Parents, teachers, and students interacting as part of the strategic planning process

It’s one thing to create a strategic plan, but it’s another altogether to execute it with precision. Join Dr. Janet Pilcher, author of Hardwiring Excellence in Education, as she speaks with Superintendent Brian Sica of Banks School District to hear how he initiated the strategic planning process and began regularly implementing short cycles of improvement during his first year as superintendent. Listen as Dr. Sica highlights specific needs and challenges his district faced as well as the critical role of balancing culture and strategy throughout the process of achieving organizational excellence.

This episode addresses questions such as:

  • What steps can leaders take to establish trust within the community?
  • How do culture and strategy intertwine to support organizational success?
  • How can strategic planning build trust and foster professional growth within the leadership team?

Latest Episodes

Episode Transcript

Brian Sica: That whole process of going from strategic plan to scorecard to short cycle of improvement, that to me is what actually makes a strategic plan actually strategic.


[Intro music plays in the background.] 

Janet Pilcher: Hello everyone, welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance Podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning in this week as we focus on what it takes as leaders achieve important educational and school district outcomes.

Today’s episode is the third in a deep dive on the relevance and profound impact of the strategic planning process. In episode 328, I guided you through what it means to commit to excellence by planning a strategic direction to ensure organizational alignment.

In episode 329, Dr. Casey Blochowiak joined us to describe her experiences as a Coach Senior Director and provide insight on the strategic planning process with her partners. We also did a roleplay where I played the coach and Casey played the superintendent to demonstrate what a standard coaching conversation looks like. If you missed those episodes, we’ll link to them in the show notes.

Today we’ll meet one of Casey’s partners, Dr. Brian Sica, from the Banks School District in Oregon, and hear more about the strategic planning process he initiated. You’ll also hear about some of the challenges his district has faced and what actions they have taken to overcome them.

Superintendent Dr. Brian Sica has a diverse background in education. Having served previously as a curriculum director, a principal, and a high school chemistry and physics teacher, Dr. Sica  was highly influential in navigating his previous district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He earned his doctorate from the University of Oregon, and he has a special research interest in educational program evaluation.

In his work, he emphasizes student satisfaction through community engagement and partnerships, striving to ensure students are both happy and proud of their educational experiences in the Banks School District.


Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Brian to our show today. Brian, welcome.

Brian Sica: Yeah, thank you, Janet. Thanks so much for having me today.

Janet Pilcher: Looking forward to our conversation focused on strategic planning. We’ve been, we’ve been talking about strategic planning on our episodes for the last couple of weeks, and I’m excited today about getting your input and talking about your process for how you applied it in your school district.

So let’s start. Brian, you began the strategic planning process in your first year as superintendent in Banks School District. So what specific needs or challenges did you identify that necessitated beginning the work?

Brian Sica: Yeah, thanks for that question. I think when I think about think back on the work and what, what needs really necessitated it. When you start a job, come into a new district, you really want to balance between getting a good pulse of what’s going on, celebrating the good work that’s currently happening, and you know you’re excited to make an impact. And so when I started, it was pretty clear that our team was highly skilled, highly motivated, yet they didn’t, we didn’t really have a plan. So it was a little bit pragmatic in the sense that there really wasn’t an action plan; there wasn’t a strategic plan in place. There was some work done around sort of some mission and vision type work, but it really hadn’t yet worked itself into the daily work of the team.

And then interestingly, I just have to give you a little context about sort of Oregon policy. With our state tests, our accountability measures in Oregon, and I’m not sure if other states are like this as well, but families can opt out of those tests, yet the results still count. And so what we had found is that our community had really lost trust in using those tests as a measure that they found valuable, to the extent that by the time our students would reach high school level, we had over 95% of families opting out.

And so the data just wasn’t helpful to us. You know, it was essentially non-existent data. So when we started the process, I really wanted to engage with the community and ask them, “what do they value? What do they want to see our sort of next generation of education look like?”

And one of my, I guess, non-negotiables was, “how are we going to be able to prove to our community that not only do our students know how to read, write, and do math, but how can they apply it in an authentic setting?”

