October 18, 2018

What Does Expansion Look Like? Three Lessons From Our Strategic Growth Institute

This is the second 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. Next up in the series: how do leaders know they are ready to take the next step?

We recently launched our tenth Strategic Growth Institute cohort here at Bellwether. Our cohort work brings us together with charter and district leaders who are actively thinking about expanding their impact by adding new seats or campuses. When asked “why grow your school or model?”, our school partners commonly remark that they’re already serving students and communities well (and often far better than other options), and that their model is in high demand. Occasionally, school leaders want to move quickly to take advantage of unique landscape conditions that might not last forever (a charter- or innovation-friendly administration, for example).

But a second question — “what does expansion look like?” — yields a broader range of answers. Getting clear on what constitutes success is critically important because it shapes how a school leader and stakeholders will prioritize strategic decisions for years to come. A school seeking to replicate its model and grow from one campus to three will be on a very different path from a school that seeks to be a “teaching hospital” and codify its practices to share with other operators. Many choices, including culture development, organizational structure, talent philosophy, and community engagement, are fundamentally impacted by the direction the school (often in partnership with a district or network) wants to head.

We offer school leaders three broad questions as they think about which vision or impact model is right for them: Continue reading


October 4, 2018

Behind the Scenes on Our New Education-Themed Web Game

Last week, we released Rigged, a choose-your-own-adventure-style game designed to represent the experiences of youth trying to navigate school while experiencing challenges like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. The game is a glimpse into the impossible tradeoffs these students face regularly.

We collaborated with the folks at Filament Games, including the project’s sole engineer, Terra Lauterbach, to create this one-of-a-kind game. Terra has been a game engineer at Filament Games since early 2017, and for Rigged, she engineered the unique card-based mechanics and supported with the game’s user experience and sound design. I chatted with Terra to share more about the process of creating the game.

The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What were the objectives in creating Rigged?
Rigged was envisioned as an interactive way to help players develop increased understanding and empathy towards underserved youth who have spent time in juvenile detention, are on parole, or may simply be struggling to navigate the system. Bellwether wanted players to be able to relate to the characters in the story, putting users in the shoes of underserved individuals in order to promote inclusivity and a greater shared perspective.

How did you approach designing a game around these topics?
We always intended for Rigged to be an open-ended experience. Our team wanted to give players a menu of choices and require them to balance the consequences of their decisions. Bellwether chose five in-game domains for the player to balance: money, relationships, health and wellness, academics, and responsibilities — all things that one must manage in day-to-day life. Each binary choice that the player faces has a non-binary effect on those domains, positively affecting some domains while negatively affecting others depending on what path the player chooses to follow. Having Bellwether’s subject matter experts easily available at all times (they created the actual content) was extremely useful throughout development. Continue reading


October 2, 2018

Can Better Data Infrastructure Prevent School Violence? We Think So.

Some states want to use federal grant money to put more guns in schools in order to prevent another episode of violence like the one that we saw in Parkland, Florida. It’s a controversial idea and one that favors grand drama over real thoughtful solutions. While it won’t grab national headlines, we could actually prevent more violence and protect more students for less money with investments into information-sharing technology.

There’s no way to know with certainty what could have prevented the tragedy in Parkland, but we do know one thing: there was enough information out there to paint a troubling picture of a young person in crisis with a desperate need for supportive services. Nikolas Cruz, who  returned to his high school armed and killed seventeen people in six minutes, was known to adults as a child in need of additional support and services.

Acting on that information is a different story. Alarmingly, we have recently learned that the adults (like psychiatrists, teachers, and law enforcement officials) who held pieces of Cruz’s story weren’t talking to each other, and there was no system in place for them to share information securely, quickly, and accurately.

Part of the problem is legal: health care, education, and child welfare privacy laws constrain the ways in which systems can share personally identifying information about young people in their care. At school safety panels earlier this summer, the Attorney General and other federal leaders suggested that these statutes are interpreted too broadly and that restricted information-sharing impedes the ability of local authorities to quickly deliver services to students in crisis.

But an important — and overlooked — part of the problem is technical. Even where there are data-sharing agreements in place, and high-quality service programs available to meet every need (and enough resources to go around), databases that track services for young people are quite literally disconnected from each other and unable to connect those services to the kids who need them. Legacy data warehouses within care agencies and schools create data silos that are nearly impenetrable. Not only do systems not talk across their bureaucratic borders, they are often incompatible with their counterparts in the next city or a neighboring county.

And even where the technical infrastructures are more modern, they rarely hold all of the information that exists or hold it in a way that is useful for providers. In fact, many systems still keep paper records or require hard copies of requests for information. As a result, direct-care staff, like nurses and school counselors, end up spending much of their days tracking down paperwork, faxing things back and forth, and cold-calling other offices instead of working with young people. Continue reading


September 26, 2018

“Ambicultural” Latinx Students and Educational Equity: A Q&A With Tina Fernandez

When I think of someone who exemplifies the Bellwether mission, Tina Fernandez is an obvious choice. She’s been part of the Bellwether family, in many different capacities, since our founding.

