February 20, 2019

Why This School Founder Symbolizes the Best of the Eight Cities Project

via @StokesSchool on Twitter

Last month I saw a tweet that Ms. Linda Moore’s famous Kindergarten tea parties had resumed at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes School Brookland* campus. In an instant I was transported back to our interview with Linda, who founded and named the school after her mother. We captured her voice in our Eight Cities project.  To be honest, I felt a little left out that I didn’t get to attend either her school or one of her tea parties. In all the cities we visited to research stories of dramatic educational gains, we interviewed many inspirational school leaders and educators, but Moore was one of my favorites. Leaders like her are the foundation that enables change — after all, systemic reform means nothing if kids don’t have a good school to attend.

On an almost-balmy March day last year, my colleague Tanya Paperny and I climbed the daunting hill leading to the Stokes Brookland campus. It is a modern, high-ceilinged former seminary housing over 300 pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade students. We both broke a sweat by the time we entered a small conference room, yet it was nothing compared to the warmth we felt when Linda (known to her students as Ms. Moore) entered the room.

Our conversation was less an interview, and more a travelogue of the journey she embarked on two decades ago, when she made the decision to start a dual-language school for students in her D.C. neighborhood. Moore recognized that “having schools that were founded by local people makes a difference to the people in our city.” Indeed, part of Washington D.C.’s secret sauce is the large percentage of charter schools opened by local residents, a contrast from cities like Camden, where transformation came with help from national charter networks. Moore’s idea to teach students in either French and English or Spanish and English seemed almost crazy at the time; thankfully, she persevered.

While our eightcities.org site is named for the places we profiled and their ability to get more students into better schools faster, it is really about the people who believe every child can learn and succeed. (We hope our site’s use of original photo portraiture made this obvious.) I got to meet people like Jamar McKneely in New Orleans, Chief Executive Officer at InspireNOLA charter schools. While two of their schools are “A” rated, McKneely pledges that they “will not stop until all our schools have reached their highest potential.” In Denver, Allegra “Happy” Haynes inspired us with her career-long commitment to the city and its students. Early in her Denver Public Schools career, she was tasked with telling parents how the system was failing them and their kids. Today, as the district continues to improve, Haynes believes a key lever was empowering “schools to be the real unit of change.” Supporting and improving school leadership is central to driving student achievement gains. Continue reading


February 19, 2019

School Culture Is More Than Fragmented Strategies — It’s Four Cohesive Elements

Culture can make or break a school’s success. It can propel academics forward or drag learning down into an unrecoverable spiral where kids lose precious time and teachers quickly burn out.

When I started my career as a teacher through the time I became a school leader, I pulled ideas about school culture and classroom management from a number of educators and resources. My inspirations included Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings, and books like Yardsticks, Power of our Words, Teaching with Love and Logic, and Teach Like a Champion. I also relied heavily on the experiences of my own upbringing as a black, West Indian woman in the 80’s and 90’s in New York City, with teachers and parents who let me know I was cared for but also “did not play” (in other words, they were strict). My guiding belief became, and remains, an unwavering faith in the limitless potential of each child, and the approach that followed was fueled by a lot of love, usually the tough kind.

My approach wasn’t foolproof. But this fundamental mindset was what I looked for in teachers that I hired. As a school team, we refined our approach to culture over time and adjusted the systems and practices that supported it. Building the culture of our school was a process we had to figure out through trial and error, which led to lost instructional time, frustrated teammates, or broken relationships with students when we didn’t get it right.  

Unfortunately, too many principals don’t learn how to build the kind of school culture where teachers feel successful and capable of teaching for many years and where students — especially students of color — thrive. Many of the existing resources on the topic tend to reduce advice down to ambiguous ideas, a few fragmented strategies, or case studies about charismatic leaders. They never demystify the elements necessary for a healthy culture or offer clear guidance on how to implement them.

School culture can be a touchy subject, particularly when leaders and teachers have different philosophies, approaches, and beliefs. While I have my own point of view on these topics, I unequivocally believe that consistency and alignment are the most important features of an effective school culture. A cohesive school culture isn’t built through a patchwork of random techniques, curricula, or professional development sessions. Instead, school culture is comprised of a thoughtfully defined cascade of four elements, described below in further detail:

school culture framework, by Tresha Ward of Bellwether Education Partners

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February 14, 2019

Scaling Up Your Network Office: A Q&A With Mia Howard of Intrepid College Prep

This is the fifth blog post in our #SGInstitute series, led by our Strategic Advising practice on lessons learned from advising schools, networks, and districts on growth and expansion.

