Author Archives: Tanya Paperny

Coronavirus Financial Planning for Education Organizations: A Q&A With Bellwether’s Lina Bankert

While public health concerns remain top of mind, we know many leaders are also thinking about the unfolding economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. How can you be smart about finances to minimize impacts on your employees and the communities you serve?

Quote from Bellwether Partner Lina Bankert: "In times of uncertainty and unrest, come back to what you are trying to do and why it is important. What are the things you will not compromise on?"

Partner Lina Bankert has been at Bellwether for eight years, supporting school systems, foundations, organizations, and others on their key financial and strategic decisions. In the conversation below, she offers some guiding principles for education organizations as they navigate the public health and economic crisis facing our country.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are we even talking about financial planning when a crisis is still unfolding?

Part of the challenge of this scary and unsettled time is that we don’t know how long things are going to be shut down, when the economy will recover, when we can travel again, or what the new normal will look like. A plan can help you weather uncertainty.  Continue reading

Operations and Decision-Making in a Crisis: A Q&A With Bellwether’s Gwen Baker

At Bellwether, we’re responding to the COVID-19 reality alongside our clients and partners — while helping them address the situation we all face. 

Many leaders are asking about how they can steer their organizations honestly and transparently during these turbulent times. What adjustments or adaptations to organizational operations are necessary? 

Quote from Bellwether Education Partners' Chief Operating Officer Gwen Baker: "A lot of people will think process is just bureaucracy — you’re trying to control something you can’t control. But putting systems in place, or relying on existing systems, will prevent you from wasting time when you don’t have any spare time."

As Bellwether’s Chief Operating Officer, Gwen Baker has been sending regular communications to our team about policy changes in light of COVID-19, but also encouraging us to have grace for ourselves and one another. I chatted with Gwen to learn more about being an organizational leader in this time of crisis.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As Bellwether’s lead on operations, what things are currently on your mind regarding systems and decision-making?

The thing I really hold on to is the importance of process. A lot of people will think process is just bureaucracy — you’re trying to control something you can’t control. But putting systems in place, or relying on existing systems, will prevent you from wasting time when you don’t have any spare time. If you have a process that works, it allows you to put your brain power behind things that really need your attention. Continue reading

A Q&A With Five Parents of Color on What Matters When Choosing a School

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Policy conversations around school choice often center on “quality,” defined narrowly by academic measures found on school report cards. But families aren’t always drawn to a school because it’s effective at producing a test score or highly rated on a school performance tool. And for parents of color, there can be tough tradeoffs to make in any school decision.

In advance of the 2020 relaunch of our Eight Cities project, we spoke with nearly a dozen parents of color to understand their decisions, frustrations, and victories. We’ve compiled some of their responses here to provide perspectives on what motivates parents when evaluating multiple school options.

These conversations reveal some of the often unspoken factors that drive school choice. The truth is this process is complicated, and policymakers hoping to create more high-quality seats in cities across the country need to better understand what parents value alongside strong academics and student achievement outcomes.

These quotes have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Miguelina Zapata, a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), describes why a non-traditional school model was important for her and her children:

“Two of my three children are at [a Montessori charter school] here in D.C. I knew my older daughter wouldn’t thrive in a regular school where she would have to sit down for 30 minutes at a time. My daughter is very active and has always been more advanced than other kids her age. I like the Montessori model because they let kids go at their own pace with their own materials depending on what they want to do. She couldn’t get that kind of freedom in a regular school.

I learned about local Montessori schools at the DC bilingual education fair and the annual public school fair and found [two schools] I really liked. But the waitlist numbers were so high for both schools, there was no way we were going to get in. So I applied through the lottery and found my current school.” Continue reading

“I Didn’t Realize How Much Work It Takes to Find a School for Your Child”: Q&A With Shaniola Arowolaju of Washington, D.C

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Families with children in the Washington, DC school system are currently on the edge of their seats: Open enrollment through the MySchoolDC lottery closed earlier this month, and results will be released in late March.

As discussed in our Eight Cities profile of D.C., one of the most unique features of D.C.’s education system is its emphasis on parent choice, within the traditional public school system (DC Public Schools, or DCPS) and the city’s large charter school sector.

Shaniola Arowolaju, a D.C. native with three children enrolled in a charter school*, is a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE). In this conversation, she talks about the barriers that she and other parents face when choosing a school and offers advice for parents and district leaders to make the enrollment and choice system more equitable for D.C.’s most vulnerable students.

quote card from DC parent Shaniola Arowolaju: I’d suggest that general resources about school choice and quality are placed inside each and every school, recreational center, and library. I believe that we need to give parents whatever resources they need — they shouldn’t have to fight for them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You grew up in the District and attended public schools here. Can you talk more about the process of finding a school that was the right fit for you?

When I was in school, you had to go to your neighborhood school. If you wanted to go school outside of those boundaries, then you’d have to get special permission and request a change. As a student, I attended my neighborhood elementary and middle schools that were no further than a short bus ride. When I got to high school, I requested and received special permission from the district to attend another high school which had a legal services academy and a marching band. It was also located on the other side of town. So I had some choice as a student, but it required a long commute. Continue reading

“I’m So Thankful I Had a Choice”: Q&A With LaVonia Abavana on Camden Schools

When we launched Eight Cities in 2018, a multimedia storytelling website which became our most popular project of the year, readers loved the close look at system leaders who oversaw dramatic changes in their districts. But we also heard a desire for more local voices — including parents, principals, and educators — to better understand how system-wide reforms were experienced by those on the ground. This conversation with Camden parent LaVonia Abavana launches a series that explores school reform and choice from a variety of perspectives in advance of the 2020 relaunch of Eight Cities.

When the state of New Jersey took control of Camden Public Schools in 2013, Camden community members had plenty of reasons to be skeptical given the district’s long history of corruption and financial and academic struggles. As our profile of Camden in EightCities.org explains, state control also introduced Renaissance Schools, a model where nonprofit partners take over schools on the verge of closure. These schools retain the existing student body and must serve students in their neighborhood.

LaVonia Abavana, a Camden native with three children of her own, had never heard of Renaissance Schools when she was faced with a tough choice for her youngest son. 

In this conversation, she tells us about navigating school options with a special-needs child and offers advice for parents.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I had a chance to read a moving piece you wrote about your son KingSebastian. Can you share more of his education story?

When [KingSebastian] was going to his old school, in Camden Public Schools, we had a really, really hard time with bullying because of his Tourette Syndrome. We dealt with bullying from every level of leadership. Nobody understood what it was, and he was getting sanctioned for it and punished for it. His confidence was really, really low. Even though I tried to give him positive talks and everything, he just did not want to go to school.

After two years of trying to work things out with no success, I did a vigorous search for a different school. I talked to my neighbors and the community members I see every day, I went on Camden Enrollment, I looked at the Camden Enrollment booklet that shows you all of the schools’ growth rates and academics, and so forth. I’d never heard of a Renaissance School before, and I was kind of scared. But after calling [a Renaissance School network in Camden],* I felt kind of confident. So I put him in [a Renaissance School in Camden].  Continue reading