Business (Managing K-12 Education)
Doing More with Less
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In the past several years, many districts have been tasked with doing more with fewer resources. Whether its budget cuts or other obstacles like staff shortages and shifting priorities, the creative use of resources has helped districts meet their goals within the boundaries of a tight budget. Three school districts — Wayzata Public Schools in Wayzata, Minn.; Livonia Public Schools in Livonia, Mich.; and St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colo. — have created high-quality, innovative programs despite obstacles standing in their way.
Wayzata Public Schools: The Operational Excellence Initiative
A priority for Wayzata Public Schools is to be as efficient and effective as possible and to be prudent with the taxpayers’ resources and to demonstrate financial vigilance to its community. In 2009, the district launched the Operational Excellence initiative, which consists of internal audits of all processes to eliminate deficiencies and to ensure resources are being used responsibly. Under the superintendent’s leadership, the school board added committees consisting of board members, community members and district staff to review district processes and identify those in need of improvement.
Once approved by the school board, the committee takes a deep dive into the process, evaluates its efficiency using benchmark data and best practice examples, and determines a solution. The committee presents their findings and proposed solution to the school board, which then approves the implementation of any new processes or tools to strengthen operations. The district shares these improvements with the community to demonstrate it is responsibly spending taxpayer money.
The Operational Excellence audits have improved efficiencies across the district, including custodial workflow, human resources-related processes, and more. In 2014, the district found its student and staff accident management processes were inefficient. Staff members reported accidents by filling out paper reports and submitting them to a district clerk. The clerk then reviewed the reports to determine the next course of action and then gave them to Jim Westrum, the executive director of Finance and Business at Wayzata Public Schools, to review and approve. Westrum then sent any reports requiring an investigation to the district’s insurance company and began conducting the investigation. The audit found this process time-consuming, inefficient and vulnerable to errors. Employees could submit incomplete reports, administration could lose paper reports, and it required a large amount of filing and even more importantly, risk mitigation actions were not taken because the data was not timely.
The committee conducting the Operational Excellence audit found that using an online reporting system was a best practice, so the district retired its paper reporting process. Now using Public-SchoolWORKS’ Student and Staff Accident Management Systems, the district eliminated the risk of error and other time-consuming inefficiencies. The online form does not allow employees to submit incomplete reports, and once they are submitted, Westrum and other key district staff are immediately alerted to take action. The system has cut down on the amount of paperwork and allowed the district to save more than $50,000 in payroll costs after clerical positions were eliminated. The systems have allowed the district to see accident trends, which are used to to implement prevention strategies. “Analyzing reports for trends would have taken weeks with our paper process, but now it only takes a few clicks,” said Westrum.
For districts looking to replicate this initiative, Westrum suggests involving district stakeholders as much as possible, including recruiting the help of the community’s specialists and professionals such as construction managers, legal counsel, leasing agents, architects, real-estate agents and more. Westrum also reiterates the importance of sharing updates with the community. “The Operational Excellence audits have helped us create a stronger relationship with our community because they know we are doing our due diligence,” said Westrum. “We are using their tax dollars responsibly, we are keeping their children safe and we are providing an excellent education.”
Livonia Public Schools: Level UP LPS
In 2013, the Livonia community approved a $30 million bond for edtech. This was used to upgrade wireless capabilities; purchase 12,000 Chromebooks for students; replace desktop computers in classrooms and labs; mount hundreds of Epson interactive projectors on classroom walls; and install document cameras and sound enhancement technology in classrooms. “We needed to quickly train our 1,000 teachers how to use all of this technology, but we needed to get it done in one day with a very limited budget,” said Tim Klan, administrator of Information and Instructional Technology at Livonia Public Schools. “We formed the Technology Bond Professional Development Committee comprised of staff from multiple departments and grades to brainstorm how to accomplish this.”
The committee’s answer was “Level Up LPS,” a one-day edtech conference equipped with a keynote speaker, workshops and breakout sessions, and a food truck rally. The committee was able to keep costs down by using existing or free resources. The event was hosted at one of the district’s high schools so there wasn’t a venue rental fee. The committee asked tech-savvy teachers to pilot the new technologies so they could lead the workshops and breakout sessions. Student volunteers helped make sure the event ran smoothly and the food trucks came to the rally for free as long as the district met a minimum attendance, which was easy since all 1,000 staff members were required to attend. The only real expense was the keynote speaker. In addition to the keynote speaker, the event had between 30 and 35 breakout sessions and seven food trucks attended. The event is now an annual occurrence.
For districts looking to replicate this model, Klan suggests first consulting with teacher unions to ensure their contracts allow staff to participate in an all-day training. Then, find a location that is big enough to accommodate attendees and has the wireless network needed to accommodate the number of wireless devices. When planning the program, survey teachers early to confirm there are enough willing to lead workshops and breakout sessions. Livonia Public Schools found that allowing teachers to present as a team helped encourage participation. Klan’s last piece of advice was to ask for post-event feedback.
“The first Level Up LPS event was definitely a success,” said Klan. “Some of our attendees said it was the best PD they’d ever had, but there was room for improvement.” One piece of feedback was attendees felt they did not have the opportunity to reflect on what they learned so the following year’s program carved out time for teachers to practice what they learned in computer labs. Additionally, the district now groups attendees by department and grade-level at the end of the day so they can discuss what they learned and how they can incorporate it.
St. Vrain Valley School District: Video Peer Coaching
St. Vrain Valley School District struggled to balance between keeping its teachers in the classroom and finding time for professional development. “Because we had resources like an adequate substitute pool, we often didn’t challenge our institutionalized practice of bringing in subs to pull teachers out for professional development,” said Diane Lauer, Ed.D, assistant superintendent of Priority Programs & Academic Support at St. Vrain Valley School District. However, the district began experiencing a teacher and substitute shortage and instead of seeing an obstacle, the district chose to see it as an opportunity to align its practices with its values and supporting research.
Shifting instructional practice requires authentic learning activities followed up with focused, ongoing support generally in the form of peer coaching. Therefore, the district is optimizing its peer coaching strategies by incorporating the use of video collaboration to maximize professional learning. Instead of hiring substitute teachers, the district’s mentor teachers who act as peer coaches and the novice teachers receiving the coaching use Edthena. Novice teachers simply video record portions of their lessons, upload them to the password-protected portal, and then engage in peer dialogue with their teacher mentors in collegial support.
Integrating video peer coaching into the district’s New Teacher Induction program revolutionized how the district provides professional development. Video collaboration is now also used for curriculum adoption initiatives, for Lesson Study, and for Professional Study Team work, and it has become part of the district’s revised teacher evaluation system. Teachers now have the option of substituting one of their two principal observations required each year with a peer observation from a colleague.
For districts interested in video collaboration, Lauer suggested thinking big, but starting small. First, incubate the prototype strategy with a small group of teachers and analyze the results. “Actively monitoring progress in the early phase of implementation gives you time to fail forward, learn from your initial mistakes, and iterate a second prototype that benefits from your new thinking,” said Lauer. Also, think through the technical problems and the adaptive challenges. For example, developing the skills to record video and upload it to a platform for sharing is a technical problem. Seeing the value of giving up a dependence on using substitutes for professional development is an adaptive problem. Lauer says leaders need to see the difference and plan accordingly.
“We have saved tens of thousands of dollars on substitute costs and untold planning minutes lost from writing sub plans,” said Lauer. “Video peer coaching has shifted our culture.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.