Future of WB-RC strategic plan discussed by board, educators and administrators

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WEST BRANCH — The strategic plan for West Branch-Rose City Area Schools was discussed and amended by a group of board of education members, educators and administrators during a Monday, Feb. 3 meeting at Ogemaw Heights High School. Originally developed to run from 2016-2021, the plan is being redeveloped to encompass goals for 2020-2023 and, once completed, will be subject to review and approval by the board of education. 

The strategic plan was established in 2016 and developed in cooperation with Dr. Rod Green of the Michigan Association of School Boards. It includes a series of goals established by the school district across several areas of focus, including student achievement, curriculum and academics, facilities and operations, technology and communication. Green was present at the Feb. 3 meeting to assist in the reassessment of that plan. 

Superintendent Phil Mikulski said the plan was last updated in February of last year. He said at the time of its development, the school district worked to be as community-inclusive as possible.

“We had 24 people who participated in our strategic plan work session on a Saturday afternoon in October, 2016,” Mikulski said. “Prior to that, Dr. Green met with instructional staff and support staff. Everyone had an opportunity to give feedback and input. Also, an online survey was available for anyone who could not attend those meetings and also for the community and parents. It was an opportunity for a lot of people to give feedback.”

Mikulski said the plan has played a key role in prioritizing various improvements needed throughout the school district.

“It identified what our priorities were, and it really became a roadmap, a five-year roadmap, for the board — what goals did we have and how were we going to proceed up to 2021,” Mikulski said. “There have been two or three times where I have updated the board on where we are with our strategic plan, and last year, this document was modified to show what we’ve completed, what we’re planning and what is ongoing for the district. Some of those things have even changed since this was updated last year.”

Mikulski said at the meeting that the goal moving forward is to identify which objectives have been accomplished and which still need work, as well as to include any additional areas of focus which have since been identified.

“Our goal tonight is to see what we’ve accomplished, see where we need to go, change any of those goals and be able to update this to make this a plan that we can extend out to hopefully 2023-2024 to say, ‘Hey, we’re not done. How are we going to keep improving and how are we going to move forward?” Mikulsi said. “We really have accomplished a lot. I think if you look at the technology and the facilities in particular, those are areas that I think we’ve really made a lot of progress. It doesn’t look like a lot of progress, but it’s a slow-moving process when it comes to the curriculum and the academics and student achievement. 

Regarding technology, attendees spoke in length about the acquisition and utilization of Chromebooks throughout the school district. Mikulski said that at the time the strategic plan was developed, there was a push among school districts to meet a one-to-one ratio of technology such as Chromebooks to students to ensure that each student had equal access. While the district has not met that one-to-one ratio, Mikulski said it is close, with approximately 1,500 Chromebooks and 375 desktop computers currently in use. 

Board of Education Treasurer Scott Kartes said while the district has done well in creating access to technology, issues such as inconsistent access to internet by students at home have limited the extent to which Chromebooks could otherwise be utilized.

“We’ve done a lot of work there. I think we’ve added quite a bit of technology. I think in a lot of districts, the goal is to go one-to-one. Here, I think that’s kind of a goal too, but I think that a challenge is the students can’t necessarily take the Chromebooks home because they don’t all have internet access. It would be great if somehow students could take a device home and have all their homework on that — even if we had to load stuff onto that device so when they took it home, they didn’t necessarily need access to the internet, but I do think we’ve made great strides in supplying kids access to technology.”

Additionally, Calie Kavalunas, first grade teacher at Surline Elementary and WB-RC Education Association president, said that while Chromebooks have proven to be a great resource, they are somewhat limited in their use due to a lack of accessories such as headphones and mouses which expand the types of instruction they could otherwise provide.

“We use Chromebooks everyday in first grade, and I’m never short on them,” Kavalunas said. But the technical and fine motor skills are just not there, so I’ve gone out and purchased mouses for mine that plug in. In other classrooms, they don’t get that.”  

