Dr. Heidi Eliopoulos found herself on stage this month at the What’s Right In Education national conference in Chicago. She delivered a key presentation because Chippewa Falls Schools were being honored as the showcase district.
It wasn’t the first time this summer Eliopoulos was in the spotlight. She was also invited to present at the Quality Educator Convention in Madison. Along with Pewaukee Superintendent Dr. JoAnn Sternke and Dr. Melissa Matarazzo of Studer Education, they conducted a joint presentation about continuous improvement processes within schools.
“Heidi presented the story concisely, with excitement, she connected it with the larger picture of public education across the country, she engaged her entire leadership team and was incredibly well received,” said Matarazzo. The Florida-based group works with Chippewa Falls and more than a dozen other school districts in Wisconsin, as well as many others across the country.
Both conferences recognized Chippewa Falls for the success it is having with its strategic plan, and is a direct result of the Community Conversation process the district undertook in February 2014.
“We’re really proud of this. This process has led to some great results,” Eliopoulos said. “It’s also a way we ensure the themes of the Community Conversation that were articulated in our strategic plan are actually in place in our schools, right down to every single staff member being involved at some level.”
Informed by residents
The community conversation was a way of getting hundreds of district residents to assist the schools in defining its goals. That was done two years ago, first by administrators and then to staff members at all levels. They set one-year goals for all of the buildings and departments, and teachers established classroom goals.
“They all are aligned with the building goals, which are aligned with the district goals,” Eliopoulos said.
Those goals range from ACT scores, reading fluency, math, parent satisfaction, employee retention and more. A big one they added this year is academic and career planning.
“Every student leaves high school with a plan of what they’re going to do next, as well as the knowledge, experiences and confidence to get them there,” she said. “That’s a big one we added this year.”
In June, teams met to assess results from the second-year goals. This month representatives from every building and department met to set goals for the 2016-17 school year, and they will be presented to the School Board in September.
“We use what are called stretch goals, so they’re realistic, but they make us stretch, because we want to be better,” Eliopoulos said. “There are very few goals that we did not meet. It validates the hard work of our staff.”
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That work translated into results, and Matarazzo cited the improvement they made in those goals this past year as the reason why Chippewa Falls was chosen as the showcase district.
“They have achieved significant improvement in three measures that we look at: employee engagement; parent satisfaction; and how well the district’s departments serve the schools,” she said.
Making it work
Eliopoulos is most pleased with what the school district has done with its strategic plan. Or, put another way, what it has not done.
“Having a strategic plan isn’t anything unique to Chippewa Falls. A lot of people have strategic plans,” she said. “Our plan was directly informed by our community. We are saying here’s what our overall plan is, here’s what our community wants us to do and here’s what we’re going to do this year to make that happen, and next year. I feel really good about that. Our community should feel really good about that.”
She also likes that it keeps the school district grounded to its original intent.
“We can’t get away from the idea that a public school’s purpose is to serve the needs of the community,” she said. “Sometimes that gets lost in all of the mandates and the testing and the directives.”
Although the concept can appear complicated, the superintendent insists it is actually quite simple.
“It’s about working together for the good of our students and families, it’s about collaborating (and) sharing the same focus,” Eliopoulos said. “No matter how successful we are in a certain area, we’re always looking at how we can become better.”
According to Matarazzo, that is happening.
“What makes Chippewa Falls unique is the consistent alignment back to the community conversations over time. What you see in many — not just school districts, but organizations — is the follow-through and actual use of it peters away over time,” Matarazzo said. “They parlayed the community conversation into clear commitments to fulfill their community’s needs and want that were in a long-term execution plan.”