Institutional realignment

Day school strategic planning in a post-COVID environment: A time to restart, reboot and recharge

During 2020, many of our Jewish day schools experienced dramatic and in select cases traumatic stresses and strains resulting from COVID-related disruptions

As our Jewish day schools and yeshivot experience a return to a level of post-pandemic normalcy, they will be facing a host of significant organizational leadership challenges. This unprecedented reality follows a very stressful and challenging year of school lockdowns, remote classroom learning and teaching, social isolation, child, parent and faculty health and safety concerns, and personal loss. To be sure, many school leaders are only now beginning to realize and appreciate the profound enormity and complexity of their task in bringing their schools back to a level of pre-pandemic normalcy. 

Although many of our day schools are resilient, it is unrealistic to expect that all of our schools will be able to proactively and successfully transition from pandemic mode restrictions to a level of normalcy without some form of institutional “realignment.” This realignment will require proactive leadership challenges and approaches, including a deep-dive into a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of the school’s programmatic and operational viability, effectiveness and sustainability, as well the school’s vision for a path forward.

Building the Case for Strategic Planning

During 2020, many of our Jewish day schools experienced dramatic and in select cases traumatic stresses and strains resulting from COVID-related disruptions. These disruptions impacted virtually every aspect of the school….from school schedules, curricular offerings and policies to student progress, faculty availability, supervision and effectiveness; from parental engagement and interaction to financial stability and Board leadership. These challenges are in addition to a myriad of additional concerns including the daunting impact of the pandemic on the social and emotional health and wellbeing of our school’s teachers, administrators, students and parents. 

In light of these realities, and as our schools begin to pivot to “modified normal” operations with reduced restrictions, school leaders will be challenged to recalibrate, realign and redirect their expectations, modes of operation and direction. Picking up where we left prior to the pandemic, is an easy task. This is especially true for those schools that are now moving from full or partial remote to complete in-person (bricks and mortar) teaching and learning….as well as those that are easing their mask-wearing and social-distancing policies. This is in addition to the incredibly difficult task of recruiting and retaining high caliber Judaic and general studies faculty who have not yet experienced the full impact of in-person teaching in over a year and who still have health a safety concerns; as well as responding to students who are in dire need of academic remediation and social/emotional interventions.

One proactive approach to responding to these new emerging realities is by engaging in a strategic assessment and planning process. This process affords school lay and senior professional leadership the opportunity to more closely identify and examine areas of concern requiring immediate attention versus those that will require more long-term targeting.

It is important to note that those who feel that engaging in strategic planning processes is a luxury. This may be due in large measure to the fact that many strategic planning processes fail and end up collecting dust on shelves due to poorly planned and/or inadequate implementation or execution strategies. By the same token, the majority of schools that have successfully engaged in a well-designed and developed strategic planning processes have reported remarkably positive outcomes….especially those schools with clear and concise implementation plans and measurable outcomes. Finally, school leaders may become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task (especially post-pandemic) and therefore opt to plan in a vacuum or by default with less structure. It’s definitely easier. But as we know well, “easier” does not always produce quality – especially when there is so much at stake.

When considering a strategic planning process for your school it should not be restricted exclusively to a whole-school deep-dive into every aspect of the school’s programs or operation, especially in a “post-pandemic environment.” In fact, it would serve the school well to identify specific priority areas of concern which require immediate alignment. These will drive a school’s decision-making process and set the stage for realignment and clear policy setting.

Several of the more recent macro-level challenges and opportunities which I have observed in many schools include:  

  • Reviewing and eventually realigning student academic expectations, growth and performance, especially for those students with exceptionalities and who required remediation prior to the pandemic;
  • Attracting and retaining high quality faculty and staff; and, helping faculty transition back to in-person instruction;
  • Reviewing and assessing the manner in which the school responds to student and faculty social and emotional concerns;
  • Realigning student outreach, recruitment and placement efforts;
  • Creating new and meaningful high-impact ‘parent-school’ partnerships;
  • Reviewing and assessing  the school’s organizational structure and table of organization in order to ensure more effective quality performance, efficiency and impact;
  • Assessing the impact of the school’s fundraising, marketing and communications efforts; and
  • Ensuring high impact Board recruitment, training and development.

