When the Hernando County School Board gave final approval of the district's five-year strategic plan in January, Grant and Resource Development Director Eric Williams, who spent the last year and a half spearheading the project, found the experience oddly reminiscent of what it was like to hunt elk out west.
"I used to live in Wyoming, out west," said Williams, who drafted the newly passed plan with district and community input. "I liken it to elk hunting: you can hunt, and hunt, and hunt, then shoot an elk, and you're happy — you finally bagged this elk — and that's when you realize that's when the real work begins.
"You have to get this eight-ton beast out of the woods."
And like hunting, Williams says maintaining patience, focus and discipline in its implementation are key to meeting high state and national standards that will be handed down in the not-too-distant future.
Among the greater and more immediate challenges, Williams said, are common core implementation, curriculum development and assessment, preparing all students for success in college and careers, focusing on developing all student literacy and emotional well-being, closing proficiency gaps between low-performing and high-performing students, increasing access to state-of-the-art technology, and expanding college credit and work certification abilities while enrolled in school.
"We have some pretty ambitious goals," Williams said. "Specifically the objective of closing the proficiency gap between high- and low-performance student populations are always ambitious, because while some districts have been able to make headway there, it's been a challenge for everybody to increase proficiency for economically disadvantaged students, or students with disabilities."
The state Annual Measureable Objectives requires the district to reduce that gap by 50 percent based on FCAT scores, Williams said, and because research and evidence-driven curriculum have proven to have a substantial impact on student achievement, this will be added to Hernando students' coursework and to FCAT assessments.
"We still struggle now with extended response on FCAT," Williams said. "Then up the ante on that with two information-based assessments on that — it's quite a leap — but it's the expectation. I didn't make the rules, but I'm certainly expected to help support students in living up to them."
One of the expectations concerns reading in particular, Williams said, and the assessments will require students to do database and online searches, with the learned ability to discriminate between valid sources of information and incredulous ones.
But an advantage Williams sees in confronting the challenges that await the district is the quality of Hernando County teachers, he said. Their adaptability, flexibility and hunger for new methods and knowledge will come into play when implementing these changes with such limited funding.
"We got to provide them with the support and resources they need, to help prepare them to help students be prepared for new expectations," Williams said.
"And with 10 percent budget cuts every year since the last four years I've been here; it's kind of hard to up the level of expectation, and take away funding needed to support all that change.
"A plan is only as good as it's implemented, and the next faze is to ensure we share it with as many stakeholder groups as possible," Williams said. "I said it over and over again throughout the process, but now that these things are codified in a plan, we better start putting our money where our mouth is, and our support behind these initiatives."
Williams has made that a little easier for the district — soon every school board agenda item will be correlated to support at least one of 15 strategic focus areas — systematically keeping discipline in implementing the plans they've spent time and resources lying out.
"I think it gives it some strength, in making sure everyone is in support of the plan itself," Williams said. "And it keeps everyone's attention on supporting those strategic areas, and bringing those updates back.
"It's one of those unifying things where if everybody has been involved in creating the plan then all the arrows are moving in the same direction," Williams said. "We're aware of what we're doing and what we're focused on, and hopefully we're more efficient as a result of this effort."