As St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard prepares to take his priorities for the district on the road, he has signaled a back-to-the-basics approach — with extra attention to students who struggle the most.

“This plan is going to focus on teaching and learning,” he told school board members last week. “This is not an infrastructure plan.”

The distinction is important because the district’s previous strategic plan, authored by former Superintendent Valeria Silva seven years ago, brought about a sweeping reorganization of the state’s second-largest district.

Her vision, “Strong Schools, Strong Communities,” emphasized neighborhood schools as a key to boosting student achievement. The plan also replaced two-year junior high schools with three-year middle schools and placed students on designated “pathways” from elementary school to high school.

Gothard’s proposal moves much of the focus to student-level instruction and is built on six long-term goals or outcomes:

• Eliminate disparities in achievement between white and nonwhite students.

• Increase achievement of English language learners.

• Ensure all graduates are ready for college or a career.

• Improve achievement in eighth-grade math.

• Improve achievement in third-grade reading.

• Increase kindergarten readiness.

In March and April, the district will ask community members whether it is on the right track with its proposed priorities. The meetings have yet to be scheduled. A final list of goals and outcomes will be compiled by late April and an action plan then developed and presented to school board members in August or September.

Whether the final plan is accompanied by a request for more money in a fall referendum has yet to be decided.

Early findings

Gothard was tasked with creating a new strategic plan when he came aboard in July. The superintendent and his leadership team assembled the draft priorities with the assistance of a consultant, Greenway Strategy Group. The firm studied district reports and reviewed observations collected during last year’s superintendent search and Gothard’s recent “listen and learn tour” of schools and community events.

At the board meeting last week, Martha Taylor Greenway, the group’s president, and one of her colleagues reviewed findings about the district’s stubborn achievement gap between white and minority students and about student flight to charter schools and other districts through open enrollment.

Silva’s move to a middle-school model — combined with the mainstreaming of more English language learners and students with emotional and behavioral disorders — contributed to discipline issues that helped sink her superintendency.

The Greenway Group’s findings revealed a disconnect between teacher and student perceptions of school climate. The vast majority of students reported in a recent state survey that they felt safe at school, while teachers and staff members still cite a need to improve safety, the group said.

Students are vocal about wanting more teachers of color. Eighty-one percent of the district’s teachers are white.

Board Member Mary Vanderwert was struck by the fact that the district has so many teachers with advanced degrees and years of experience, yet it has been unable to move the needle on the achievement gap. Greenway said there was no research showing the gap should be narrowed by those experience factors.

In the past year, the district commissioned two studies to better understand and turn around its enrollment difficulties. Enrollment, however, is not on Gothard’s list of priorities. Asked why, Greenway said districts don’t increase enrollment simply by saying they’ll do it, or through marketing or promotions.

“If the strategic plan works, enrollment should increase,” she said.