LHISD begins work on new strategic plan

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The timing seemed right, with the hiring of new Superintendent Steve Snell, a recent bond approved for a pair of brand new campuses, and an uptick in the pace of growth.

In response to current changes and an understanding that change comes fast today, Liberty Hill ISD has decided to embark on a new strategic planning process.

“This was a joint conversation between myself and the school board,” Snell said.

The goal of a new plan, though, for Snell is to have something that comes alive and shows tangible results for students and the community. That means a plan with specifics, not simply philosophy.

“(It has to be) centered on a belief system of who we believe we are, and why we’re here and what service we provide to the community of Liberty Hill,” he said. “Once you get that foundation and you get your vision and mission, then what’s our plan? To me, the vision has to be shared with everybody so everybody has a general understanding of what it is and what we want Liberty Hill ISD to be. The mission is what becomes critical.”

That mission is what leads to results.

“In many organizations, and many schools, they have these statements and they’re even on a poster on the wall or they’re on the web page. Maybe they come alive, maybe they don’t,” Snell said. “In the really successful organizations, everyone in the organization knows what that mission is and it’s clear. It’s not some grand statement, full of education jargon. It’s clear and everybody knows with their individual role in the system how they play into that mission.”

Every aspect of district operations will be touched by the planning process, from academics and other areas of student development, to finance and facilities.

“A lot of those things are in play as we grow just to make sure system-wide in our school district that we’re planning for everything – that we know what our strengths are, that we know what our weaknesses are. So we know what our opportunities are, more importantly.”

All aspects of the final results of this new strategic plan should point to the final result, which is preparing students even better for life after high school.

“We’re a very highly successful academic school district, and we want to stay that way,” he said. “That takes a lot of work and effort and we want to stay on the cutting edge competitively. There’s going to be expectation on our school district that we prepare our kids and make sure they are competitive in the job market once they graduate, whether they go straight to work, explore college or choose the military.”

Getting started
The school board participated in a workshop Feb. 18 to learn more about the planning process. Snell said there will be many people involved, both inside the district and outside.

“You want to bring in a good core mix of school district people and community members,” he said. “You want city, you want parents, you want a couple of students on there, so every stakeholder in the community gets clear understanding of where we are, where we’re going and what our needs are going forward.”

Exactly who will participate has not been determined, but it must include representation from every part of the community.

“You have to get the right people to the table,” Snell said. “A great combination that represents the four corners of Liberty Hill. There are businesses, the city, everything. We’re in the process of looking to design that team, so that will take a little bit of time. That’s more of a global group, and from there that’s where they will create action steps.”

Communication has been in place, and the district has been proactive on the issues to be discussed, so there is a foundation in place.

“We’ve done planning obviously because you have to do the pre-work for a bond,” Snell said. “So you’re looking at demographics, at our financial situation, our debt capacity to try and stay a little bit ahead of that growth so when kids show up they have a building and a classroom and a teacher.

“There’s been a lot of communication just since I’ve been here with county and city officials and a willingness to get together and make sure we’re all on the same page and make sure we’re all using the same data points to make sure we understand when houses are being built and other things are coming in.”

Liberty Hill will also be looking to the school district in a similar growth situation for ideas.

“The public school finance model isn’t designed to help fast-growth districts,” Snell said. “It’s a slow government process, so we organize with other fast-growth districts around the state that have some of the same concerns. We make sure we put our heads together so collectively we have best practices in place to handle these things.”

The plan must be understandable, and once it is carved out and in place, it must result in something practical the community can see.

“Then there will be people on our side with the help of community that do the actual work, whatever it is,” Snell said. “That process can get very comprehensive and you’ve got to be careful because if it gets too comprehensive then nobody knows what it is. The key is in follow through. Time is going to have to be carved out all across the district, and teams are constantly going to have to revisit, grow and adjust. That’s the thing, a truly effective plan means you are going to have to adjust. It has got to be flexible to a point.”

Staying ahead
Historically, strategic plans were not revisited so often, but things change quickly today, both in the community and in academics.

“Districts and organizations used to do five-year plans and 10-year plans, but the world’s changing so fast we need to have those markers, but we need to focus on today and balancing that with the future growth,” Snell said.

Being successful and a top-rated district should not give Liberty Hill a sense that everything should go on business as usual.

“We’ve heard that good is the enemy of great,” Snell said. “I think it is very easy to fall off. If you don’t pay attention to your systems and your programs and you don’t plan with purpose I think it is very easy to fall off.”

There are many questions to ask as the district grows at such a fast pace, and not doing so can have negative consequences.

“Do you want to play keep up, scramble for teachers and financing and resources, or do you want to plan that out and be ready for it?” Snell said. “We want to be ready for it. When we get new kids to the area we want to be able to show we have high expectations here. In a high-performing system everybody has to know their role and you can’t let anybody off the hook.”

And in the end
Referring often to the “portrait of a graduate”, Snell is focused on defining what that end result is as students leave Liberty Hill ISD.

“Part of the process is going to be creating a portrait of a graduate, so when a kid graduates from Liberty Hill we can say what we want them to be able to do,” he said. “We want to have excellent programs athletically, fine arts, clubs, the career classrooms. That’s kind of the philosophical thing, but to me another huge part of that is the development of the whole child – including character education, anti-drug programs and making sure kids understand they are a part of something bigger than themselves and just how critical service is in the development of people.”

This definition, and the extensive plan that evolves from the process is just one step in Liberty Hill ISD’s future.

“With missions there’s beginning and end,” Snell said. “Then you reevaluate and you come up with another mission. In Liberty Hill the mission that we come up with over the next few months will obviously be centered around kids, high expectations and educational excellence.”

No timetable has been established for completion of the project, but Snell said the hard work will need to pay off in a visible, measurable way.

“In a lot of ways it is very exciting, but in a lot of ways it’s going to be very time consuming, but it’s worth it,” he said. “At the end of all that time-consuming work, if all we have is a nice little binder with pretty charts on the shelf, then that was a complete waste of time. They will need to see results of it on every campus, and results matter.”

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