*We know that hugging won’t be allowed during the pandemic, don’t worry!

Thanks to generous philanthropic support, a team of UPD consultants has spent the past two months supporting the reopening planning team at Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) as they have navigated the competing demands of (re)envisioning transformative and equitable educational structures amidst a pandemic while simultaneously working through the overwhelming task of planning logistics for multiple reopening scenarios. Like educators across the country, the TPS team has been working at a breakneck pace to figure out how to deliver against their five priorities—Safety, Wellbeing, Supporting Educators and Staff, Grade-level Learning, and Family Engagement. We are inspired on a daily basis by this group of education leaders as they tackle practically unsolvable challenges with determination, grace, and integrity. 

We were brought in to support the team around one of the biggest challenges they face in planning for school reopening—seeing the forest for the trees. Doing so requires the team to move nimbly between the tactical and strategic aspects of their work. Given the time pressures they are facing, this often means that they have had to spend significantly more time engaged in immediate tactical planning than in strategic modes. Team members continuously navigate the tension of limited time to pull up and look at where they are relative to their strategic goals and whether they are spending their time on the most aligned work. 

The district leadership has also charged the planning team with developing plans that (a) “prioritize proactive systems improvement over reactive management of the demands of this crisis” and (b) reflect the district’s core value of equity. Everyone on the planning team is committed to these concepts and to ensuring concrete and specific plans for embedding them within their strategies.

Tulsa’s leaders have created the space and structure through which priority teams can connect their tactical planning to the bigger picture, identify whether there are critical gaps or unidentified risks in their work, and pressure test the transformative and equity-aligned aspects of their plans. Our support has been anchored in the collaborative development of Strategy Maps that include a clear theory of action for each priority and identify the specific implementation metrics that they will need in the fall as they engage in continuous improvement. While this effort focused on articulating the big picture, it has been critical in identifying missing specific activities necessary for school reopening and for providing an anchor for the teams amid shifting guidance on reopening scenarios.

The other piece that is often missed when working at the “tree level” are opportunities to see the interconnections and dependencies between the trees that make up the forest. Because the UPD team brings an outside lens to the planning process and we have a direct line-of-sight into the work of each of the priority teams, we are critical in connecting the dots between priorities. For example, all priorities are identifying key data they will need to collect at schools to monitor how implementation is going once schools open up (in whatever capacity that happens). Instead of five different protocols and data collection tools, we are using our perspective to help streamline the most critical data collection and therefore maximize the quality and quantity of data available to support continuous improvement once school starts.

We are in the middle of the most acute public education crisis of our lifetime. Everything feels urgent and important all at the same time and there are no easy answers. It’s at moments like these that our education systems need immediate additional capacity, a role we’re privileged to play in Tulsa. Despite the fact that everything is in flux in the world right now, we’re sticking with what works in enabling our education partners to deliver on their promises to students: smart strategy tied to data, a structured process to translate information into action, and effective coordination across departments.