The 100-square-mile rural and suburban DeForest Area School District, located minutes from Madison, Wis., has an unlikely contributor to its work: the DeForest community at large, which through a series of well-planned conventions has been as active as any board member could be in shaping the district’s future goals.
With more than 10,000 new housing units being planned in the area, DeForest is growing and changing. To maintain balance and goals with the school and its surroundings, the district utilizes a policy governance model of operating—and an unconventional convention—that links the district with the community to ensure that the district’s actions reflect the community’s aspirations for its schools.
“There is a keen interest in engaging all stakeholders in thinking about the schools and the role they play in the community,” says Superintendent Jon R. Bales. “That families move to our community specifically because of the reputation of our teachers and programs, and they want that for their children—that’s what it is all about.”
Ten years ago, Bales and the DeForest Area School Board employed Future Search, an interactive planning process model used worldwide to achieve shared goals amid diverse cultures, to organize what the district named its “Framework for Our Future” conference. Through a series of meetings, a cross section of business owners, parents, senior citizens, clergy, and student representatives was asked to consider one concept: “It is Feb. 27, 2009. Describe how the DeForest Area School District is providing leadership in creating a community of learners.” The answers created a roadmap for the district based on community input, not just esoteric ideas from a board in a bubble. “It’s not very common in public enterprise,” says Bales of using the Future Search model in schools. “We built a very deliberate process that engaged nearly 150 people for three days in that conversation, and that has guided our thinking and work for the last 10 years.”
From Feb. 26 to 29, 2009, DeForest convened “Framework for Our Future 2.0” to shape the district’s next 10 years. For 16 hours over three days, the vast majority of the 130 people who had voluntarily participated a decade earlier returned. Says Bales, “That kind of community input is like gold when it comes to providing stewardship to public schools.”
To maintain contact with “Framework” participants, Bales engages the school board, students and the community in monthly “Stakeholders Meetings,” where progress is shared about district initiatives. Based on this year’s convention, predominant themes for the next decade include becoming a “green” district; increasing distance and virtual learning opportunities for students and staff; building student life skills like financial, health and character development; and placing more emphasis on wellness, health, medical care and the fitness needs of students. “DeForest is very policy-driven, with the end in mind,” he says. “If you know where you’re going, it’s easier to make day-to-day decisions.”
In 1999, DeForest’s “Framework” conversation highlighted 37 themes grouped into five “Vision Elements” on which the district would focus. The process prompted the district to adopt its “whole child” initiative. “We believe strongly that schools do more than simply emphasize the basic skills,” says Bales. Today, DeForest’s board and staff are trained in Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Principled Leadership, and DeForest has enhanced its high school to incorporate a daily Personal Development hour that teaches students using Covey’s 7 Habits for Highly Effective Teens. “The kids love it,” says Bales. DA
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.