Lisa Newton, District Manager of Research and Decision Support at Ontario’s Simcoe County District School Board, knows that identifying strategic priorities can be challenging. She also knows that having the right tools to support the process is essential for success. That’s why when it was time to work on the district’s strategic plan, Newton turned to ThoughtExchange.
Having previously used our engagement and survey platform to gather community input on attendance area changes and concerns about students changing schools—building community trust and transparency in the process—she was confident it would help the district foster collaboration and gather valuable insights for strategic planning.
Tapping into community voice for strategic priorities
Simcoe used ThoughtExchange to engage their community on each of their strategic plan’s four pillars:
- Excellence in Teaching and Learning
- Mental Health and Wellbeing
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Launching an Exchange for each pillar allowed community members to express their thoughts on the topic they were most interested in. “We wanted to show the flow between each of those four categories and get out of that siloed approach where they were separate,” Newton shares.
Through the Exchange process, Simcoe discovered that participants’ thoughts about one pillar often had implications for others. And using the platform to analyze the data across the four Exchanges allowed them to identify meaningful connections, emphasizing their strategic goals’ interconnectedness.
To illustrate, Newton says, “In Excellence in Teaching and Learning, they talked about increased diversity and better representation in the curriculum for all racial or equity groups—which was Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, a strategic priority for that area."
She maintains that these connections would have been more challenging to uncover and act on if they’d only used a traditional survey for community feedback.
"We wanted to keep the ThoughtExchange actionable. We wanted parents and guardians, staff, or students to specifically share more than just ideas.” Newton found that asking which actions participants could take to be more successful garnered powerful results.
The Exchange process helped Simcoe understand what was most important to their community and gave the district ten new strategic priorities—in their community’s own words.
Simcoe will weave these ten priorities throughout their operational plans and provide guidance and intentionality to the learning and work they do as a system: Accountability, Identity, Safety, Collaboration, Innovation, Respect, Support, Trust, Transparency, and Celebration.
ThoughtExchange allowed Simcoe to use survey technology with sophisticated analytics and OpenAI integration to get broader participation and deeper, more actionable insights in less time.
Building community trust with a commitment to listening
While communicating effectively is essential for strategic planning, so is building community trust. To ensure both, the Simcoe board worked closely with the communications department throughout the strategic planning process.
This resulted in effective communication and alignment between results and initiatives. By incorporating parents’ and guardians’ voices in their branding and communication efforts, the board could demonstrate their commitment to listening and taking action while aligning on priorities and building trust, empathy, and belonging. “We're saying, we heard you, we listened,” Newton explains.
“The ten key themes from our Exchange are direct quotes or words that our participants used, instead of the senior team thinking of the themes we want to discuss and follow. It’s much different when you pull your ten key themes directly from the voice of students, families, or staff.”
Using the community’s language and ideas builds trust and buy-in in strategic planning, contributing to successful initiatives.
Enhanced commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion
The Exchange process also influenced the board's decision-making and professional development initiatives. For example, their dedicated Exchange on equity in schools led to a broader understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion and contributed to enhanced professional development opportunities.
The board also plans to leverage the power of Exchanges in live meetings to further strengthen connections between strategic planning, specific initiatives, and excellence in teaching and learning.
Leveling the field and saving time with advanced engagement features
ThoughtExchange’s advanced engagement and analysis features allowed Simcoe to hear from a broader range of voices and gather insights quickly and easily.
When initiating an Exchange, Simcoe used Survey questions to distinguish between families who’ve lived in the district their entire lives and those new to it. The ability to ask questions like, “How long have you lived in this area?” and “Are you new to our county?” to segment their data gave them useful insights to explore for each group.
The Themes feature helped Simcoe save time by quickly generating quality information. Instead of gathering data over weeks and then collating and analyzing it, the platform does this for you. Our AI capabilities and manual sorting tools make understanding your data fast and simple.
Newton also relied on the platform’s Multilingual Capabilities to ensure the Exchanges were inclusive to the families whose first language wasn’t English. This ensured greater, more equitable participation and removed barriers to communication between language groups.
Finally, the Flagging feature allowed them to flag inappropriate or offensive language to ensure the process was inclusive and respectful.
"If you were doing in-person public forums, you wouldn’t have the same participation. You wouldn’t have the same equity of voice for all families in your community, whether that's [due to] comfort level or different involvement with an education system. ThoughtExchange lets families overcome that barrier because when you're in the Exchange as a participant, there's no knowledge of someone else's experience, role, where they come from, or how long they’ve been part of the district."
Collaborating with community on strategic priorities
With ThoughtExchange, Simcoe saved time in their strategic planning engagement—but that’s not all. The platform also helped Simcoe streamline data gathering and analysis and quickly generate quality reports. The initial question setup and demographic features were especially valuable to the school board, allowing them to tailor questions and gather insights from diverse participants.
Ultimately, ThoughtExchange was instrumental for the Simcoe County District School Board in enhancing and broadening community access, amplifying the voices of students, families, and staff, gathering actionable insights, fostering collaboration, and improving strategic planning.
By actively engaging the community and leveraging the power of collective intelligence, the board showed that they were listening—gaining trust and support. Now, they’re better equipped to make informed decisions and create an inclusive educational environment supporting student success.
Simcoe County District School Board