Author Archives: Katie Rouse

Back to School Leader Q&A: Dr. Caprice Young on the Value of Building Relationships

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Join us for a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

Dr. Caprice Young* is no stranger to the education sector. A longtime education leader and school choice advocate, Young started her career in finance before transitioning into education as a member and president of the elected Los Angeles Unified School Board for four years. She also founded the California Charter Schools Association and served as its CEO from 2003 to 2008. Currently, Young is the national superintendent of Lifelong Learning and provides advisory services to its education partners, including the Learn4Life network of nonprofit high schools, FLEX, Mission Academy, and its new accredited online private STEAM school, Stanza International Academy. Lifelong Learning offers a proprietary personalized learning model and administrative services — ranging from operations, financial, and people services, to communications, legal, compliance, and education services — enabling teachers and schools to focus solely on their students.

I recently caught up with Young in an expansive conversation on the state of play in education, Lifelong Learning’s COVID-19 plan, new initiatives grounded in trauma-responsive and relationship-based approaches, and more.

Katie Rouse:
Tell us about Lifelong Learning, your work, and your role within the organization.

Dr. Caprice Young:
Lifelong Learning is an educational service nonprofit that focuses on supporting students disconnected from traditional public schools. We serve students ranging in age from 14 to 24 who have been impacted by experiences with houselessness, the foster system, undiagnosed special education needs, physical and mental health issues, having to work to feed their families, early pregnancy, and more.

Lifelong Learning supports their diverse needs as a provider to schools. One anchor of this work is our Trauma Responsive Education Communities, our codified approach to building a trauma-informed school community that supports everyone teachers, staff, and young people. As the national superintendent of Lifelong Learning, my role is to provide educational coaching, guidance, and strategic planning to our client schools. 

What’s unique about your background in education? What brought you to your current role?

I grew up in a host foster family, so I have 36 brothers and sisters. It’s an important part of my life and upbringing. My mother was a teacher and my dad worked in the juvenile justice system and as a Unitarian pastor. My childhood was rooted in giving back, and that’s the lens and orientation I bring to my everyday work.

I spent my early career in public finance before serving as the assistant deputy mayor for the City of Los Angeles. I won a school board race in 1999 and spent four years on the Los Angeles Unified School Board the second-largest school district in the U.S. My time on the school board made me fall in love with educators and I knew I wanted to spend my career with them. I think I read somewhere that you spend roughly one-third to one-half of your life with people in your professional industry…so you better like them. I love the collective mission I share with teachers and school leaders. 

I left the Los Angeles Unified School Board to found and lead the California Charter Schools Association, then earned my doctorate and worked on turnarounds in charter school organizations, nonprofits, for-profits, and served as a foundation vice president. Three years ago, I joined Lifelong Learning as its national superintendent. 

Looking back, how did Lifelong Learning and Learn4Life show up in the past 2020-21 school year? What went well? What was particularly challenging?

The heroism of the women and men leading our schools — and working in them every day throughout the ups and downs of the pandemic — has been incredible. I distinctly remember a Friday the 13th in March 2020 because I spent that morning trying to convince a current Los Angeles Unified School Board member to allow me to move a charter school into her district. By the end of that same day, we weren’t moving anywhere — the state-mandated school facility closures forced us to shift to remote learning.

We did an amazing pivot. And I think it worked due to a few key factors. 

  • First, our educational model, which is grounded in relationship-building and a 1:1 approach to learning, meant that students and teachers had preexisting, deep relationships before the pandemic. Each supervising teacher had 25-35 students already, and so that depth of relationship and trust were connective tissues tying everyone together. 
  • Second, we made critical investments in technology before COVID-19 closed school facilities. In February 2020, we ordered Chromebooks for more than 23,000 students because we decided to go to 1:1 computing before the pandemic required it; it was already part of a planned rollout, which in retrospect felt like providence. 
  • Third, we really listened to our young people to find out what was going on with them and to plug in and support. We quickly realized that students had varying degrees of access to reliable WiFi, so we issued nearly 18,000 hotspots to get the technology into students’ hands. We also provided food and, for our 2,400 pregnant and parenting students, we supplemented diapers and food.
  • Fourth, we invested in staff wellbeing by launching health and wellness webinars and by immediately issuing 21 days of paid sick time with a more expansive sick time policy. Just like our students, we wanted staff to feel supported and prioritized showing up for them in ways large and small. We also implemented flexible work schedules for teachers.

These measures contributed to a 7% increase in our re-enrollment rate from SY2019-20 to 2020-21. 

As you look ahead to SY2021-22, what issues are top of mind as you lead through it? How do you think about systemic supports for your team and students?

Our No. 1 issue is keeping staff, families, and students safe. Period. We’ve retrofitted all of our school sites with enhanced ventilation systems, plexiglass barriers, sanitation standards, and ample supplies of masks and hand sanitizers. As we adhere to the new California vaccination and testing mandate, we will support time off for vaccinations and provide self-collection PCR test kits from the school site. 

We’ve also seen, and I expect will continue to see, a significant portion of our school communities experience profound grief, whether manifested as severe illness and death in families or even movement from dual to single incomes. A lot more of our students are in the workforce than were pre-COVID. We’re offering even more flexibility with student and teacher schedules to better accommodate life circumstances as well. We found that by training teachers to support students coping with grief, we’re also helping support teachers in their grief. These are all top-of-mind issues. 

