Author Archives: Mary K. Wells

A Statement on Solidarity

Friends of Bellwether, 

Right now we are searching for the words to describe what we are feeling: anger, frustration, and also a deep sense of urgency that America must be better than this. This most recent crisis comes in the midst of a pandemic that has robbed many children, often the ones who need great schools the most, of one-third of their learning this year. And on top of all that, Black communities are still being called to demand basic human rights that most Americans take as a matter of course. 

The most recent horrific acts of racist violence against Black citizens are heartbreaking and a painful reminder of the endless ways our public institutions and systems fail Black people and communities. What our country is experiencing is neither new nor unexpected. It’s important to be clear: The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota is not a random event that sparked a sudden or inexplicable backlash; it is part of an inexcusable pattern that must stop.

Our systems of education likewise systematically disenfranchise Black children as well as other historically marginalized students. Even as Bellwether works to address these issues, we believe more radical and broad-based change is required to realize the vision of an equitable and just society.  

We are making space for the visceral pain of our Black teammates and colleagues, and standing with communities across the nation, especially those most targeted by racial injustice. We stand with those fighting to address the ways racism destroys individuals and communities. They do not stand alone — it’s incumbent on all Americans, especially white Americans, not only to speak out, but to act.

Please Help Us Congratulate Our Newest Partner

As Bellwether marks our ten-year anniversary, building a team of talented, respected, and dedicated education professionals is one of the many things we celebrate. Today I am privileged to announce the promotion of one of my colleagues, Tresha Francis Ward, to the partner team. I am excited to watch Tresha’s contributions to the field and to the Bellwether team continue in the role of partner.headshot of Tresha Francis Ward, partner at Bellwether Education Partners

I have been privileged to work closely with Tresha over the years on several client engagements and to join with her to build out our academic and program strategy service offering. Tresha came to us as an experienced school leader, instructional coach, and expert in principal development. She brings years of hands-on experience with schools of all types, including turnaround schools. When we sit down with school and district leaders, Tresha’s obvious empathy and expertise quickly establish authentic and collaborative relationships.

Internally at Bellwether, team members love to work with Tresha: she is a fantastic mentor and manager who has helped many of our team members grow. She is also co-leading one of our most critical internal priorities, our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work. Working alongside her, I have appreciated her tireless and thoughtful contributions to help Bellwether become a more inclusive (and fun!) work environment.

Please join me in congratulating Tresha! You can read more about her here. She also co-authored a piece yesterday with her colleagues on responding to coronavirus, which you can read here.

Three “Must-Have” Areas of Freedom that Autonomous Schools Need to Succeed

My colleagues and I have been working with districts in several states to design and launch autonomous district schools, and over the past several months, we’ve rolled out a series of blog posts and other resources to explain how these kinds of schools can work best, including the new video below:

An obvious question in this work is: Which types of autonomies are crucial to the success of autonomous district school efforts?

Having worked with hundreds of high-performing schools around the country over the past fifteen years, I believe that strong alignment within and across three key areas is necessary to deliver excellent outcomes for students:

1. People

In a traditional district school, the principal likely has a number of people on her team who she did not hire. Maybe a few of them are not bought into the principal’s vision and would rather be on another campus. 

Principals in autonomous schools must have control over who is on their team, how roles are structured, and how teachers use their time, as my colleague Tresha Ward has written extensively about. Think about high-performing charter schools or networks: inevitably they have a leadership team and staff that believe deeply in the mission and unique instructional approach. 

Similarly, principals in district autonomous schools need to be able to select and support a team that is aligned around a common vision and strategy for educating children, wants to be part of the school, and is committed to professional learning and growth. Continue reading

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