Author Archives: Evan Coughenour

My Slow-Motion Catholic School Epiphany

I am not Catholic and I have never worked in a Catholic school. I’d always known there are urban Catholic schools with a mission very similar to Bellwether’s, but the schools themselves were somewhat of a black box to me. I haven’t been for or against Catholic schools — just indifferent (or agnostic?). Knowing that Catholic schools are by far the largest group of private schools in the world, this felt like a miss.

However, I’ve been on a sort of Catholic school pilgrimage over the past two years. I’ve built a close relationship with Bellwether client Partnership Schools (PNYC), a nonprofit organization (somewhat akin to a CMO) that manages seven New York City Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. I’ve also worked with EdChoice and Brilla Public Charter Schools, and collaborated with colleagues who’ve written a whole lot about Catholic schools. 

P012506PM-0291 Youngsters from the Cathedral Church of St. John react as they watch the arrival of Marine One to the South Lawn of the White House with President George W. Bush aboard Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse

Photo by Paul Morse

As I learned more, a few things immediately surprised me about Catholic schools in general and PNYC’s schools in particular:

  1. Many (sometimes most) kids who attend PNYC schools aren’t actually Catholic! The primary goal of urban Catholic schools isn’t to create little Catholics — it’s to serve those in need. As one PNYC team member put it (echoing what others have said): “We teach our kids because we are Catholic, not because they are.”
  2. While connected to a massive international church (and sometimes an operator like PNYC), Catholic schools are strongly committed to local control because of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that decisions be made by the smallest, lowest, or least-centralized competent authority.
  3. While PNYC schools are tuition-based, many of their students receive scholarships that significantly reduce or even eliminate the cost of attendance.
  4. Few PNYC teachers are nuns (or have any formal connection to the church). Most teach for reasons similar to other teachers — a belief in the transformative power of education, a desire to serve, and a love of children. The key addition in the case of PNYC is the faith-based motivation that inspires many to choose Catholic schools over their charter or district-run peers.
  5. PNYC’s teachers are unionized. While this is rare in the private school sector, there are actually a few different Catholic educator associations operating nationwide.  

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

This is the sixth 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

School Leader Summer To Do’s: Moving From Strategy to Execution

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. —Mike Tyson

It’s July. You are enjoying some well-deserved vacation after another intense year as leader of your school. The past year has wrapped up, and along with it, your latest round of long-term strategic planning. You feel good. In fact, you feel great. The cares of running the organization day-to-day melt away as you remember your inspirational ten-year impact goals, performance metrics, and high-level strategic priorities. You drift off into a visionary daydream…

…until suddenly…

It’s August.

Kids will be back on campus in less than a month. Teacher professional development starts next week. You start to get that gnawing feeling and ask yourself: “What about that strategic plan? Isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing right now?” You pull the final plan deck off your shelf and realize that your strategic plan has no instruction manual, and you don’t know where to begin.

This blog post is for you.

As the leader of your organization, you’re the one ultimately accountable for delivering on the strategy. Delivering on a strategy is not easy work; as you move forward, it’s important to keep your mission front and center. Remember the kids, families, communities, and teachers who will benefit from you diligently executing on the plans you laid out. But this doesn’t mean you can or should be responsible for the bulk of the work of the strategic plan. Your personal responsibility falls into three buckets:

(1) Make sure the organization is actually executing the plan you laid out.

Two tips on this one: First, break your high-level goals into an actionable implementation plan so that all team members understand how the work they’re doing contributes to the overall mission and vision. Second, assign someone else as the project manager for that plan (and hold them accountable for driving that work forward). You must focus on leading rather than getting lost in the day-to-day of effective project management, but your organization would be wise to put project and portfolio management best practices into place to move the work forward. This can include everything from clearly defining roles and responsibilities for executing the work, to ensuring regular step-backs (see below), to establishing a mechanism for anticipating and mitigating significant risks that might threaten success.

(2) Identify how and when you will step back to evaluate progress and gauge whether your strategy is actually having an impact.

As with project management, it is wise to ask someone else to hold you accountable for plan outcomes. A board often plays this role, but it could also be an outside advisor or coach. Coupled with this, schedule strategy review sessions for you and your leadership team to step back and evaluate progress/impact. Depending on your pace of change, you may want to hold these every six months or so.  

(3) Decide when to change course.

Decide up front how and when you will adjust course. Metrics can be useful here, but ultimately there will be some amount of judgment and deliberation. If something doesn’t seem to be working, don’t continue to push relentlessly forward, potentially wasting precious time and money. In the spirit of Vanilla Ice, stop, collaborate, and…figure out what the problem is. Instead of proceeding down the path you set years ago, keep your head up and make sure there is a clear stage-gate or “greenlighting” process in place for major investments and new pieces of work. You want to move fast, but moving too fast is a recipe for failure. Finally, when you do change course, do so with conviction — and make sure to communicate the “why” to your team and other important stakeholders.

Need some support drafting or implementing your strategic plan? Contact our Strategic Advising team at: