New Rochester school district’s strategic plan hailed as major improvement

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Rochester Public Schools says it has a bigger, clearer road map for improvements over the next few years.

The Rochester schools board last week approved a three-year strategic plan that district officials say is a major improvement over past proposals and will be a catalyst for big changes in area schools.

School districts often create multiyear strategic plans to map out priorities and potential work. The documents are usually high-level outlines with lofty goals and a few ideas on how to accomplish them but lack specific measurements and targets.

Rochester’s plan includes similar lofty goals. It has 15 objectives, from improving equity and postsecondary opportunities in the classroom to hiring more teachers of diverse backgrounds to strengthening relationships with families to better supporting students and staff.

According to district staff, the key difference in this plan is its emphasis on initiatives and research to reach those objectives. That includes building a new district-level data center, tackling transportation issues for parents with kids in pre-kindergarten classes, finding more ways to partner with Mayo Clinic, IBM and other Rochester-area businesses to offer new learning opportunities, among other things.

Rochester officials are also looking to secure more funding for students by asking voters to increase its operational levy in 2023. The district is facing a $23 million deficit in the upcoming school year budget.

“Most strategic plans sit on the shelf and don’t become living, breathing documents that drive the work of the organization,” Rochester Superintendent Kent Pekel said.

For Pekel, the new plan reflects the district’s purpose to be more proactive as issues come up. Board members passed another plan Tuesday to address increasing behavioral issues in area schools, but work done as part of the strategic plan could pre-empt similar problems from growing in the future.

“There’s just so much stuff coming at you all the time, and then you never end up getting ahead of these complex issues,” he said. “And so I think this strategic plan actually is a precondition for improving student outcomes, but it’s no guarantee.”

Rochester’s last strategic plan was a one-page document outlining three ideals: Access and equity, student achievement and accountability. The new plan is 134 pages and contains a year’s worth of work group input, survey data and studies from St. Paul-based Wilder Research.

“This is really groundbreaking not just for us, for our students and our staff, but for our community,” Board Member Cathy Nathan said.

Passing the strategic plan was important and somewhat emotional for Nathan, who participated in working groups as a concerned resident in 2013 to develop a previous plan. Nathan said she was disappointed to see all of the staff’s and community’s work go to waste when the district didn’t follow through on that plan, which was part of the reason why she ran for the board.

“This is so robust, and it is so far more than what I could have thought it was going to be,” she said. “We’re already talking about our next steps for implementation.”

The district has reorganized its administrative offices to better focus on the strategic plan, and staff will work to further define and meet the district’s goals. Pekel said he’ll meet with residents, businesses and community groups this summer to discuss the new strategic plan and find ways to get the public involved.

“In the home of what is arguably the best hospital in the world, we ought to have a school district that is also aspiring to at least national, if not global, leadership,” he said.

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