Successful Strategic Planning in the Age of COVID

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, thoughtful district leaders understand that there’s never been a more important time to engage in strategic planning to refocus efforts and find critical opportunities for growth amidst the chaos.

On February 9th, engage2learn’s Mitzi Clark Richardson, M.Ed. facilitated a conversation with guest speaker Dr. Art Cavazos, who served as the superintendent of Harlingen CISD from 2013 until he retired in June 2021, where he developed numerous innovative programs, a successful district-wide strategic plan, and much more. Read on to learn more about Dr. Cavazos’ expertise and insight into why strategic planning is so important and how exactly to go about it.

Why do districts need a strategic plan?

Dr. Art Cavazos (AC): After over 30+ years in this business, I’ve found that the absence of a common language and a common goal creates space for a lot of noise in a district. When you have a strategic plan, you’re lifting up a purpose that gives people direction and hope. It’s incumbent on us, the leadership, to be very clear about the common language and goal because time flies, things get in the way, and the noise gets very loud. A strategic plan gives you the frame that allows you to broaden your scope and your bandwidth without losing focus of the bigger picture.

What do districts need to be sure to include in their strategic plan process?

AC: Entering a strategic design planning space at the district level requires intention and planning, so it’s very important to include time to plan the work, then work the plan. Oftentimes districts are so excited about getting into the planning space that they forget about how they actually need to get it done. It’s helpful to remember that a strategic plan is a conduit for your school community, stakeholders, and community at large to give you feedback. Parents who are sending their kids to your school want to believe that there is a master plan. 

A strategic plan gives you the megaphone and confidence to say where the district should be and is going.

Mitzi Clark Richardson (MCR): Absolutely. Strategic planning requires leadership to be open to feedback and to involving others in the process so that it’s representative of the entire district and community.

AC: Right! As a leader, you have to get yourself in a good position to begin the process. As we get feedback from our constituents and community, there’s value in vulnerability from leadership. You’ll hear some things that you like, and you’ll hear other things that might make you want to get defensive. So, remember that the strategic planning process is just that: a process. We can’t lead others if we don’t lead ourselves first. Our role as leaders in the process is critical.

Download this resource to see the 5 essential elements for making your next strategic plan successful.

In light of COVID, how should districts change how they facilitate or think about strategic planning?

AC: We need to go to the 30,000-foot view and understand the big picture. We need to be aware that people are exhausted and tired of the stamina that’s required to persist during crisis.

We need to accept that public education is currently under attack, but that when it’s all said and done, the neighborhood school is still the anchor of the community.

People may ask why you’re planning, but as leaders, it’s our responsibility. We can’t opt out of that. A common saying comes to mind: A leader is not defined during calm waters; a leader is defined during turbulent waters. COVID is a reality at the moment, but district leaders need to continue to look inside and outside of the crisis to remember what is possible. We will get out of this, but tomorrow will bring a different challenge, a different crisis – that’s the reality. 

I hear people asking, “When can we just go back to normal?” Well, there were parts of that normal that weren’t so good and we need to be careful about what we’re rushing back to. This is a chance to press the reset button and move towards the right things. I have all the faith in the world in the public school system. We’re persistent, we’re resilient, we’ve been able to navigate this pandemic, and we’re often the ones people turn to in the navigation process. The highest hopes are there. However, without a plan, there’s no direction. 

What is the role of district stakeholders and community members in the strategic design process?

AC: When we started our own process at Harlingen [CISD], it was hard for people to wrap their minds around the fact that we were planning 5-6 years out. But to really break barriers, we have to remember what we want people to say about our districts down the road.

When you get into the strategic plan design process and invite people to really say what they want to see, leaders have to be vulnerable and consider the possibilities. The people we bring to the table are not normally asked those questions, and a common challenge is people initially thinking about their own self-interests. So it’s important that we provide context. We need to say, “I want you to stop, take a deep breath, and really think about what you hope for, what you dream of for the district, for the greater good.” 

You have to maintain the external awareness that people are going to come to the table exhausted, with reservations, with preconceived notions. You might be in a district that made a plan before that was shelved and those who gave their input never heard about it again. It became what I call a doorstop. So once you engage people, you have a responsibility to act on what they share and entrust with you. 

As a superintendent, the easiest thing to do is anchor change on a strategic plan. When you do it right, the people at the table have a sense of urgency and can suddenly imagine what is possible.

MCR: I couldn’t agree more. We [e2L] invite students to be a part of our strategic design process from beginning to end because sometimes when adults don’t know what things should look like, kids do.

AC: Students will be honest. And what are we planning for if not the students in the classroom? I had a middle school student mention once that we didn’t have a place in the community for kids to go after school to work on a computer. That singular voice inspired us to talk about flexible learning spaces for our students and to work it into the strategic plan. That one student gave our organization the courage to define what flexible learning spaces could look like, and as a result Harlingen CISD schools now have internet cafes at their libraries, set up like Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. 

All to say, these ideas are already in our schools. Be open-minded and listen with intent to hear what they have to say. The sky really is the limit. And yes, there will be people who bring up laws and policies that might not allow you to do certain things, but in between all of that, there’s space where magic can occur. Strategic planning allows that magic to occur. 

What do district leaders need to do to actually accomplish strategic design?

AC: Engaging people who are willing and able to give feedback is critical. In Harlingen, we broke the strategic plan down into components and created design teams made up of divergent thinkers around each key indicator. Teams began to identify barriers and come up with ideas, empowered and excited to give life to the plan. 

We also created accountability by way of a new committee that we reported to once a month about the strategic design plan progress and by sending out an annual report to the people engaged in the process. You think people wanted to hear that COVID got in the way? No. That created a pressure for change that was stronger than resistance to change. 

That’s the role of the leader, to create systems of accountability and fidelity to the plan. The heavy lift is not to do the plan – the heavy lift is to implement the plan. Because the absence of structure means it won’t be implemented, create the systems that will help you realize your plan and empower people to help you. 

I look back now and I marvel that we [Harlingen] are just now cashing in on what people were dreaming up 5, 6, 7 years ago. I’m very proud of that. Coaching and mentoring superintendents now on why and how to get into that space will help give districts a focus and common language to do the right work and abandon the wrong work.

Successful strategic planning with Mitzi Clark Richardson, M.Ed., and Dr. Art Cavazos
Mitzi Clark Richardson, M.Ed., & Dr. Art Cavazos

Ready to dream big for your district? Learn more about engage2learn’s strategic design services and get in touch with us here.