A long-time friend (we were college roommates) and one of the only lawyers I knew, I reached out to Tina for advice when Bellwether filed for its nonprofit status back in 2007. She helped with our filing and served as a founding member, and later as chair, of Bellwether’s board of directors. In 2014 she left the board to join Bellwether full-time as a partner, where she co-led the launch of Bellwether’s talent management and organizational effectiveness services. (These services have since spun off into a new organization, Promise54.)

It was a bittersweet moment when Tina left Bellwether’s staff in 2015 to lead Achieve Atlanta, where she’s been serving as Executive Director ever since. In her role, she works to dramatically increase the number of Atlanta students completing post-secondary education. Luckily, she’s back on our board, and brings an invaluable perspective on the advisory work we do, the leaders we serve, and the problems in urban education we are trying to help solve. (She’s held a number of other impressive roles in the past, including law professor and classroom teacher — you can read more here.)

September is Hispanic Heritage Month, so the interview below touches on education efforts specific to Latinx communities, as well as broader lessons from her current role. I’m so glad I haven’t let Tina lose touch after all these years.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

When we were college roommates, I had not yet landed on education as my likely career. When did you know that you’d pursue a career in education? Can you remember a concrete moment or experience that showed you your future path?

I grew up in the wonderful Rio Grande Valley of Texas and attended a public school where over 90% of the student body was Latino/a. When I went away to college, I realized how inequitable our high school education had been; I was one of only a few Latino/a students on my campus.

So I knew from early on that I wanted to work with low-income youth. At college, I quickly sought out opportunities to work with kids who had similar backgrounds to mine. I joined CityStep my freshman year, an organization whose mission is to promote creative self-expression and mutual understanding through dance. I served as the executive director my last two years in college. For four years at CityStep, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching dance and self-expression in 4th and 5th grade public school classrooms. Through this, I really developed a passion for youth development.

During my sophomore and junior year summers, I worked with an organization called Keylatch, a summer urban camp serving youth in Boston’s South End and Lower Roxbury. These experiences allowed me to develop relationships with the most wonderful, intelligent, and promise-filled kids and solidified my commitment to fighting for educational justice.

By my senior year, I decided to apply to Teach For America, an organization which was only two years old at the time. And the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve taken a couple of detours in my career, but I’ve always stayed connected to education and children’s rights.

Tell us a little bit about your work at Achieve Atlanta, and the biggest hurdles and most exciting opportunities your organization faces in achieving its mission. Continue reading


September 24, 2018

Hamilton Education Program Gives D.C. Students a Shot at Performing While Honoring Kennedy’s Dream

Photo courtesy Caity Schneeman, KIPP DC College Preparatory School

Jacqueline Kennedy was a well-known patron of the arts. As first lady, she turned the White House into an “epicenter for artistic performance and expression.” In the East Room, she requested a portable stage be built to host performances, including a series of concerts for young people. According to the JFK Library website: “She understood that to a child, American history can often be a dry and dull affair, and she saw a visit to the President’s House as a chance to spark each child’s interest in the people who made the country what it is today.” The Kennedys’ love of history and the arts was one of the main reasons the proposed National Cultural Center authorized by President Eisenhower in 1958 changed its name to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts after his assassination.

One can imagine First Lady Kennedy smiling down on that very center the morning of September 12, 2018, as dozens of students and chaperones from twenty of Washington, D.C.’s Title 1 high schools enthusiastically participated in a day-long event centered on the life of Alexander Hamilton. (Title 1 public schools serve high percentages of high-poverty children.) She’d probably be pleased to know that a musical based on the life of the “bastard, orphan, son-of-a-whore and a Scotsman,” who grew up to be “the ten-dollar founding father without a father,” has become a national phenomenon.

Her own education involved the kind of well-rounded experiences with the arts that many low-income kids and children of color lack in America today. But the day’s performances highlighted D.C. schools who work to provide theatre arts opportunities for their students.

Before the main performance of Hamilton by the touring cast, students got their shot at performing original works inspired by the musical thanks to the Hamilton Education Program (HEP). Schools with students interested in performing must select one entrant (single or group) to submit a performance tape for HEP to review. In this case, ten student groups from the 20 schools in attendance were selected to perform. Participating schools are expected to spend several weeks preparing using curriculum materials provided by HEP. Sasha Rolon Pereira, Director of HEP, recalls many late-night email exchanges with teachers and her office in advance of this month’s event.

Danielle Benson, J’niya White, and Lorenzo Johnson represented the KIPP DC College Preparatory School, performing “Valley Forge Song.” Check out this video of their performance from Theater Arts teacher Caity Schneeman:

 

American troops spent the winter of 1777-1778 during the American Revolutionary War at Valley Forge, known as a winter of suffering and rebuilding in brutal conditions. Benson outlined her team’s creative process, including reading about Valley Forge, collecting significant facts about it, and writing an original song lyric: “It’s the winter Valley Forge systematic training regimen, transformed ragged soldiers into better men.” The strong beat of their rap quickly got the crowd involved as students in the audience clapped, cheered, and held up their illuminated phones to encourage the performance. Continue reading