Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS To Start Work On Strategic Plan

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 27, 2021

Amid months of contentious meetings dominated by heated public comment on topics like diversity resolutions, critical race theory, and COVID-19 protocols, Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) is quietly moving ahead with what leaders have described as one of the most important upcoming projects for the district: a strategic planning effort that will outline TCAPS goals and priorities for the next three years.

TCAPS board members voted last week to hire Northwest Education Services (formerly TBAISD) for an amount not to exceed $15,400 to provide strategic planning services for the district. The decision was overshadowed by discussion about masking at the same meeting, with the board voting to reverse course and require universal instead of optional masking to start the school year. But while COVID-19 talk dominated the meeting, the decision to hire Northwest Education Services will kick off a planning process that will take a starring role this fall, drawing in parents, students, faculty, staff, and board members to help determine the future direction of TCAPS.

Northwest Education Services was chosen out of six firms that submitted a bid for the strategic planning project and among two finalists narrowed down by the board. The other finalist, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates – which led the district’s recent superintendent search, resulting in the hiring of Dr. John VanWagoner – withdrew from consideration after trustees asked for more detailed presentations from each finalist. “They didn’t feel they had the capacity to move forward,” VanWagoner told trustees. Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates’ bid was also roughly twice that of Northwest Education Services at $29,500.

In a presentation to trustees, Northwest Education Services Superintendent Dr. Nick Ceglarek outlined the process his organization would lead TCAPS through this fall and winter to create a strategic plan. “The idea here is, where do you want to go?” he said. “Until you clearly define where you want to go as a school district in the next three years…it doesn’t matter what path you take. And this is what strategic planning does: It really helps you hone in on the things that are important.”

Northwest Education Services will kick things off in September and October with 12 focus group meetings, each planned to include 10 individuals. Those will include five parent groups (50 parents) representing a cross-section of all TCAPS schools and programs. Four staff focus groups (40 staff members) will collect input from teachers and other support staff at both the elementary and secondary levels. Twenty eleventh and twelfth graders will be invited to participate in two student focus groups, while a final focus group will gather input from area business, civic, government, religious, and other community leaders. “We would engage the community, and when I say community, I’m really talking about all stakeholders,” Ceglarek said, adding it would be important to use randomization as part of the selection process for focus groups to ensure a diverse and accurate cross-section of feedback.

The focus group will be followed by a series of comprehensive needs assessment surveys from November to January of district parents and residents, staff, and students, with approximately 75 percent of the questions containing standard survey inquiries about strengths and opportunities to improve and 25 percent of questions specifically tailored to TCAPS based on focus group feedback. The surveys will help ensure TCAPS is hearing from everyone in the district, not just those selected to participate in focus groups, Ceglarek said. At the end of that process, the data will be tabulated from both the focus groups and the surveys and shared with the board and public. “Everything is completely transparent,” he said. “All employees would have access to that information, everything would be on your website.”

Ceglarek said the extensive stakeholder feedback process will help ensure it’s not just individual board opinions shaping the strategic plan but the needs and desires of the district at large. “You’re making a commitment to the community that you won’t put something in the strategic plan unless you can back it up with data,” he said. The data report will be followed by a two-day retreat with the board and other key stakeholder representatives using responses to identify specific short-term, long-term, and ongoing goals in different district areas. The board is then expected to vote on approving the strategic plan in March.

Ceglarek stressed that the strategic plan will guide the district for the next three years – and then will need to be updated to take TCAPS through its future after that. “This isn’t a one-and-done,” he said. “Every three years, you’re going to reengage the community in this same process.” TCAPS Board Treasurer Matt Anderson said that continual refresh was crucial to the district’s ongoing success. “I’m particularly interested in the continuous updating of the plan every three years,” he said. “I think that’s real important for the long term of TCAPS.”

Some trustees – notably Board President Scott Newman-Bale – initially raised questions about whether Northwest Education Services could guide TCAPS through an objective and independent strategic planning process giving how intertwined the two organizations are, with Northwest Education Services serving as the intermediate school district for TCAPS. Ceglarek addressed that concern head-on with the board. “We will be looking at the lens for what is best for TCAPS and TCAPS alone,” he said. “We would not be biased in any way. And we would be very transparent in all of our communications and any type of focus group or surveying that we would do.”

Board Trustee Sue Kelly said she saw the relationship between the two organizations as a strength and not a weakness in the strategic planning process. “I frankly think that you just do a terrific job, and having experts such as yourselves and your entire support team can only help us,” she told Ceglarek. “I think you know us, and you know the community…you’ve been involved with us through the good and the bad.”

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