Best in Class
A School District's PMO Measures Project Success One Student at a Time
BY SARAH FISTER GALE
PORTRAITS BY RON WIRZER
From left, Briela Copeland, CAPM, Carla Santorno and Ryan Howland, PMP
The public school system in Tacoma, Washington, USA needed to transform its learning environment. The goals for the state's third-largest district were lofty: boost sagging graduation rates, invest in an IT overhaul, add a robust summer program to provide a safe place for children and develop new ways to ensure the emotional well-being of more than 30,000 students throughout the year.
The change initiatives for Tacoma Public Schools began in 2013 when voters approved a levy to fund technology projects across the school system. But the district knew it needed help to ensure all initiatives on the horizon delivered the intended benefits. So the district created an enterprise project management office (EPMO). Establishing formal governance processes and a more strategic vision has helped the school system successfully complete dozens of projects—and reshape the future of the district.
Size: Seven full-time employees
Annual budget: US$700,000
Average project value: US$200,000
“Our teachers—and all our folks in the system—they work like crazy, but they don't always work smart. And what project management has done for us is really helped us work smart,” says Carla Santorno, superintendent, Tacoma Public Schools.
—Carla Santorno, Tacoma Public Schools
In the five years since it launched, the EPMO has helped convert skeptical public stakeholders and build taxpayer confidence that initiatives will deliver long-term ROI. Having the backing of Ms. Santorno and other district leaders from the start gave the EPMO the resilience to withstand early pushback—and the authority to implement changes to the way the district's projects were planned and delivered, says Briela Copeland, CAPM, project manager, Tacoma Public Schools. “Nobody really knew what project management was, and they saw it as a duplication of work,” she says.
Graduation rates have increased from 55% in 2010 to 86% in 2016.
Over time, the EPMO has proved its value by consistently delivering projects on time and on budget with measurable outcomes. The EPMO team interacts daily with administrators, directors and supervisors, and provides regular reports to the school board on the status and progress of major projects. Now, the community and district leaders see it as an essential driver of value.
“The EPMO has allowed the district to look at all its initiatives holistically and make sure that whatever we choose to spend time and resources on is going to be the best for our students and community,” Ms. Copeland says.
—Briela Copeland, CAPM, Tacoma Public Schools, Tacoma, Washington, USA
The EPMO's impact on project outcomes has been undeniable. Project completion rates have skyrocketed from 10 percent in 2013 to 90 percent in 2017. Such a leap illustrates the value of using a standardized but flexible framework to implement change across the district, says Ryan Howland, PMP, project manager, Tacoma Public Schools. With a strategic vision that spans all corners of educational needs, the EPMO is careful to tailor delivery approaches to fit each project—or even components within a project, Mr. Howland says.
“Depending on the project, I use facets of agile, such as scrum-like meetings where we just continually check on the progress status of tasks during frequent 15-minute meetings. This approach helps us respond to change and identify potential blocks and resolutions sooner,” he says. “Using both agile and waterfall on a project is really about finding the best fit, based on many factors such as project complexity and stakeholder engagement.”
Having an agile mindset helps the school district adapt to change and allows it to work more effectively with outside vendors on small and large projects. For example, the EPMO has partnered with Microsoft on a pilot project to enhance and deploy a software system that will allow the students to conduct social and emotional self-check-ins, undergo self-reflections, set goals and track their progress from kindergarten through grade 12 via a personal online dashboard.
“Social-emotional growth is something that is really hard for our students to grasp and see that they're doing. With this tool, they'll be able to look back over their roadmap and see all the different challenges they've had, what they've overcome and how hard they have been working,” Ms. Copeland says.
A formal project management process is key to the success of this objective and other district projects, she says. “Project management has given us the framework, tools and templates, which can serve as breadcrumbs that could help other districts re-create what we've built here.”
The EPMO's strong framework also has helped the organization respond quickly and effectively to crises that had the potential to erode public trust. For instance, when unsafe levels of lead were discovered in the district's water supply, the EPMO helped to orchestrate an emergency command center that allowed the district to resolve the problem within two weeks. The project team developed a color-coded map of the roughly 70 affected sites in the district. The map, which was shared with the public, identified which faucets were safe to use—and which were off-limits. The EPMO's approach had a statewide impact, Ms. Copeland says.