Another critical issue in the school year ahead is how we can locate and support students who, for whatever reason, can’t return to traditional public schools. Most of our students are 17 or 18 years old when they enroll with us. They’ve dropped out for various reasons, then — once they’ve decided to re-engage — have found themselves aged out of traditional school. Without a high school diploma, their ability to get a well-paying job is slim. Providing a school option for these youth — Opportunity Youth — is critical to the student’s success in life, a thriving community, and more. We can’t separate school completion from the rest of society. It’s pivotal to a healthy individual, community, and economy.

What’s an ongoing source of unexpected heartburn for you in the pandemic?

COVID-19 has derailed our ability to track student efficacy data. We’ve had to rely on more basic measures of success (e.g., volume of students’ work completion vs. summative assessments). It keeps me up at night because the ability to provide substantial data means more funding to serve students most in need. And it’s important now more than ever after 18 months of learning loss.

In closing, I want to reflect on you as a leader and as a human being. What’s sustaining you right now as you continue to lead? 

I’m relying on female friends — we’re all leaning on each other. Personal connections are sustaining. Professionally, I’m continually making sure my team knows how important they are and how vital their work is for young people. When they ask for things, I figure out how to make it happen.

(*Editorial note: Dr. Caprice Young and Lifelong Learning are past Bellwether clients.)

Five Strategies for Serving Students with Disabilities: A Visual Primer

As the pandemic rages on, it’s increasingly clear that students with disabilities are not getting the services or educational supports they need. And as educators across the country continue to navigate uncertainty for the fall, it will be easier than ever to let minimum compliance with rules and regulations stand in for the deeper work necessary to serve all students well. 

I want to offer five strategies school leaders can use to ensure they integrate support for students with disabilities into their organizational culture and mission — during the pandemic and beyond. Alongside a series of other toolkits that my colleagues and I have released in recent months (the latest is here), these five strategies provide a starting place for giving all students, including and especially those with disabilities, an opportunity to learn together as part of a community.

The five strategies are available in a new visual one-page PDF

  1. Establish and reinforce adult culture and mindset
  2. Teach and encourage problem-solving in the classroom
  3. Represent students with disabilities in leadership and decision-making
  4. Align data systems to the school’s mission
  5. Know and address students’ contexts 

These strategies are based on my work with dozens of school leaders across the country, in which questions around culture, staffing, and operations inevitably intersect with the school’s approach to special education. These five strategies are not at odds with legal requirements for schools to provide a free appropriate public education, individualized education plans, and least restrictive environments. But they recognize that compliance is not enough. 

I hope more school leaders are able to “zoom out” of the day-to-day minutiae and embed their approach to special education within their school’s wider organizational culture and mission.

Read the new resource here.

Tips and Tricks for School Leader Decision Making: A Tool

School leaders are faced with a variety of decisions each and every day, from the most fraught and challenging decisions navigating COVID-19, to day-to-day decisions pertaining to operational management. Some decisions feel easy and minor, informed by past experience and quality data. Other decisions are more daunting, requiring leaders to make difficult calls with incomplete information in a context that is rapidly changing.

This is especially true today. For instance, a decision about whether to buy devices to support remote instruction could go off-track if the manager of the I.T. department and the school executive director both think the other has the final say on which devices to purchase and how many are needed. And it’s not hard to imagine a well-meaning leader soliciting input from a multitude of stakeholder groups about how best to make meals safely available to students, and then feel overwhelmed by the volume of conflicting viewpoints. 

I’ve created a simple tool to share how to tackle strategic decisions for your organization, and offered some details and examples to support you and your team as you build your decision-making muscle. You’ll note that the process I map out is deeply aligned with a couple of planning toolkits my colleagues and I have shared over the past several months. I’ve chosen an example that is likely familiar to many school leaders for the sake of clarity, but the recommendations below are especially applicable in the current moment. In addition to the details and examples below, you can also download a simple, printable version of these steps here.

Continue reading

Do Codification and Systematization Sound Boring? Too Bad — If You’re Running a School, You Need Them.

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.

Think about your school’s morning arrival procedure. Maybe your school starts the year with a combination of a “kiss and learn” drop-off lane, a volunteer crossing guard, and a number of teachers and leaders who welcome students into the building and offer caring touchpoints. There is also a team of people ensuring breakfast is ready and in the proper location.

But maybe this doesn’t work out as planned. The procedure doesn’t work well in the rain, or when the time changes and it’s still dark outside. Or maybe it doesn’t work well because students need more time, or because parents stick around in the morning to talk with teachers and leaders.

So your school teams test, pilot, and refine this procedure, and maybe they even do so more than once. But what happens the following school year when the person who led the effort is on parental leave and the school welcomes new team members?

Far too often, these kinds of procedures — and the important lessons learned — don’t get written down and saved in an easy, logical place. This forces new staff to recreate the wheel and causes frustration and burn-out from returning team members. It means the team is losing valuable time thinking about problems that were solved in the past instead of building upon new opportunities to support student learning.

 We encourage all our Strategic Growth Institute cohort participants to systematize and codify their work, documenting the key activities and decisions that have been made over time about not only operational procedures, but also instruction, human capital, professional learning, budgeting, governance, and development. (The graphic below lists types of practices to consider documenting.)

"Has your school documented consistent & shared practices?" a chart by Bellwether Education Partners

Doing so creates an opportunity to reflect on two key questions: Continue reading