Inside the year-long process to create Anderson schools' strategic plan

When administrators at Anderson Community Schools began to consider updating the district’s five-year strategic plan, consensus on one element emerged quickly.

“This time, we thought we would be a little broader and include the community and really try to bring the community into our decision making,” Superintendent Joe Cronk said. “It’s the community that chooses where they want to go to school.”

The decision to be more expansive in requesting input from the community meant the team tasked with formulating the new plan would need to sort through ideas gleaned from more than a dozen in-person listening sessions, as well as data from about 1,500 completed online surveys.

The process unearthed some pervasive concerns about the district’s methods for addressing safety, discipline and behavioral issues among its students. There were questions about what, if anything, could be done about the district’s enrollment numbers, which are on track to decline for a sixth straight year.

Other issues, including a lack of clarity, perceived by some staff members, for defining academic success and the district’s progress on diversity and social issues, were also prominent in the group’s discussions.

“The most challenging or difficult part (of the process) was to see … our shortcomings,” said Randy Harrison, president of the Anderson Federation of Teachers Local 519. “Whether it was hard to retain educators, not doing enough in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion or … the concerns about our children not feeling safe.

“To hear those was probably the toughest part, because it wasn’t a celebration of what we do.”

The listening sessions, including some which were attended exclusively by ACS staff members, allowed candid conversations to take place. Members of the Strategic Plan committee deliberately refrained from taking notes, which they said was important.

“All the sessions were meant to give open and honest opinions,” said Veda Morris-May, executive director of the Minority Health Coalition of Madison County. “It was a very open and honest process where we put the good, we put the bad. As with anything, you recognize there’s room for improvement.”

Harrison, who teaches government classes at Anderson High School, said being confronted with deficiencies — both real and perceived — was a necessary part of creating a new plan.

“The tough part is the reflection,” he said. “The good part at the end of the road is the improvement, and this strategic plan does that. It helps us to reflect on the bad, make adjustments and keep moving forward.”

Chelsie Jaramillo, who has children in ninth, seventh and fourth grades in the district, was recruited to help develop the strategic plan. She said that as the team’s monthly meetings focused more on specifics within the plan, a vision of clearly defining ACS’s place within the larger Anderson community began to take shape.

“We had to be clear and concise in what our goals are, so there was a desire to make it something that was actionable and something that the schools could really take hold of and bring to the families and community,” Jaramillo said.

The group’s final product includes five strategies for improvement that the district’s leaders say will guide decision making at every educational level and on all administrative fronts. Cronk said those ideals — including connections with families and community, innovative educational options and responsible governance — are evident in the district’s recently passed $83 million budget for next year. More than two-thirds of that, according to Tyler Elmore, the district’s chief financial officer, has been allocated for payroll and staff benefits.

“We’re making a significant investment in our staff, which then in turn, a satisfied staff will provide quality education to students,” Cronk said.

Cronk and others acknowledged that measuring adherence to the plan will be somewhat subjective because many of its desired outcomes won’t be quantifiable.

“It’s more than just metrics or saying, are we getting this done?” said Pat Hill, president of the ACS Board of Trustees. “We need to relay that it’s being done as well, and this is within the scope of what was proposed under the strategic plan.”

This article appeared in The Herald Bulletin.