Author Archives: Mary K. Wells

Media: “District Schools? Charter Schools? There’s a Third Way — Autonomous Schools That Work Like In-District Charters” in The 74

Alejandra Barraza was working as a school principal when San Antonio Unified School District identified her as a strong leader who could impact more students. Now she runs two schools that enjoy freedom over their curriculum, professional development, and a portion of their funding.

Autonomous schools like the ones Barraza runs are cropping up across the country. Whether they will live up to their promise depends on whether they’re given enough autonomy over resources and time to customize their approach to meet their students’ specific needs.

Read more in my op-ed published over at The 74 today:

With many teaching and learning responsibilities moved away from the district level, central office staff can focus on operational functions like human resources, transportation, food service, maintenance and school facilities. Mohammed Choudhury, the district’s chief innovation officer, explains: “We want to ensure our schools have autonomy around the use of talent, time and resources. We don’t want our principals in autonomous schools to worry about janitors, procurement processes or air-conditioning service providers.”

You can also read a recent resource on autonomous schools I co-authored with Tresha Ward here.

Five Ways District Central Offices Need to Shift to Oversee Autonomous Schools

As my colleague Tresha Ward and I have been writing about for a few months, districts are increasingly experimenting with launching district autonomous schools. But central offices were typically designed to offer consistent support — and autonomous schools need customization on a wide variety of issues.

Autonomous schools may leverage existing district infrastructure for facilities, finance, and procurement, and their staff may remain on the district payroll, but they also require differentiated support from central office staff. They might run a different academic calendar, leading to different student transportation needs. They may need alternate instructional materials or other resources that require new vendors. They may want to share staff across campuses or create a new role with a different title and/or compensation level. In other words, leaders of autonomous schools may need to ask several district departments to make exceptions for them.

Image via Christian Schnettelker, manoftaste.de

Shifting central office support as a whole is daunting. However, districts can support the unique needs of autonomous schools without a full redesign of systems and processes. In the short term, a district central office can take five fairly straightforward actions to better support autonomous schools:

Empower a central office leader

Designate a senior leader at the cabinet level to help autonomous school leaders navigate the central office. This senior leader must have the authority to negotiate with functional leaders in the district (like the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction or the Chief Operating Officer) to get exceptions approved around things like staffing, school calendar, and training. Continue reading

The Innovations That Charter Schools Were Supposed to Spur Are Finally Taking Root

Remember way back when charter schools were new and people thought that their innovations — and lessons from those innovations — would transfer to traditional districts, and all schools would improve? Then for the next two decades, nothing even remotely like that seemed to happen?

Today, policies in several states allow for autonomous districts schools, inspired, in part, by charter schools. Sometimes called “in-district charters,” these new models allow districts to use some of the same freedoms that public charter schools enjoy while remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services. Autonomous district schools are cropping up all over the country, including Springfield, MA; Indianapolis, IN; Denver, CO; San Antonio, TX; and Los Angeles, CA — you can learn more about them in our new resource released last week.

Map of districts around the country experimenting with autonomous district schools, sometimes called "in-district charters"

A recent report by PPI suggests that when autonomous district schools benefit from enough autonomy, they can outperform traditional public schools. Although this report shows that autonomous district schools in the regions studied do not perform as well as charters, early evidence indicates that these types of schools can be a promising strategy for improving student outcomes.

Why are these schools gaining traction in such diverse geographies? Through autonomous schools, districts can:

  • Utilize the same freedoms that charters have enjoyed to enable educators to innovate and make decisions that better serve the diverse needs of students and families;
  • Bring programmatic decision-making closer to schools; 
  • Retain students and families who might otherwise enroll in charter schools (thereby keeping enrollment and financial resources inside the district);
  • Unleash the creative potential of the large pool of diverse leaders within districts; and
  • Expand the reach of talented leaders to more students and retain these leaders in the district.

Tresha Ward, Lina Bankert, and I spent much of the last two years supporting the design and launch of autonomous district schools across the state of Texas, in Denver, and in St. Louis. Based on what we’ve seen, we are excited about the potential of these types of schools to improve outcomes for students. But we also know that doing this work well is difficult: it requires significant skill-building and support for district principals and strong and unwavering support from district leadership and school boards. 

We see five key contributors to the success or failure of these initiatives that we will explore in a series of blog posts over the next couple of months:

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Announcing Three New Members of Bellwether’s Partner Team

I write today to share some exciting news: Gwen Baker, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, and Juliet Squire were promoted this summer, joining the partner team here at Bellwether. We are thrilled about the strong contributions these individuals have made to Bellwether and the field — and for the contributions they will make as part of the partner team.

Bellwether partners lead high-impact projects seeking to improve education outcomes for underserved students. They conduct research, produce publications and other work to share ideas, support clients’ business and strategy needs, and develop our team by investing in the growth of other staff. When we founded Bellwether almost 10 years ago, we always said we wanted this to be a place where people could build meaningful careers and hone skills that would enable them to serve in other leadership roles throughout the field. This news affirms that we are cultivating strong talent who see Bellwether as a valuable place to grow and lead, even as many of you have had the opportunity to work alongside our former teammates in different roles outside of Bellwether. 

Learn more about our newest partners below, and please join me in congratulating Gwen, Jennifer, and Juliet on their new roles!

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“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