These are just several “front-burner” school issues and concerns resulting from a year of extraordinary COVID related restrictions and disruptions. In fact, a case can be made that they represent important areas of focus even under normal circumstances. All the more so as we begin to re-envision our post-COVID future.

Conducting the Strategic Planning Process

As just indicated, a school’s proactive commitment to a post-pandemic strategic planning process does not necessarily require that the school conduct a whole-school or school-wide planning process. Alternatively, the school may want to focus on those high impact and therefore high priority front-burner and hot-button challenges as defined, endorsed and validated by the school’s administration, hanhalla and board. These areas of concern will of course vary from school to school, depending upon need, bandwidth, sense of urgency and leadership required to direct and oversee a credible planning process. It is also important to note that the timeframe for completion of a strategic planning process should not exceed three-months. Schools should not wait any longer than necessary in order to begin implementing critically important programs, policies and initiatives. Therefore, timing and time management of the process will be essential.

So, where does a school start?

First and foremost, it is essential that the school establish a committee or governing body, responsible for strategic planning design and oversight. The group should be comprised of school constituencies which have a vested interest in the school and who buy-in to the concept of strategic planning. The group typically includes school board and professional leadership, teachers, parents, donors and community-at-large representatives. Many schools engage an outside facilitator with expertise and experience in strategic planning in order to help guide and oversee the planning process. Critical to the success of the facilitator will be the trust and confidence the committee has in this individual as well as the individual’s familiarity with the cultural and demographic nuances of the school and its constituent population.

The Planning Process:

The first step in any credible strategic planning process, in addition to establishing the oversight committee, is for the school to determine or reaffirm its vision and mission. This takes place through in-depth reflection and deliberation with the school administration, board and constituents. Once a consensus is reached, the vision and mission statements serve as a foundation or spring-board for the strategic planning process. 

The vision statement is viewed as the anchor point of any strategic plan. It outlines what the school would like to ultimately achieve and gives purpose to the existence of the school. A well written vision statement should be short, simple and specific to the school, leaving nothing open for interpretation. It describes the school’s desired future. It is an image of an ideal and an expression of optimism

The mission statement may be a bit lengthier. It describes why the school exists – what the school believes; who it serves and what it does. The statement should be succinct and a guide to the actions of the board, administration and faculty. A mission statement that truly captures the essence of the school inspires energy and commitment.

Since it is likely that most Jewish day schools and yeshivot have maintained and preserved their vision and mission throughout this past year’s pandemic, it would not be necessary for this writer to expand upon this phase of the planning process. Nevertheless, it is prudent for the school to review and validate the statements with an eye towards editing or modifying nuanced changes resulting from a fresh review of the school’s current status, philosophy and direction.

The next phase of the school’s strategic planning process involves determining how this past year has changed various aspects of the school…..and, to identify those areas which require deeper analysis. To this end, the next phase of the strategic plan involves the introduction of a SWOT analysis. 

A SWOT analysis which is an acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats is probably one of the most powerful exercises in a school’s strategic planning arsenal or toolkit. In the absence of conducting a whole-school strategic plan, the SWOT analysis which is used to assess the school’s current position before deciding on a new strategy, may be segmented or compartmentalized and applied to discrete priority areas of concern.

For example, in light of the number of new and existing students in the school who are now (post-COVID) requiring remedial academic intervention, the school may want to revisit the manner in which it provides remedial services to students with exceptionalities. By doing so it must look at the school’s strengths in this area, its weaknesses; as well as opportunities that may now exist to improve this service. And finally, a clear identification of threats are in order. They represent barriers or obstacles that prevent the school from moving forward effectively with a specific remediation program….such as qualified remedial personnel, program affordability, scheduling, etc. 

Once these variables are documented and understood more fully, the committee is in a far better position to develop a strategic direction in order to respond to this evolving need.

Another example…….the school is in dire need of trained and experienced faculty. The school is just not attracting the most qualified Judaic and general studies faculty. In addition, the school is struggling with ways in which to improve the retention of faculty

Once again, a SWOT analysis will help provide the committee with four discrete perspectives regarding this challenge strengths ( what does the school do well in the areas of teacher recruitment and retention? what unique resources can the school draw upon? and what do others see as the school’s strength in this area?); weaknesses (what can the school improve? where does the school have fewer resources? what are others likely to see as weaknesses?); opportunities (what opportunities are open or are available to the school in order to enhance and improve its human resources condition? what trends could the school take advantage of? and how can the school turn its strengths into opportunities?) And finally, threats (what threats can harm the school? what is the school’s competition doing in this area? and, what threats does the school’s weaknesses expose?)