After all the excitement of growing your single-site charter school into a successful network subsides, the difficult questions start pouring in: how similar or different will the schools in your network be? How will you set up a network office to support these schools? How do you strike the right balance between building out the capacity of your network team versus using funding to better support your schools?

headshot of Mia Howard, Intrepid College Prep CEO and Founder

Mia Howard

While these questions are common to every single-site school or network that is growing or expanding, there are no “easy answers.” To help school leaders navigate these tricky decisions, we caught up with Mia Howard, Founder and CEO of Intrepid College Prep in Nashville, TN. Mia founded Intrepid College Prep back in 2012, expanded to open a second school in 2017, and is currently laying the groundwork for a third campus. During our interview, Mia shared about her experience growing from a single school to a multi-school network and the challenges and opportunities that presented.

When did you first begin to think about building out your network office to support scaling?

In 2015-16 (our third year of operation, with grades 5-7 at the original campus), we started thinking actively about the launch of a potential high school. Our mission to get scholars to and through college drove us to add another campus so that our middle-schoolers would be able to continue on with us into high school, but we knew that growth would place a strain on our team. We were working with Bellwether to develop our five-year growth plan and knew that because our second campus wasn’t going to have the same grade span, we would be stretching ourselves to develop expertise on both middle school and high school.

Before scaling, we first thought about what functions we wanted the network office to have to support a strong team. We wanted our operations team to be oriented to serving our school leaders so that our principals could operate as instructional leaders without getting overrun by compliance and other day-to-day tasks that take away from supporting teachers.

We also wanted to create criteria for growth that would prioritize quality growth and not just rapid growth. While we had been invited to expand down to elementary school and open in other states, we didn’t want to pursue growth at all costs. I was impressed with the tools Bellwether provided around how to use data to clearly inform our growth plans. We decided we wouldn’t grow unless we had hit certain benchmarks. Continue reading


February 13, 2019

Women Are Running for President But Gender Gaps in Education Remain

Over the weekend Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) officially announced their bids for the White House in 2020. They join previously announced Senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard to comprise the largest pool of female candidates for president in history. And the election is still more than 20 months away.

While women are making significant strides in the political arena, gender equity in the world of education remains elusive, even though it’s a field dominated by women.

For starters, regardless of how you measure it, women in K-12 education earn 92 percent of what men earn for the same work. And even that isn’t the full story. As I demonstrated in a report last year, state teacher pension systems amplify gender-based salary inequities. It is alarming that gender-based pay gaps exist in spite of district-wide salary schedules that should, at least in theory, inoculate teaching from these kinds of inequities.

Read the full report here to learn more about how women earn less retirement benefits.


February 12, 2019

Which Aspects of the Work Environment Matter Most for New Teachers?

As a member of Bellwether’s evaluation practice, there’s nothing I love more than connecting research with policy and practice. Fortunately, I’m not alone: The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) has launched several initiatives to succinctly describe empirical research on contemporary topics in education and encourage evidence-based policymaking.

At CALDER’s recent 12th annual conference, I had the opportunity to serve as a discussant in a session on the career trajectories of teachers. The papers in this session illustrated the potential for research to inform policy and practice, but also left me wondering about the challenges policymakers often face in doing so.

Taking their First Steps: The Distribution of New Teachers into School and Classroom Contexts and Implications for Teacher Effectiveness and Growth” by Paul Bruno, Sarah Rabovsky, and Katharine Strunk uses data from Los Angeles Unified School District to explore how classroom and school contexts, such as professional interactions, are related to teacher quality and teacher retention. Their work builds on prior research that suggests school contexts are associated with the growth and retention of new teachers. As my Bellwether colleagues have noted, to ensure quality teaching at scale, we need to consider how to restructure initial employment to support new teachers in becoming effective.

In “Taking their First Steps,” the researchers developed four separate measures to understand the context in which new teachers were operating.  The measure of “instructional load” combined twelve factors, including students’ prior-year performance, prior-year absences, prior-year suspensions, class size, and the proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, eligible for special education services, or classified as English learners. “Homophily” was measured by a teacher’s similarity to students, colleagues, and administrators in terms of race and gender. “Collegial qualifications” consisted of attributes such as years of experience, National Board certification, and evaluation measures. “Professional culture” was a composite of survey responses regarding the frequency and quality of professional interactions at teachers’ school sites.

Which of these factors had impact on teachers’ observation ratings and teacher attendance? As seen in the figures below, instructional load had a significant negative relationship with teachers’ observation ratings, meaning teachers with higher instructional loads (such as students with lower prior performance, more prior absences and suspensions, or larger class sizes) received lower ratings. On the other hand, professional culture had a significant positive impact on observation ratings, meaning that in schools where teachers had more and higher-quality professional interactions, new teachers received higher observation ratings. Instructional load also had a strong negative relationship with attendance rates, meaning teachers with higher instructional loads took more personal days or used more sick leave.

Figure based on Katharine Strunk’s presentation from January 31, 2019.

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