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'A paradigm shift': Rochester Public Schools prepares to roll out new strategic plan

One of the first assignments given to Superintendent Kent Pekel by the School Board, the completion of the strategic plan is a milestone for the district leader.

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Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Kent Pekel talks about the school district's new strategic plan during a study session on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The new strategic plan for Rochester Public Schools, along with all its supporting documentation, is thick enough to fill a hefty binder. It has strategies and goals, data and commentary — it’s complex.

To help visualize the document, the district boiled down those strategies and outlines into a graphic that fits on a single page. It’s the picture of several rings, each slightly smaller than the last, fitting inside each other like a target.

Each ring has a word inscribed on it: The outermost ring has “community,” followed by “district,”“school,” “classroom,” and “family.” Finally, at the very center is the image of a person holding a backpack.

“The student is at the center of everything in this strategy,” Superintendent Kent Pekel said. “It really is about helping our students both recognize and realize their purpose in life.”

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Contributed / Rochester Public Schools

While the student may be at the center of the plan, the plan as a whole is meant to focus the district’s work, moving from a haphazard approach to one that’s focused and intentional, according to Pekel.

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It’s a paradigm shift from the way things had been done, he said.

The creation of a new strategic plan was one of the first tasks the school board gave Pekel when he was still acting in his interim role.

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The plan will guide the district from 2022-25. Creating it was no small project. According to the draft document, it included “input from 75 people in 26 action working group meetings between September 2021 and April 2022.”

The school board is set to vote on the plan June 21. While reviewing the plan during recent meetings, the board members indicated they support its content.

The concept of a strategic plan isn’t new for RPS. But, however complex the new, proposed plan may be, the former one was equally as simple. Multiple people have suggested it didn’t really constitute a plan at all.

Pekel described the former iteration as a one-page document that had three very broad goals attached to it. School Board member Jess Garcia echoed that during a recent study session. Both individuals came to their positions in the district after the former strategic plan was created.

“I think what we had before this was not strategic or a plan. It was aspirations,” Garcia said.

The new strategic plan includes more than a dozen objectives, which are then broken down into initiatives detailing how the objectives will be accomplished.

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It’s aimed at improving the quality of school and work for the students and staff already there, with objectives like: “improving the well-being of students,” “improving the well-being of staff,” and “Build a positive school climate and safety for all students and staff.”

There’s goals aimed at future workers: “attract and retain staff,” “increase racial diversity of staff,” and “recruit and develop transformative leaders.”

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Rochester School Board member Don Barlow speaks about the district's proposed strategic plan during a study session on June 14, 2022.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

It speaks to removing barriers to families, and getting more students into early education programming. For older students, it has objectives about increasing the enrollment in college-level programming in preparation for life after high school.

“Family, for me, has always been a key piece,” school board member Don Barlow said. “Family empowerment, I’m excited to see it stated and a part of the plan.”

Although the school board is getting ready to approve the document, the administration will continue working on it. Pekel said come this fall, they plan to have a website for it, allowing the public to see not only the goals and initiatives, but how the district is doing in tackling those goals and initiatives.

Pekel said a strength of the plan is its commitment to "multi-tiered systems of support." That can come in different forms, such as tutoring or intervention programs. It's something the district doesn't have a lot of right now, he said.

"The student is in the center. And that may seem real obvious, but sometimes I don't think it's been so obvious," School board member Julie Workman said. "This just provides so much more clarity to the direction that we're moving in."

The implementation of the proposed strategic plan may not require adding resources as much as taking the resources the district already has and repurposing them. Again, moving from a scattershot system to one that's intentional.

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"I think we’ve had a lot of good people doing very good work in a largely uncoordinated way,” Pekel said.

He went on to say that over the years, the RPS has added staff members faster than enrollment has grown, contrary to other school districts.

“We have added staff without a clear set of objectives or strategies,” Pekel said. “The pivot point here is having very clear objectives and strategies, and now we have to allocate our resources to meet those."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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