Previously we’ve commended the school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School for stepping back from its timetable to hire a consultant for its coming strategic plan. Why did this board delay after having solicited bids and interviewing final candidates? For the excellent, and seldom publicly acknowledged reason, that the school board realized it still didn’t know what it wanted from a strategic planning process.

So they stopped. And good for them. A strategic plan is too rare an event and too critical an opportunity to rush in and waste it.

After a meeting last week on the subject, it is clear that this board is still not all together on the outlines of a plan. But the members are getting closer. Likely what they need is our advice. So here goes:

An essential debate still ongoing last week among board members is how many key issues to target and with what level of specificity. Should a good strategic plan focus on the two most critical issues the district faces or should it be comprehensive and explore the 10 or 20 interrelated factors at work in the school?

We’d split the difference. Focus on four or five vital matters. Remember, this is a strategic plan not an operations manual for the building.

  1. Student achievement. Two aspects. The chronic gap that separates the majority of black students from the rest of the student body. And define the reality of the perceived “lost middle” band of students at OPRF.
  2. Student engagement. The school can’t succeed with students unless those kids are engaged with the school beyond academic classes. Progress has been made here. More needs to be made.
  3. Innovations in teaching. A confluence of events offers a rare opportunity — right now — to improve teaching at OPRF. Better methods for evaluating teachers. A substantial merit component to pay. Reducing the grip of tenure.
  4. Technology. A revolution is underway. How will OPRF use technology in the classroom, in the lives of students over the next five and 10 years to enrich the learning opportunities?
  5. Finance. This school is sitting on a preposterous reserve of taxpayer cash. Is it $80 million? Is it $100 million? You can’t make a strategic plan that doesn’t include the money. How long can this bonanza be stretched before a referendum? What happens if pension costs are shifted in whole or in part back to the district from the state? What is a reasonable amount to invest strategically to achieve key school goals?

There’s an outline. Let’s make a strategic plan.

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