Located in California’s East Bay, right between the cities of Oakland and Hayward, lies the San Leandro Unified School District. At its 11 traditional schools (they also have one continuation school), the mid-sized district serves nearly 9,000 students.
Like many school organizations, all across the nation, they’ve faced some expected challenges. Managing data, communicating with their families, and access and equity were all areas they felt they needed to improve. Plus, in the past few years, the district office has been restructured three times.
Since they’re in the Bay Area, San Leandro USD also faces “high competition for students,” as its Superintendent Dr. Mike McLaughlin says. Their county allows for interdistrict transfers, and with private, charter, magnet, and other school options, “families are shopping for schools.”
Despite these challenges, enrollment is not just currently up in San Leandro, it’s actually at its highest level in ten years. Which is especially noteworthy because, from 2011-2016, San Leandro USD was losing students each year. And yet, for three years now, they’ve both reversed a declining enrollment trend and achieved stable growth.
What’s powerful about their success story is that the steps they took to get where they are today are completely replicable by any school organization.
The Strategic Plan
First, for San Leandro USD, it’s all about the district’s 5-Point Strategic Plan. A veteran district leader, Dr. McLaughlin believes a tight strategic plan, with only a handful of items, is key. “Pick five topics you want to hit in three years so you give yourself a chance to see success,” he insists. “Sometimes you go to a school district and they have hundreds of goals. When you keep it simple, you can stay focused.” That narrow focus, he believes, helps you align your efforts to your priorities, which can increase your chances of success – and therefore create opportunities to celebrate accomplishments every year.
Here’s how San Leandro USD structured their Strategic 5-Point Point:
Advertise Your Accomplishments
Goal #1: Teach, Learn, and Achieve
While raising up academic outcomes where it was needed fell under this goal, Dr. McLaughlin’s strategy here is also about staying competitive. Knowing families are “shopping” for schools, the Superintendent highlights the importance of promoting a school organization’s academic strengths to families within their community. He explains:
It Comes Down to Access
Goal #2: Equity and Inclusion through College & Career Readiness
To improve College & Career Readiness, the district prioritized ensuring there was equitable access to academic programs for their heavily diverse population. Part of that included a cultural revamp at San Leandro High School. The school’s principals and counselors are now encouraging more students to enroll in AP classes – and they’ve seen award-winning success. Dr. McLaughlin explains:
Doing More With Less
Goal #3: Collaborative and Engaged District Culture
In terms of staff, as San Leandro’s district office has downsized, they’ve searched for the silver lining. For Rabinder Mangewala, Senior Director at the district, opportunities have been created around collaboration and efficiencies. He says:
That strong relationship was key once enrollment started growing again. As class sizes increased, having a strong foundation has helped with dialogs and future planning.
Families Are Your Customers
Goal #4: Family and Community Involvement
Essential to Dr. McLaughlin’s growth plan was shaping the district to become a “customer service organization.” By putting customer service and the needs of families first, the district believed, they could attract families. Within the enrollment process, Mangewala saw an opportunity for improvement:
Allowing families to fill out enrollment forms and upload their documents at home, directly from their mobile phone, would be a win for the district. Registration & Re-enrollment Management from SchoolMint would allow both, and as an online platform, it could help improve the customer service experience. “We wanted our enrollment process to feel more like what you would see in an elite private school,” explains Mangewala. “I’m a parent,” adds Dr. McLaughlin, “when I went on to SchoolMint as a parent, I said, wow, this is the modern experience I want. Couple of clicks and my kid’s enrolled. It’s making happier customers, aka happier parents.”
SchoolMint’s enrollment platform would also help the district communicate better with their families, especially in regards to interdistrict transfers. Important, Mangewala reminds, because “those translate to additional dollars for the bottom line and would help us balance our budget.” Dr. McLaughlin adds:
First Impressions Matter
Goal #5: Facilities and Technology
On the technology side, the district has prioritized becoming a one-to-one district with Chromebooks because “if a student doesn’t know how to work a computer, they’re going to be lost in this world,” says Dr. McLaughlin. San Leandro USD also invested heavily in their facilities, believing it would pay off in family perceptions of the district. They moved the enrollment office to their “best-looking” building to create favorable first impressions, and they’ve spruced up the grounds and given their schools a fresh coat of paint. Dr. McLaughlin adds:
Overall, San Leandro USD’s leaders describe their strategy as a “journey” – and they’re being patient. But why they’ve seen so much progress already, Dr. McLaughlin believes, comes down to the district’s competitive mindset. His advice for other districts? “Get the right tools, get the right experts, get the right mentality and compete. Do what the elite schools are doing. Make it easy for families to choose you.”