The St. Clair Catholic District School Board has always made it a priority to consult with their wider community when developing strategic plans. So, when Director of Education Deb Crawford learned about an online tool that could make community engagement more accessible, inclusive, and far reaching, she was interested immediately.
“We were looking for ways to expand our strategic planning process,” says Mrs. Crawford. “We wanted to hear from a wide variety of voices, so that the people in our community would see themselves in our strategic plan.”
That’s where the online tool Thoughtexchange comes in. It’s a platform that allowed community members to give their thoughts on how they believed Catholic schools could better prepare students for the future. They were also able to see what others had posted and give those thoughts a rating. This simple process of providing your own thoughts and rating the thoughts of others has resulted in some incredibly valuable insight into their community’s priorities, says Mrs. Crawford.
“Thoughtexchange provides advanced data analysis,” she explains. “So, we were able to pull together what are called ‘top thought reports’ that show the top thoughts prioritized by average number of stars from the participants. That data can then be used to create an interactive bar chart, where you’re able to see what people’s main concerns are, who’s concerned about them, ideas for solutions, commonalities between the groups, and much more. It analyzes the data and makes it easy to understand.”
St. Clair actually ran two separate exchanges simultaneously: one for students and one for adults. In total, over 2,300 people provided more than 3,500 thoughts and 111,000 ratings. Mrs. Crawford believes that the simplicity and flexibility of using Thoughtexchange was a big reason why they received such an overwhelming response.
“People were able to go online and use Thoughtexchange at any time, 24 hours a day,” she says. “They were able to just check it out, get a feel for it, and come back if they wanted to. And lots of people did. Some people came on and scored 30 thoughts, some only scored a couple. Some only gave their own thoughts and didn’t score any. It was completely up to the individual.”
The exercise was open to everyone in the St. Clair Catholic education community: students from Grades 5 to 12, teaching staff, staff from other departments around the Board, parents, parish partners, and community partners.
“I can’t think of any another way you would be able to have such a meaningful exchange with such a large group of diverse people,” explains Mrs. Crawford. “It’s less intimidating to give your honest opinion because all responses are confidential. It’s a great way for quiet, thoughtful people who may not be comfortable speaking up in a crowd to have their voices heard.”
CCSTA Executive Director Julian Hanlon says it is essential to involve your community when creating any sort of long-term plan and salutes St. Clair for leveraging technology to do so.
“It’s important to solicit input from the community,” he says. “After all, these are the people that we serve. I take my hat off to the St Clair Board for finding new ways to reach out.”
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, says Mrs. Crawford. Students feel like they have a voice. People feel heard. That feeling creates a community that is invested in their collective success.
“It’s very important that everyone feels like they are part of our broader Catholic education community,” she says. “When that happens, our vision and mission become something that all of us can believe in and work together to achieve. We all have a mutual responsibility to each other. It’s something that everyone can own, as opposed to something that’s imposed from above.”
Mr. Hanlon agrees.
“Students, especially secondary students, are so well informed these days,” he says. “They are the people actually learning every day in our schools, so it’s important to get feedback from them. I think it’s great that the students are so involved in the process at St. Clair.”
The entire exercise also confirmed Mrs. Crawford’s belief that their community is full of purpose-driven, faith-filled, and compassionate people.
“It was a very positive activity,” she says. “Problems were raised in constructive and thoughtful ways. The community’s approach to difficulties and challenges was based in a strong belief in Catholic education and that we all need to work together.”
The data they’ve gathered has even made it easier for different groups to work together in more productive and collaborative ways, says Mrs. Crawford.
“You’re able to see where your community agrees and where they disagree,” she says. “So, even if two groups strongly disagree about something, you can identify the common ground. That allows everyone to start in a place of agreement and move forward in a very constructive way.”
What Comes Next?
St. Clair is now in the process of going through all the data to find themes and create a guiding structure to identify the priorities and objectives of the strategic plan. They’ve gathered a large focus group of about 85 people from all across their Board to participate in the process.
“We’re still waiting for some of the data to be further analyzed, but at this point we’ve got a really good handle on what our community’s thinking,” says Mrs. Crawford. “It’s been incredibly informative for us, and it will enable us to take some concrete steps to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Once they have created a draft of the strategic plan, St. Clair plans on getting more community input. Mrs. Crawford says they’d also like to be able to do another Thoughtexchange in the future to ask the community for feedback on how the Board is performing.
“These exchanges are something we would like to continue doing,” she says. “It’s just such a good way to keep in touch with what people are thinking and how we’re progressing as we work together.”