Author Archives: Mary K. Wells

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

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:

Continue reading