Friday, June 3, 2016

Traditional problem solving and strategic planning leads to more of the same -- and similar results

We're struggling with a good thing at our school district: continuing growth in student enrollments. In fact, our district has grown from around 800 students some twenty-years ago to nearly 2,000 today. The district was not designed for that many students. It's a one-square-mile school district that anchors a similar size community that was fully developed by the 1940s. There is no room to grow and the low property values do not support a sufficient level of bonding to build new structures.

With the exception of early childhood classrooms, traditional class sizes are bulging particularly at the middle and high school levels. Of course many think that the additional students bring additional dollars so what's the problem? There are several:
  • Those dollars have not come quickly enough since a sizable cut in per-pupil funding back in 2010.
  • The value of those dollars have eroded substantially since 1995 due to inflation. In fact, just to keep up with inflation would require our district to receive a 33% increase in the foundation allowance, the primary K-12 funding allocation set each year by our legislature.
  • Most of the growth in enrollment has been with high-needs students who are growing up in poverty and many of which have limited English proficiency skills; this leads to higher costs for a greater level of supports.
  • Michigan is a school-choice state and districts have to compete with each other for programming or risk losing students; this leads to higher costs for higher-level academic and extra-curricular programs to keeps students enrolled.
  • To find and keep quality teachers and administrators in a high-risk, over-populated district also means we have to compete with neighboring, more-affluent districts in salaries and benefits.
 It's difficult to keep up with both rising enrollments and the traditional means of solving those problems -- i.e., throw more money and staffing at the problem -- aren't available. Couple this with the fact that all of our school buildings are completely out of space to add anymore classrooms and you can see why traditional problem-solving is not going to get us to where we need to go.

And on top of it, solving problems the old way doesn't model the kind of problem-solving our students need to learn: human-centered design thinking.

Traditional problem-solving typically looks for the traditional solutions to old problems. Traditional strategic planning typically takes the financial situation and builds a vision around it. Neither takes into consideration the needs of the students nor do they focus on ideating and prototyping creative solutions that center on empathy for the students and teachers. They are band-aid processes that simply look to stem the bleeding and that is it.

So as we wrestle with the wonderful problem of more parents and students wanting to move into our district and attend our schools, it's going to take real design-thinking to move us forward.

The question is whether or not our administrative team and teacher leaders are up to the task?

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