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:
Newspapers only print the negatives. When parents don’t get [positive] information about a school, they’re going to go somewhere else. We have a lot of great programs in San Leandro; we started a dual immersion program this last year that was very successful. Our math scores have gone up 10% and our English language scores are up. So we have a product now. Once we had that in place, we started an aggressive advertising campaign. We spent about 30 grand on a beautiful brochure, but we brought in millions of dollars in new enrollment. It’s important to look at what it’s going to cost knowing what you can gain when it brings parents in.
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:
About 55% of our students are English-language learners, and a few years ago, we had no programs for them. So we changed that. At our high school, the whole team over there is encouraging more students to believe they can take AP classes. Now we have more students taking the test, and 64% of our students are passing with a 3 or more on the AP exam, which is a huge leap. Because of that, we were recognized by the AP College Board as the mid-sized AP District of the Year.
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:
As we get lighter, the idea is, you’re going to create efficiencies, you’re going to create processes and procedures that require you all to know each other’s jobs, to work together. One of the big visions that our Superintendent had was the desire to pay our teachers, and our school administrators, really well. The way that we do that is by being lean in the central office. And we’ve worked to develop a strong relationship with the teacher’s union. We couldn’t have done this work without them, without being willing to pay our teachers.
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:
You have to ask yourself how are you going to measure success? How are you going to evaluate your work? Here’s what customer service looked like under the old system: we’d have a series of enrollment fairs with the first in March. We had 200 people show up. There was a line in the parking lot probably 50 people deep, some with their kids, from three to six o’clock. We had to walk outside and offer them water. And part of the holdup was the lines of people waiting to copy their documents because they didn’t bring their birth certificate. It was a very laborious process. It didn’t work, and there were a lot of upset people. I took that as a big failure.
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:
Before, we had this really slow process of enrolling interdistrict students. Families would ask to come to a San Leandro school but we couldn’t tell them until three weeks into the school year if they could enroll. What parent is okay saying, I don’t know where my kid’s going three weeks in? Cutting back on paper [enrollment forms] and our new enrollment system has helped speed things up, and now we’re enrolling kids in May.
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:
All of our schools, every single one looks nice. With our facilities bond, we’re concentrating on the buildings first, because if families drive by a school and it looks terrible from the outside, guess what they assume is happening inside? Nothing good. It’s about the psychology.
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.”