And then, finally, just one more piece of nuance that really did become pretty clear from the start. This was coming out of the two most impactful years of the COVID pandemic. And our team had really fallen into a pattern of showing up to work with really no plan other than to put out the fires of the day, and they would run hard for 12 hours and do the best they could to keep the place afloat. But what that had happened is we really did slow down our strategic and long-term thinking. So it really was an opportunity for us to sort of relearn how to be leaders.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, I really like that. I think for all of us, as we went through and experienced COVID, and then we came out on the other side of that, we had to, I love your term, and we had to relearn some things, Brian. And the way that we are functioning today obviously is different, but it’s those of us, and I’ve seen that as well, the leaders who took that time to be more reflective, to be more thoughtful, to really think about what it means to be more strategic, or in a better place today, probably than they were, right? Or we know things in a different way.

I really like that thoughtfulness that you had with your district and your team, especially coming in as a first-year superintendent and really trying to get a pulse on things.

Brian Sica: Yeah, it was sort of something I was a little nervous about. Like, what would I be able to find that balance of wanting to get started right away and appreciating the work? But it actually just provided that mechanism. We’ve reached out to, I don’t know, 100, we’re a pretty small district, but we had focused groups with hundreds of community members and students and staff. And so it was that good balance of learning what was going on while being part of the team that really decided what actions we’re going to take for the future. So it was really helpful.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and I’m sure you were really interested in kind of what people had to say. So as you think about that, Brian, what did you learn from it? What did you learn from the process as well as you know what helped you lead with that more intentional and strategic focus that you’re talking about?

Brian Sica: Yeah, one of the first, I don’t know, lessons, pieces of what has done, whatever I want to say that came from our coach from Casey, was she showed us and was really talking to us about leadership being, you know, needing to be attentive to both the idea of culture and strategy.

And I had struggled with that in my career of like when to, like almost felt a bit at times, like they were pulling against each other. Like, if I talk too much strategy, maybe I wasn’t being attentive enough to culture, and that sort of gave us the confidence to make sure that we were being intentional in both areas. So when we were, you know, talking about our always actions that we were hoping to improve the culture of our district. And then when we were talking about our strategies that would be, you know, really influential in the work that we were doing, um, it just gave us that little bit of a nudge to really be okay with doing both and making sure we were doing, you know, good at both.

Then as far as strategy goes, I guess, to be totally honest, maybe I never knew why a strategic plan was called strategic, because so many times in the past, it was more of a, of a illustrative document, but it didn’t really say much. It was sort of you had to dig behind the scenes to know how it was being useful.

And the work that we’ve been able to do, you know, now over the past two years, where, you know, we have our strategic plan, but we also have our district scorecard. We have scorecards at each of our schools. We have, and then the short cycles of improvement where we have those, you know, 45 to 60 day action plans with our leading indicators, you know, that are of course aligned to the overall scorecard.

It really has shifted the way we’ve learned and the way we work to use that term that you’ve introduced to us, the stoplighting. That really is what makes our strategic plan strategic, that every 45 days we analyze our actions, either we did them, we’re kind of doing them, or we didn’t get to it. And what impact did that have on our leading indicator. So what is that, maybe nine different possible combinations of all of that, but that really leads us thinking of how we’re either going to continue that work because it is making progress. Continue that work and it may not yet be making progress, but our knowledge and skills and expertise lead us to believe it still should, but that whole process of going from strategic plan to scorecard to short cycle of improvement. That to me is what actually makes a strategic plan actually strategic.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. You know, and I tend to call it as, you know, as the process, you’re right it’s that execution aspect of the strategic plan, that strategic plan gives us the guide, you know, it gives us the focus point and then it would, but if we didn’t execute to that plan then you know why do it right, Brian?

Brian Sica: Yeah, yeah, definitely, definitely.

Janet Pilcher: So, as you’re executing so you built a strategic plan that’s, I think as you’re talking about people kind of understand that’s what you do in organizations or school districts. But it’s that execution process that you’re talking about that really does make the difference. I’m just curious.

