Focus Group Report
Focus Group Report
February 14, 2007
East Lansing Public Schools (ELPS) initiated a strategic planning process during February to April 2007. Wanting to assure that many voices were heard, a focus group was held with key stakeholders employed by the District. The group included union and non-union representatives of teaching, counseling, data services, transportation, food service, athletics and maintenance. Eleven individuals participated in the dialogue about the ELPS internal environment and shared ideas, thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs about matters of importance to the District.
Prior to convening the focus group each invitee received a letter from Dr. David Chapin, Superintendent of ELPS. The focus group began with a statement about the desired outcomes of the dialogue: to grow in knowledge about the stakeholders' perceptions of ELPS, to develop greater awareness of the ELPS system, and to understand how the many parts or elements of ELPS affect the whole system.
Carmelita Murphy, OP, of LEAD, Inc., consultant for strategic planning, designed and facilitated the focus group dialogue. The following narrative describes a compilation of the thoughts and insights of the participants.
Regarding the outstanding strengths of ELPS, participants immediately responded in these words: "outstanding quality of the teaching staff and instruction." The group then noted that "a great strength is the care for each student, which is present at every level; all of the departments work together to make our schools good, good places for learning." One of the indicators of this attention to each student was evidenced by a few participants talking about transportation service: "They go the extra mile for students, and they can call every student by name." Others noted: "Parents hold a very high value for education and are invested in their childrens' educations; students are excellent and eager to learn, and they care about one another; the school has a reputation for achieving and excelling; new facilities are state of the art." Special Education is highly regarded and recognized in the region. At one point in the dialogue the group noted the longevity of the people who work in the ELPS: of the eleven present, the average number of years working in the District was 20.6 years!
The breadth of diversity-social, economic, racial, ethnic- is highly valued in the schools and community. Several persons noted that the diversity creates a real-world environment for students and prepares them for participating in a global community.
When asked about weaknesses within the District, participants noted that the most significant limitations are four: financial capacity, leadership, collaboration, and technology. Critical concern exists about future funding and the impact on programs and services. There is a perception that the financial component is more and more driving many decisions rather than a consideration of what is best for students. Participants recognized that funding constraints and concerns about the best use of limited resources is always present, but they expressed frustration that when finances become the dominant factor in decision-making, rather than a key factor, it leads to decisions that are not student driven.
Participants expressed concern about the challenges before the Board and Administration, recognizing that strong and decisive leadership is needed given the realities before the District. Several participants noted that the District is not as strong as it once was and that its reputation in the community has faltered. As one noted, "We have been treading water for far too long." The corrective is perceived as needing to build a strong shared leadership style among the Board, Administration and Principals. As one person stated, "We need a culture of consultation where all take responsibility for setting direction but where the central leadership needs to be decisive and act." Another aspect of the leadership challenge is that many teachers have been with the District for many years and are anticipating retirement. This raised concern about mentoring the next generation of leaders in the school community and having the time to do it well.
Another weakness is that of failing to forge partnerships and collaborations that could grow opportunities for students and contain operational expenses. It was noted that ELPS does not initiate leadership in growing new partnerships and promoting collaboration with nearby Districts. Lastly, technology is seen as lagging at the elementary levels, while planning for upgrading of equipment at the high school is needed. Funding constraints have impeded acquisition and maintenance of technology.
The critical issues articulated by the focus group are mirrored in the above statements.
They center on funding, leadership, collaboration and technology, with some emphasis on curriculum, teaching and elementary facilities.
Participants perceive that relationship is held as a core value at all levels of the District. Participants clearly work hard to have a spirit of collaboration within the school communities-clearly valuing relationships with parents and families and working to forge bonds with the private and public sectors to benefit all students.
Identity and Reputation
The reputation of ELPS in the community is strong. Although there is some concern about a diminishing public reputation, participants noted that everyone wants ELPS to be outstanding in educating young people. Significant hope is being placed upon the strategic planning process to yield a shared vision of the future and upon the "think smarter" implementation steps to assure excellence. It was noted that the District needs to be vigilant about enhancing its communication patterns with parents and community.
In concluding the meeting, participants were asked to rate ELPS as a school system using a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being poor and 10 being outstanding. The participants gave a score of 8. It is noteworthy that the group dialogue emphasized again and again pride in the District, its school spirit, and its abundant strengths. While very realistic about the significant challenges before the District, the dominant sense was that this is "a great enterprise to give 22 years of my life to" and that "each day all of us make a difference in the lives of young people." Participants are committed in an ongoing way to attaining a promising future for the children and the community.