Mark Evans has spent the past six months studying his future employer, the Omaha Public Schools.
Evans, who officially starts as OPS superintendent Monday, found district departments doing good work but often acting alone. He never saw a document or heard a plan that linked together everything district employees were doing.
That research has led Evans to a single overarching conclusion: OPS lacks an overall direction that will help the district achieve success.
“We need that alignment and focus,” Evans said.
His ability to concentrate the efforts of OPS, Nebraska's largest and most diverse district, with a strategic plan will occupy much of his first year as superintendent.
And to some degree, those efforts will determine how successful he and OPS will be in the next few years.
Crafting a plan will involve dozens of meetings with parents, students and community leaders on what direction OPS should go in the next three to five years.
High-performing urban districts across the country routinely use focused, long-term plans to direct everything they do. The plans detail measurable goals and promise public accountability.
They also establish clear expectations.
For Evans, the first outsider to permanently lead OPS since 1984, expectations are already high.
Consider what has happened since he was hired in December.
A state law was passed that shrank the board and forced spring elections, opening up nine board seats. The April primary was the most competitive since 1978, and groups that had typically not been active in school board races, namely the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, recruited candidates and helped fund their campaigns.
Last month, voters elected new board members to six of the seats, two-thirds of the new board.
“That's pretty clear evidence of a change in dynamic and a change in expectation,” Evans said.
Evans, 54, has spent the past eight years leading the Andover Public Schools, an affluent school district of about 5,400 students outside Wichita, Kan., that more resembles the Elkhorn Public Schools than OPS.
Prior to that, he spent 20 years, including 17 as an administrator, working in the Wichita Public Schools, a district with an enrollment and demographics similar to OPS.
As a Wichita administrator, Evans said, he saw the district struggle to focus on a few priorities and avoid distractions.
In the fall of 2005, when he started in Andover, he had a clear goal: focus district money and staff time.
Andover hosted community forums, focus groups and other meetings with parents, business leaders and students. They talked about what areas they wanted the Andover schools to focus on and where business leaders and parents could help.
It's a similar process to what OPS board members and Evans will help conduct in the next six months as they, along with an outside consultant, set a way forward for the district.
The Omaha district has an internal working document that it calls its strategic plan, but the document was only made public and given to the school board last year when The World-Herald requested it. The plan contains broad aims based on board goals from more than a decade ago.
Because OPS lacks a true strategic plan, Evans said, OPS has departments doing good things but acting individually.
For example, OPS's curriculum and learning department has goals for what teachers should learn during their staff training days. But those goals were largely developed by district administrators, Evans said, and if you asked principals and teachers to recite the goals, they probably couldn't name them all.
OPS also hasn't prioritized financial resources because it lacks a clear direction, Evans said, and it's been harder to pinpoint why the district has or hasn't made progress in some areas.
Once the OPS board adopts a plan with short- and long-term goals, though, the work will have just begun.
Large organizations can often spend weeks and months creating a long-term plan only to let it collect dust on a shelf, said Wendy Boyer, senior vice president of community investment and advocacy for the chamber.
“Do you have the discipline to stick to that and align your resources to that?” she said. “That will be critical, too, that it really starts to become the compass to the school district.”
In Andover, Evans tried to tie everything to the district's plan.
At the end of each of the last eight school years, he went to Andover's 11 schools and reviewed the district's annual goals with administrators and teachers.
I want to give you some updates on where we are as a district, he told them. And I also want to hear what you think about our current goals, he said.
Every form he handed out had a spot for anonymous comments.
He gave the same talk to ministerial groups and business leaders. What do you think of our progress? Should we stay headed in this direction?
The comments he received would sometimes lead to changes in the plan, and therefore, changes in Andover's budget.
For instance, last spring, parents and teachers kept writing in the comments sections that they wanted better security in the district's elementary schools.
For this school year, the Andover district added a goal in its strategic plan to install technology that makes visitors buzz-in at elementary schools. Andover also will set aside money to pay for meeting the goal.
Focusing on the goals in the plan also helped Andover divert more money for improving student achievement.
The district wanted to improve its middle school and high school math scores on Kansas' state tests.
So its middle and high schools added small-group classes for students who needed extra help.
The extra classes were an added cost for Andover — paying a teacher to educate fewer students than a regular class — but the change tied back to the goal of improving math scores.
It worked, too: The percentage of Andover juniors scoring below state standards on the state math test has dropped from about 28 percent in 2006 to about 15 percent in 2012. For Andover eighth graders, that same percentage has gone from about 24 percent in 2006 to 5 percent in 2012.
Evans also tried to make sure the plan stayed a focus of the district by keeping it front of the Andover school board.
For years, the district has had an annual goal of improving its scores on the ACT, a college entrance exam. The district also has had an ACT tutorial program to help students do better on the test.
So every year the goals have been a part of the plan, the board has heard a report about ACT scores and how many students had participated in the tutorial program since both were district goals laid out in the long-term plan.
In OPS, Evans sees the process working similarly.
Improving scores on state math tests likely will be a goal in the district's yet-to-be-formed strategic plan. This fall, OPS also will be using new math textbooks in grades K-6.
In December or January, Evans said, the board should hear a report on the new math curriculum. Members should hear teachers' perceptions about the new textbooks and how they think students will do on the spring state tests.
It's not hard data, he said, but the presentation would tie back to a district long-term goal and keep the plan in front of the board.
Everything the district does should be related to a goal in the strategic plan, he said, and if something's not in the plan, employees should stop doing it.
“(The plan) really tells staff, here's what we're responsible for,” Evans said.
But as much as schools are schools and leadership is leadership, Evans said, he also knows many things will be different in OPS than they were in Andover, including the wealth of Omaha's philanthropic leaders.
The metro area and its many philanthropic organizations, school districts and business leaders are eager to help OPS, said Ken Bird, Avenue Scholars president.
“I haven't felt that enthusiasm for education in Omaha for a long time,” said Bird, who was Westside Community Schools superintendent for 16 years.
OPS also has bigger challenges than he faced in Andover.
OPS, like other school districts, has a glaring achievement gap between its more affluent students and their disadvantaged peers. And OPS's percentage of students whose families receive federal lunch subsidies, an indicator of poverty, is increasing. Last fall, that number was almost three-fourths of the district's students.
The average OPS student also scores lower than the average student in Nebraska on state tests.
Evans also knows he won't be able to lead a year-end review in all 82 OPS schools like he did in Andover's 11 schools.
Other Omaha administrators, not just him, will have to visit the district's schools and conduct reviews.
Therein lies the hardest part for Evans: establishing a system in a district of 50,000 students and 7,900 employees that stays focused on one plan.
Too often, he said, a district administrator goes to a conference and hears about the newest educational idea and steers a department or two away from the strategic plan. Or the district lets a distraction fog its view of what's really important: meeting short-term and long-term goals.
“This needs to be in front of people, and we need to systematically make that happen,” he said. “I'm confident that we'll have success.”
OPS will pay Evans about $314,000 a year including base pay, an annuity and a transportation allowance.
Riding on Evans and the new school board will be the education of 50,000 youngsters and a metro area eager to see Nebraska's largest district enjoy success.
“The community is with them,” said Boyer of the chamber. “This is a really pivotal moment for the school district.”