Officials: ACPS five-year plan will focus decision-making

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By Susan Hale Thomas (File photo)

Former schools Superintendent Morton Sherman already may seem like a distant memory for city residents, but Alexandria City Public Schools officials hope a new policy roadmap will solidify the district’s new direction.

More than 100 citizens provided feedback at a forum on the first draft of a new five-year strategic plan at a forum last week at George Washington Middle School. School officials and a committee of 25 community stakeholders have worked since last summer to develop the draft plan to guide both policy and budgeting into the future.

The 2020 Strategic Plan will be the first such roadmap to be adopted under the leadership of Superintendent Alvin Crawley. The document focuses on closing achievement gaps to ensure all children within the school district receive quality educations and are prepared for the career of their choice.

Stakeholder committee co-chairman John Lennon said what the work his group is doing is extremely important.

“One of my favorite quotes is from ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there,’” Lennon said. “If we don’t have specific goals and objectives, we won’t know where we will be in the future and this is especially important for ACPS.”

Schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said the new plan doesn’t throw out everything Sherman enacted during his tenure, but it marks a codified departure from his oft-criticized management style of overloading students and staff with a variety of new initiatives.

“I know some of the people involved are wanting to see it carry on from the previous 5-year plan, but in a slightly different direction,” Lloyd said. “They want it to be more in-depth, more focused and more geared to what we really need now.

“We’re not completely abandoning the past, but we’re building on it … in a way that is sensible and feasible.”

Janet Eissenstat, co-chairwoman of the stakeholder committee, joined the group because she feels the school system has the potential to be unique and dynamic, but to get there, it takes renewed commitment. Eissenstat works as an executive coach and leadership trainer and is the mother of two children with special needs in city public schools.

“Why is it we have systemic challenges we haven’t seemed to get traction on?” she said. “[Slow] and steady wins the race. It takes 18 months for a team to coalesce. Staff turnovers cause the kids to suffer. Let’s fix the process of how we do things and commit to what we’re doing.”

The draft plan places a priority on early childhood education and care and also makes student health and wellness a priority. The draft says that ACPS will provide access and support that enables students to be physically and mentally healthy, which in turn makes learning easier.

For Eissenstat, it’s all about finding ways to stay focused on a couple of key issues.

“As a community we are working to prioritize what ACPS needs to be good at,” she said. “No school district can excel at everything. We must focus on the things that matter most.”

Lloyd said the focus of the new plan is what sets it apart from previous leadership teams.

“It’s a case of aligning things and then not getting off that track,” she said. “In previous years, it was a bit erratic, but this is our roadmap, and it’s going to be enforced at every level. Every policy that comes before the [school] board is going tried and tested against this plan.”

At last week’s forum, residents offered feedback on the plan’s goals, which include better accountability and community engagement, the recruitment and retention of teachers, updating facilities and classrooms, health and wellness, and academic excellence and equity.

A public survey provided to the committee revealed residents’ priorities were to improve the condition of school buildings and create equitable learning environments.

Eissenstat said she kept hearing diversity was a primary reason for the school system’s challenges.

“Diversity should be our crowning jewel,” she said. “It’s what should draw people to ACPS. We should celebrate our diversity and make it our strongest asset.”

The current plan will lapse in June, when the new plan will take effect and be in place through 2020.

“We take pride in our schools and we want to see our students become well-rounded critical thinkers with a real passion for learning,” said Superintendent Alvin Crawley. “We want to make sure that we have a plan which is aligned with our goals as we move toward a high-achieving school division over the next five years.”

Over the next three months, the committee will continue to tweak the plan based on input from community forums, online data and several smaller presentations to groups including teachers, staff and parent teacher associations. In June, the school board will adopt the final plan.

Public comments on the draft Strategic Plan can be made online at www.acps.k12.va.us. A final public forum will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at Francis C. Hammond Middle School. After the forum and online feedback are reviewed, a second draft will be published.

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