sustaining the school. The financial resources should be aligned with the vision, mission and goals of the organization, and resources, such as grant writers and fundraisers, should be available to support the financial plan’s execution. The most commonly suggested strategy for NCS to improve its funding opportunities was to ensure that NCS establishes a clear brand that includes information about how it is unique and distinct from other public and/or private educational institutions.
Facility and Infrastructure
Constituents find the history, architecture, natural lighting, close proximity to the Grant Park neighborhood and the design/décor of the classrooms to be appealing attributes of the school’s physical space. However, lack of ownership of the current facility leaves NCS vulnerable to decisions made by APS related to the facility. Ideally, NCS would own the current space and make upgrades and improvements to both the building and grounds to meet the ongoing needs of its students, faculty and staff (i.e., safe, nurturing, creative, high-tech, collaborative, “green,” etc.). Given the current decreases in educational funding, APS may be more open to exploring the sale of the facility than they have been in the past.
Seamless K-8 Solutions (Partnership/Merger with Atlanta Charter Middle School)
Although the benefits and implications of merging with Atlanta Charter Middle School have not been fully explored, determining a solution to create a seamless K-8 solution for NCS students and families was identified as a key priority. Whether that solution is a merger between the schools, formalization of a feeder pattern and/or structuring a higher degree of resource-sharing and collaboration, students and families seek a smooth transition beyond NCS — preferably one that continues to provide individualized, hands-on learning experiences.
Partnerships and Community Relationships
Strengthening current partnerships and identifying new ones is viewed as a key opportunity to improve the curriculum and increase resources. Building a stronger relationship with APS and other charter schools could support sharing best practices, continuous improvement ideas and professional development opportunities, as well as provide opportunities for resource sharing. Additionally, from a curricular standpoint, some community partnerships identified for cultivation and/or strengthening included: Atlanta Zoo, Grant Park Conservancy, Georgia Aquarium, Cochran Mill Nature Center, Margaret Mitchell Museum and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Furthermore, identifying corporate and business partnerships is a critical strategy for addressing financial stability and sustainability.