In the final analysis, the SWOT exercise, irrespective of areas to be targeted, provides the committee with a fuller and more expansive perspective regarding the need; and therefore helps guide the committee to formulate a series of strategies, goals and objects which will constitute the school’s plan moving forward. In other words, a systematic and systemic review and analysis infuses the planning process with a more “granular” perspective regarding the challenges which are anchored in real time data.

Once the SWOT analyses is complete, the committee will then be in a position to develop a series of strategies for the action plan. These strategies become the core of the planning process and sets the stage for what will become a clear, concise and robust roadmap for the school’s future.

The Strategic Action Plan:

As the committee proceeds to formulate its action plan, it may want to consider using a SMART outline to set the right goal. Each goal should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevance and time-based. By using this outline, the committee maintains an approach and a structure which is easier to follow and which divides goals into its five important discrete domains.

Once the committee is ready to articulate specific strategies and goals, it may consider using one of the numerous planning templates now accessible for public use via a wide variety of sources.

Irrespective of the type of template used, it is essential that the action plan include the following components:

  • Strategies and SMART goals
  • Expectations/Objectives
  • Desired outcomes
  • How outcomes will be measured
  • Required resources (human and material)
  • Timetable for implementation
  • Ongoing formative and summative review and assessment

It is important to note that the process of mapping-out strategies, goals, and objectives can only be as effective as their implementation. Keep in mind that the majority of strategic plans fail due to an inability for the school to execute the plan effectively. It will therefore be essential for the school to establish an implementation committee or governing entity which will be responsible for plan implementation, oversight and evaluation.

Once the action plan is in final draft form, it should to be shared with all school stakeholders – including all faculty and staff, parents. Board members and donors. In the spirit of the belief that  “people support what they help to create” the successful launch of the action plan will also determine its success. To this end, the launch should include focus group presentations, community debriefings, and the dissemination of the Plan via school-based social media platforms and the school’s website. It must be viewed as an organic document, subject to continuous changes, modifications and improvement as well as evolving realities in the school and in the community which the school serves. Remember, it’s all about continuous alignment and realignment….

Endnote:

The purpose of this post, as indicated from the outset, is not to provide the reader with a step-by-step guide or approach to strategic planning, but rather to motivate and catalyze day school leadership to think proactively about strategic planning as a critically important post-COVID roadmap for school growth, development and direction.

As Jewish day school and yeshiva leadership begin to assess and realign new realities (i.e. demographics, financial condition, student population, teacher workforce and school culture) against a backdrop of recent Pandemic restrictions, they will also encounter a variety of daunting challenges and exciting opportunities which warrant serious review and consideration. 

To realign a school’s programmatic and/or operational goals and objectives with new post-COVID realities it will be facing, in the absence of serious strategic planning, does not fully maximize the tremendous power and efficacy of serious planning.

In the absence of a “hard-sell,” I would like to respectfully suggest that strategic planning be viewed as a powerful vehicle for reimagining a school’s direction and potential impact…as it helps guide and navigate environmental change in a manner that is nonthreatening, inclusive and above all, systemic and systematic.

Today, our day schools and yeshivot are well positioned to proactively move forward using strategic planning approaches as a viable ( and at times indispensable) option for growth and development. 

In the final analysis, every Jewish day school and yeshiva, irrespective of disposition, will need to determine the most effective route for it to pursue as it wrestles with 2021 post-pandemic realities. 

In light of these evolving realities, now, more than ever before, may be the most opportune time for schools to restart, reboot and recharge their direction with fresh thinking, strategy, creativity and proactive leadership.

Dr. Chaim Botwinick is principal of the Hebrew Academy, Margate FL; organizational consultant and executive coach. He is co-founder of LEV Consulting Associates specializing in Leadership Development and Strategic Planning; and, has served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership posts on the local and national levels.

Dr. Botwinick is author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness, Brown Books, 2011.