A new school year always brings with it feelings of a fresh start and a new beginning for me. This year, as a result of the pandemic, there is a feeling of strength, collaboration and community.
We enter August with more clarity than last year, when Peoria Public Schools faced the immense task of educating our nearly 13,000 students during a global pandemic. While the pandemic has not fully subsided yet, our school district successfully transitioned to five days of in-person learning last winter through the dedication of our staff and the amazing support of our community.
Through our partnership with Reditus Labs and the Gilmore Foundation, Peoria Public Schools built up the largest COVID-19 testing apparatus of any school district in downstate Illinois. Our testing capabilities allowed us to balance the health and safety of our students and staff with the ongoing need to pursue in-person learning at our schools. In total, more than 13,000 COVID-19 tests were administered last school year, with our seven-day positivity rate never eclipsing five percent and our overall positivity rate never exceeding two percent.
But the new school year does not represent the only fresh start Peoria Public Schools will be undertaking this year. Our Board of Education adopted a new, five-year strategic plan last spring, which will guide our students, families and staff through June 2026.
I am a true believer in the power of a strategic plan to chart a successful future for an organization. It is also a process that requires stakeholder involvement at every level of our school district and the wider Peoria community.
In October 2019, a diverse group of educators, community leaders, students and parents began crafting the new strategic plan under the theme of “Re-Imagining Education.” The onset of the pandemic fast-tracked the concept of re-imagining education, and our Strategic Planning Team adapted on the fly through virtual planning meetings in the spring and summer of 2020. In total, more than 100 people contributed to the final plan, under the direction of Dr. Thom Simpson and Cheryl Sanfilip.
The overarching objectives identified by the team were:
- Graduating and preparing all students for post-secondary education and/or career;
- Recruiting, employing and retaining highly qualified instructional and support staff;
- Assuring all students read by the end of the third grade;
- Decreasing chronic absenteeism and increasing attendance; and
- Increasing a positive culture/climate throughout Peoria Public Schools.
In order to achieve those objectives, the Strategic Planning Team identified the following five strategies:
- We will personalize learning and career experiences of students based upon their interests, passions and choices.
- We will embed Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) into all learning and work experiences to address student and staff wellness.
- We will develop and implement plans to increase family, adult, and community connections and engagement.
- We will develop and implement plans to highlight and promote the positive activities and achievements of Peoria Public Schools’ students and staff.
- We will re-imagine education by implementing innovative approaches to education, such as (but not limited to) competency-based learning and 21st Century skills.
The PPS Strategic Plan focuses on personalized student learning, doing our work differently, teacher effectiveness and family/community involvement. It is also rooted at every level in educational equity, so that all students have the instructional, social and emotional supports and resources needed to achieve and succeed.
We are eager to begin the work of implementing this strategic plan and nurturing its progress in the coming five years. Although the pandemic is waning, it will take an intentional and focused effort to mitigate the widening achievement gaps that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis over the last 18 months. This strategic plan will be a vital tool in combatting that gap and bolstering what we do best at Peoria Public Schools: preparing our diverse student population to have successful and prosperous lives. PM
Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, Ed.D, is superintendent of Peoria Public Schools.