Every school year starts with the same well-intentioned script: District leaders lay out their priorities for the next 10 months, and a list of ways they’re going to achieve those goals.
But even the best-laid plans can be derailed by, say, a global pandemic. Divisive political debates can disrupt school board meetings and shift the public’s focus. Suffocating staffing shortages can bring progress on initiatives to a sudden stop.
Superintendents say it’s critical to start the school year strong, with clear communication with staff and families about the focus for the year.
But with the winter break comes a natural opportunity for districts to reset and help their communities refocus. Here’s how three superintendents approach the task.
Fall back on core priorities
Resetting can be made easier if the right foundation is established from the outset, said Marcelo Cavazos, superintendent in the Arlington, Texas, school district.
Cavazos’ beginning-of-the-year messaging is usually simple and straightforward, focusing generally on a longstanding core mission: Ensuring all students are successful. It’s familiar and helps ease families, students, and staff into a comfortable environment.
If the year throws a curveball, having core priorities to fall back on can help the community feel more stable, he said.
“Our mission statement and vision for our strategic plan has remained the same for the past 10 years, and that was very intentional,” Cavazos said. “There are changes and disruptions but we always relate back to our core mission, regardless, which can be like a North Star.
“Even if we start out by saying we’re really going to focus on literacy and build our messaging around that, it relates to our core values and mission—our main priorities did not change because our priorities are consistent no matter what,” he said.”
As the year continues, Cavazos sends more specific updates, honing in on different initiatives and progress measures. The mid-year mark is a good time for an honest look at what’s working and what isn’t, and for underscoring the district’s commitment to improving.
Diana Greene, the superintendent in Duval County, Fla., said highlighting successes is important, but acknowledging and communicating how the district plans to address shortcomings in the new year can also be grounding for communities like hers that have been hit by crisis after crisis.
Florida schools have struggled with many of the same problems of others across the country—staffing shortages, illness, pandemic-related academic and social-emotional needs, and lots of political drama. But some have also had to deal with not one, but two hurricanes.
But, like, Cavazos, Greene said she tries to maintain continuity by keeping the big-picture priorities the same and not introducing major changes mid-year.
“It sends the message that we were intentional about those priorities and they still matter regardless of the day-to-day things happening in the district,” she said. “I think it’s important to continue to share that message that no matter what’s going on, these are the things we’re focused on.”
Remind everyone to recharge
Bob Nelson, the superintendent in Fresno, Calif., said his district spent the days leading up to the winter break not hammering home its priorities for the next semester, but reminding staff and families to rest and recharge so they’re ready to hit the ground running in January.
It’s been a long year (or two or three), Nelson said, with so many distractions from the district’s core mission of educating students. All of that can be draining, and nobody is prepared to learn or teach if they haven’t taken care of their well-being first.
So, this year, his mid-year message was simple: Do what you need to do to care for yourself. The rest can wait.
“We all need to get our personal heads right so when we come back we’re going all out for these kids and there’s nothing left on the field,” Nelson said. “For us, now wasn’t the time to belabor the mission or anything—we all know what we’re here for. It was time to refresh.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2023 edition of Education Week as How to Reset School District Priorities After a Long First Semester