“When other districts started to have the same issues, they reached out to us because we were looked at as a model for how to handle a water crisis and the timeline in which we completed the work,” she says.
The EPMO has won over stakeholders at every level and stitched project management into the fabric of the organization. EPMO team members educate others in the district through coaching and mentoring in a highly matrixed enterprise to build a shared language, Mr. Howland says. Another key to developing buy-in has been fostering more collaboration, where department heads feel confident working together to deploy large projects. “We do it by breaking down silos, understanding the impact across departments and enabling the more difficult conversations that need to happen in order to implement change,” Mr. Howland says.
—Ryan Howland, PMP, Tacoma Public Schools
Staff members now say they look forward to working with the EPMO and seek out EPMO team members when they are thinking about new projects. Mr. Howland notes that administrators, teachers and other staff regularly praise project managers for helping them with planning and risk management. The steady influence of project professionals has helped the entire school district improve, accelerate decision making and grow confidence.
“It is about providing accountability, transparency and execution,” Mr. Howland says. “We help everyone involved to think about all aspects of a project and how to manage it in a holistic manner.”
To sustain buy-in from top to bottom, the EPMO emphasizes training opportunities across the enterprise. Administrators can attend a 40-hour training course, and other staff members, including teachers and office professionals, are offered a 16-hour training course. The sessions establish a baseline understanding of project governance and help people learn how project management skills can be applied to their everyday tasks, Ms. Copeland says.
“It has caught on like wildfire,” Ms. Santorno says. “We have waiting lists for people who are ready to go to project management training, because they want to understand it well enough so they can be a part of it.”
Even students have an opportunity to learn about project management. The district created a program for high school students in career and technical education advanced classes that leverages the PMI Educational Foundation curriculum “so they have project management skills when they leave our program,” Ms. Copeland says.
With seven full-time staff members, the EPMO has been able to teach an important lesson that a strong project management framework adds value to the organization and the community. Establishing an influential governance model ensures that taxpayer-funded projects are aligned with the school system's strategic goals.
The most staggering measure of success: Graduation rates have increased from 55 percent in 2010 to 86 percent in 2016, which exceeds the state average. Tacoma Public Schools has earned a reputation for project excellence, with school district leaders from across the country looking to copy the EPMO's disciplined approach.
“Our goal now is to help provide a solid framework and proven methodology for other departments and district leadership to use in their departments to create effective programs for our students,” Ms. Copeland says. “That is how we can be of continued benefit to our district and continue to bring more project management best practices into our daily operations work within our district.” PM
The enterprise project management office (EPMO) at Tacoma Public Schools has overseen dozens of successful projects across the district since the EPMO was launched in 2013. In the first three years alone, the EPMO oversaw the deployment of districtwide summer programs with a total budget of US$5.3 million. Here are other project highlights from each year:
■ Created Tacoma Public Library cards for all elementary students.
■ Provided a blended professional development differentiation program for teachers.
■ Deployed student-based online e-portfolios.
■ Deployed bus ID cards for elementary students.
■ Installed computer kiosks in every school for parents and community members.
■ Created Tacoma Public Library cards for all secondary students.
■ Replaced substitute teacher dispatch system.
■ Created and delivered game-based, project-based learning processes and tools.
■ Completed phase one of a project to replace the payroll system and time and attendance system for 200 administrators.
■ Launched technology pilot projects at three schools, which included deploying tablets to support differentiated learning, 3D printers and flat-panel systems.
■ Delivered introduction to project management training to staff as part of the professional development program.
■ Launched an academic extension program, an innovative approach for alternative discipline for students struggling to stay in school.
■ Created a governance model for proposed program additions or changes.
■ Completed phase two of the payroll system and time and attendance system replacements for 3,500 teachers.
■ Established the first school-based health clinic with a large community health provider in the state of Washington, USA in a high-poverty high school.
■ Digitized forms and enrollment processes to make the process easier and more transparent for parents.
■ Initiated the first high school project management class using the PMI Educational Foundation curriculum.
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