Mikulski added that another current obstacle with the Chromebooks is that many of the ones purchased in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years are reaching a point of needing replacement. Additionally, he said that because so many were purchased early on, the district has yet to establish a consistent rotation of new Chromebooks over time. The consensus at the meeting was that, rather than focus on reaching a one-to-one ratio, new purchases should focus more toward keeping stock updated, as well as acquiring the types of accessories which make them more accessible and beneficial across the student population.  

Regarding curriculum and academics, much of the discussion focused on a previously set goal to enhance a variety of programs and electives available, such as early college, alternative education and other career-ready opportunities. The consensus among the group was to focus on communicating those opportunities to ensure they are being utilized by students, as well as to add a greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes and advanced placement classes. 

While discussing goals set regarding student achievement, Green said one of the main areas of focus has been to increase student engagement in school activities, as it has a major impact on student success. Mikulski said the district has taken steps to increase student access to extracurricular activities, such as the development of middle school sports and a variety of clubs and organizations to cater to student interests. 

Kartes said that, in addition to direct participation in school events, there is also the aspect of attendance by other students. He voiced concerns that the cost for students to attend events might prove to be exclusionary. Following discussion by the group, Mikulski recommended they include in the plan the need to “create incentives and programs to increase student participation at school events.” 

The group also discussed a goal under student achievement to continue and enhance data-driven instruction through professional learning committees and department meetings. Kavalunas said while the district did well in this when it had instructional coaches to compile and analyze data, this is not currently the case. Mikulski said the instructional coaches who were previously in place have since been brought back into the classroom to compensate for a loss of educational staff. 

 “I think that when we had instructional coaches in place, our instruction has never been more data-driven,” Kavalunas said. “We were accountable for every child and every piece of data, and we all got a look at it. Now that we don’t have instructional coaches in those positions … I think that piece is missing without someone to pull that data, put it up there, look at it and talk about best practices.” 

The group discussed staffing issues at length during the conversation related to communication. One of the goals included in the strategic plan is to develop a marketing and recruitment plan, which Mikulski said is largely in place, but the school district continues to struggle with an issue many districts are facing: staffing of educators, paraprofessionals and bus drivers.

“We have the marketing and recruitment, but I think we need to expand it,” Mikulski said.

Furthermore, the district also faces some issues with student recruitment. Mikulski said student enrollment is currently stable, thanks in large part to a jump in school-of-choice student enrollment from four percent to nine percent over the last several years. However, Green said that percentage is still lower than in many districts.

“Nine percent is not that much comparatively,” Green said. “A lot of districts are in the 25- to 30-percent range. But you guys are such a big district, too. If they’re bringing them here, they’re really bringing them here.”  

Kartes said while student enrollment is stable, it has still seen a decrease over time due in part to students leaving to attend online schools, though he added the district is beginning to see some of those students return to the district.

 “I’d say yes, we’re stabilized, but this year we’re around the 2,000 (student) mark,” Kartes said. “We haven’t been that low since ‘15-’16, or maybe before. Over the last couple of years, it has dropped off some, so I think it’s important to keep an eye on it.” 

The group reached a consensus that the school needs to continue its marketing presence for staff and students, as well as develop an additional recruitment plan for staff. 

Regarding facilities and operations, Mikulski said that when the strategic plan was developed, the school district faced a seemingly overwhelming number of needed improvements. However, he said, the sinking fund millage proposed and established in response to that need, taxing at a rate of .67 mills and bringing in approximately $500,000 annually, has played a large role in mitigating that need. Kartes said the sinking fund is not currently enough to cover the ongoing cost of facility upgrades and improvements, and the list of needed improvements needs to be updated in order to prioritize the work that continues to be needed. 

Improving energy efficiency is one of the goals stated under facilities and operations. Mikulski said the school district has taken strides toward becoming more energy efficient, including updating the interior and exterior lighting at Ogemaw Heights to LED lighting, as well as the exterior lighting at each of the other schools at the district. He said the addition of LED lighting to the interiors of those schools and the HVAC upgrades recently passed for Surline Elementary and Middle Schools scheduled to begin next summer will assist the district in becoming increasingly energy efficient.

As the meeting drew to a close, Mikulski said an updated strategic plan could be available by the board of education’s next meeting, scheduled for Monday, Feb. 17.

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