You know, as you came on as a, as a new superintendent you’re also getting to know your leadership team, right and building your leadership team so I mean how did that, how did that go? How did they, how did they manage to this process that you’re talking about so well?

Brian Sica: Yeah, definitely totally and unintended, sometimes “consequence” has a negative connotation but I don’t mean it that way. Maybe a less intended win was, you know, our team, we had only been communicating with each other for a couple of months when we when we started in this, and I’m sure Casey could reflect back with us and it was pretty quiet. It was a little bit like pulling teeth to get us to really dig deep and I think in, you know, in the past year is we’ve been able to stoplight things, and we’ve looked at our successes, and we’ve looked at our early wins.

Our team now is one of the most highly functioning teams that I’ve ever been a part of, partly because we have the mechanism to stoplight our action plan and scorecard. But then we’ve also built the trust with each other to really have the dialogue around “okay, so now what are we going to do about it?” And, you know, I think it used to be when we would talk about action plans maybe when we weren’t working together, myself and other districts, you know, we, we’d set our goals for the year, we would talk about what we wanted to do, and then we just do a bunch of stuff—

Janet Pilcher: [laughs] That’s right.

Brian Sica: —and sort of hope that at the end of the year, you know, our results will be better. Now we’re checking in for maybe even five times a year, depending on exactly the length of time of those short cycles, so it’s just caused us to really have deep dialogue more frequently, build deeper trust, and, and our data starting to show that we’re being effective towards the goals of our community set for us.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, I’m going to talk about that a little bit more, but you know also just when you were talking a few minutes ago about, you know, working on culture and strategy, what you just said just shows they’re not really separate, right? Because as you’re working on the strategy and the execution, what are you doing? You’re building trust which is part of culture, right?

You know, and that’s what I, it’s so hard for me to explain that I mean you’re doing it’s just you talking about what you did and how, how you built trust based on the process, you know, shows that, demonstrates that. Because it really isn’t one or the other or you work on this and you work on you work on this over here and you work on this over here, but they truly are coming together that it becomes a habit of practice of what we do in the way that we function. Um, and your team, you know, really congratulations to the work that your team’s doing me to, to solidify that.

Let’s talk a little bit more about, about what you’re seeing in terms of improvements and wins are just and just let’s start there like what are you seeing an improvements and wins and then a little bit about where maybe your gaps are?

Brian Sica: Yeah, let me, I’m going to me give you kind of two categories, the ones that you know are on our website and that we sort of definitely celebrate. One, our enrollment’s up over 10% is where it was in the past year, and that’s coming at the same time to the state of the organization, continual decline in the overall number of students, so we see that as an indicator of our culture.

Our number of students who are regular attendees, which is, you know, 90% or better, you know, even though we have more students, our percentage of students that are attending at least 90%, that continues to increase.

We look at, you know, we use sort of that RTI language the tiered level of intervention, particularly our elementary school, and our number of students moving from tier three into tier two or tier two into tier one continues to improve throughout the year.

And maybe the, the highlight of the data that I’d share with you is in our middle school over 50% of our students have already met one grade level worth of growth—

Janet Pilcher: Wow.

Brian Sica: —In this current school year, which we’re about halfway through. And so some of that we just attribute to finding a measure that our community believes in, and we have that authentic, authentic assessment, and also that our teachers have bought into this, this idea of educational excellence.

But I do want to talk a little bit about the when we’ve had that, you know, we don’t, we certainly can’t quantify it and it’s not something I don’t think we can put on our website, but it is something that is definitely contributing to our progress.

A couple weeks ago midway through we had a grading day for teachers or admin team was sort of sitting around and we were just talking about, you know, okay, we’ve been with Studer for a little while now and “how’s it going? What can we do?” sort of a plus delta activity, and one of our assistant principals who is a phenomenal educator and has been an administrator about 10 years, you know, I’m going to paraphrase but said something to the effect of, “you know, I’ve always known I was supposed to learn and get better as a leader, and I always knew we were supposed to be working on stuff.”

But she also shared she was really on the pathway to burnout, because she felt as hard as she was trying to get better. She didn’t even know, frankly, if it was helping or working. And then she sort of took that to mean it probably wasn’t. And she said in the past, you know, year and a half or, you know, almost two years now that we’ve been engaged with Studer that she’s really felt the rejuvenation of her career because she has, again, back to those short cycles of improvement, she knows what she’s working on. She can immediately see if it’s working or not, and she can sort of shift her own progress, so I can’t be more proud of the growth of my team by just adding this bit of focus, and like I said before, adding the strategy part to the strategic plan.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s a great story. And that’s the, that is the true win, Brian, you know, we that’s, that’s the part of the work that I love about working in partnership with, with educational organizations because people work so hard. I mean, they’re, I mean, most people are trying to do the right things for the right reasons, and they’re working hard and, and just that just where somebody could see their purpose and be rejuvenated to continue to advance their, their professional life and be satisfied and, and see a reason to be there and to come every day.

You know, that’s that that making difference piece in the center of our flywheel that I know people are like “Oh no again, you’re saying it again,” and I’m like “but that’s really the heartbeat right?” It’s the heartbeat of what we’re trying to get to, but to get to that, what you’re talking about is all the things you have to, it’s the process piece, it’s the execution piece, it’s a strategic piece. It’s connecting to, to people and helping them understand how what they do matters. But that’s not, that just doesn’t happen what you’re telling us and showing us is that just doesn’t happen. It’s good hard strategic work.

Brian Sica: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Janet Pilcher: Well, and I’ll close with this. That work absolutely occurs because of leaders like you. And one of the things that we’ve learned all these years is that when you have an executive leader at the top, who really, really moves forward with a strategic process, believes in the people, and helps people professionally grow then you, you’ve got an opportunity to really be successful.

And so one of the questions I think you answered that that I wanted to come back to, you know, was your, your parents didn’t really, your, they didn’t take the test, they didn’t see any purpose in that, you know, but it looks like by your communication back out to, to the community and to the parents based on the results that they’re seeing purpose in what you’re doing. Is that, is that?

Brian Sica: Yeah, yeah. And so and sometimes we’ve had to change our measures. Sometimes it’s, you know, they trust assessment that’s delivered inside the classroom maybe more than they trust an assessment that’s external. Now it’s on our end, it still has to be valid and reliable and some sort of standardization to it, but and we really try to look at, in addition to just using those sort of quantitative or standardized measures, you know, that that work of, you know, Safir and Dugan around like street data. We really try to make sure that we’re listening to the stories that our students and families are telling us.

But yes, we’ve, through our scorecard, we have a collection of measures, I guess you would say, whether they’re qualitative or quantitative that our families now trust and believe in our really measures of the success of our district.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s great. So what a great movement right, some, I mean some families who didn’t really trust and believe in in the measures that were there to something that you got input from them and that you put in front of them so that they have that trust. That’s the trust factor too that they have the trust in in you all.

Brian, thank you so much. Thank you for the work that you do. Thank you. Extend my appreciation to your team as well. I hope I get to see them some someday soon, and you know just, I’m so thankful and grateful that leaders like you all are doing this work so that you’re making a difference and in the students’ and the families’ lives because it sure indicates that based on the conversation we have today. Thank you so much.

Brian Sica: Yeah, thanks, Janet. Thanks to you and your team as well.


[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: I appreciate the conversation I had with Brian today. It was great to listen to his insight and the experiences that he and his leaders and team are having in their school district that impact students and their families to the greatest extent. I appreciate the work that Brian is doing.

By joining us on this deep dive through the strategic planning process, you can see that organizational success depends on both vision and execution. And once we communicate that vision and gather input from our stakeholders, we can start deciding what success looks like and implementing our plan with precision. That’s what it looks like to commit to excellence.

If you enjoyed this episode, please make sure you’ve subscribed to the podcast so you don’t miss our next one. Next week, we invite our partners from the Central Linn School District to share specific actions their district is taking to increase student voice and engagement in the strategic planning process.

I thank you for listening to this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week, everyone.

subscribe to insights button 

If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

Start typing and press Enter to search

Colleagues working together during onboarding