Category Archives: Charter Schools

What Does Expansion Look Like? Three Lessons From Our Strategic Growth Institute

This is the second 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. Next up in the series: how do leaders know they are ready to take the next step?

We recently launched our tenth Strategic Growth Institute cohort here at Bellwether. Our cohort work brings us together with charter and district leaders who are actively thinking about expanding their impact by adding new seats or campuses. When asked “why grow your school or model?”, our school partners commonly remark that they’re already serving students and communities well (and often far better than other options), and that their model is in high demand. Occasionally, school leaders want to move quickly to take advantage of unique landscape conditions that might not last forever (a charter- or innovation-friendly administration, for example).

But a second question — “what does expansion look like?” — yields a broader range of answers. Getting clear on what constitutes success is critically important because it shapes how a school leader and stakeholders will prioritize strategic decisions for years to come. A school seeking to replicate its model and grow from one campus to three will be on a very different path from a school that seeks to be a “teaching hospital” and codify its practices to share with other operators. Many choices, including culture development, organizational structure, talent philosophy, and community engagement, are fundamentally impacted by the direction the school (often in partnership with a district or network) wants to head.

We offer school leaders three broad questions as they think about which vision or impact model is right for them: Continue reading

How Do We Incentivize Charter Authorizers to Approve More High-Quality Alternative Schools? A Q&A With Colorado’s Antonio Parés.

Antonio Parés headshot via Twitter

Antonio Parés via Twitter

“Alternative education” is a catch-all term used to describe education programs for students who have not been well-served by traditional classroom environments. It can refer to computer-based rapid credit accrual opportunities, supportive programs for students who are pregnant or parenting, intensive English-language programs for students who have come to the United States with substantial education histories in another language, “second chance” placements for students expelled from traditional public schools, and everything in between. Precise definitions vary by state and school district.

While traditional public school districts have historically offered these alternative programs for their students, more and more state or local charter schools are beginning to offer similar programs. Charter statutes often allow the flexibility that makes room for innovation, which is needed to operate programs that meet the specific needs of some of our most vulnerable students. Yet ensuring appropriate accountability for alternative charter schools — crucial to fulfilling the other side of the autonomy-for-accountability bargain — has proven challenging.

Forward-thinking charter authorizers are contemplating the policies and institutional practices that create strong authorizing and accountability incentives for alternative programs. The right mix of flexibility, autonomy, rigor, and relevance can both ensure that authorizers do not just enable the existence of more alternative schools but that the schools they authorize provide the highest quality programs that best meet the needs of the students they serve. Good authorizing practices can also prevent schools that provide alternative programs from simply relaxing their standards and becoming a catch basin for low performing students.

A primary challenge for authorizers is that accountability metrics typically used to measure the performance of charter schools — such as student achievement or growth on state standardized assessments, student attendance, and four-year graduation rates — may not accurately apply. Alternative charter schools often serve students who enter with unique educational and life challenges or who are already far below grade level because of gaps in their prior schooling. Applying these measures rigidly can create disincentives for operators to open, or authorizers to approve, alternative school models. Conversely, some states create loopholes that allow alternative schools and their authorizers to evade accountability altogether. Some intrepid authorizers have invested significant time and resources in developing fair and accurate ways to measure the performance of diverse alternative schools, however, state laws and regulations do not always align with such approaches.

Colorado has begun a process of convening a cross-agency task force of leaders, experts, and policymakers to modify its authorizing system by improving the rigor and relevance of performance metrics for the state’s alternative education campuses (AECs). 

Antonio Parés, a partner at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, is a board member of the Colorado Charter School Institute (CSI), which convened the AEC task force. CSI is Colorado’s only statewide charter school authorizer, and it currently authorizes 39 schools serving over 17,500 PK-12 students across the state. We recently caught up with Antonio to talk about the unique needs of AECs and what that means for authorizers and state education policy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been working with a task force in Colorado to improve the ways that the state holds charter authorizers accountable for the success of their alternative education campuses. Can you tell us about that process and the challenges you’re facing?

Every year or two, CSI works with our alternative education campuses to identify “alternative measurements” for each or all of the schools. Alternative measurements include student perception surveys, in-house assessments such as NWEA or MAPS, or alternative post-secondary paths. CSI convened a statewide taskforce to review and collaborate on best practices when it comes to accountability measurements and outcomes for our alternative education campuses, schools typically serving under-credited and at-risk students. We were trying — and continue to try — to balance both the unique nature of each campus and their student population with the need for consistent, longitudinal, and comparable data points. Our goal was — and continues to be — to develop the best performance metrics and frameworks for every school. Continue reading

Announcing our Strategic Growth Institute — and Forthcoming Blog Series

Someone is knocking on my office door to ask my opinion on new enrollment marketing materials. Next to me, an exhausted first grader is snoozing on a bean bag chair. My board chair is texting me about our upcoming meeting. Our charter renewal application is waiting in my inbox for review, among 33 other unread emails.

This is not a scene from a former job of mine; it’s from a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently serving as Interim Executive Director for a single-site charter school for which I’ve been a board member for a few years. It’s a role that I’m thrilled to be filling, and one that gives me particular empathy for my current clients, as I toggle between school leadership at my charter school and school advising at Bellwether.

Bellwether team members and an SGI participant at a March 2018 convening in Phoenix, AZ

At Bellwether, we are about to launch our tenth Strategic Growth Institute (SGI), a four- to six- month-long cohort-based experience in which single-site charters, small charter management organizations (CMOs), and district schools develop strategic plans that enable them to reach more students. I absolutely love leading SGI cohorts, and I’ve seen how useful they can be for participants. School leaders don’t always have time to step out of the day-to-day to think longer term about their work. But to successfully grow and avoid common pitfalls, they’ll need a three-to five-year view and some intentional planning.

That’s where Bellwether comes in. I get to guide leaders as they develop a plan that is uniquely theirs, one that mitigates the breadth of challenges that small, scaling organizations often encounter. Continue reading

School Leader Summer To Do’s: Moving From Strategy to Execution

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. —Mike Tyson

It’s July. You are enjoying some well-deserved vacation after another intense year as leader of your school. The past year has wrapped up, and along with it, your latest round of long-term strategic planning. You feel good. In fact, you feel great. The cares of running the organization day-to-day melt away as you remember your inspirational ten-year impact goals, performance metrics, and high-level strategic priorities. You drift off into a visionary daydream…

…until suddenly…

It’s August.

Kids will be back on campus in less than a month. Teacher professional development starts next week. You start to get that gnawing feeling and ask yourself: “What about that strategic plan? Isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing right now?” You pull the final plan deck off your shelf and realize that your strategic plan has no instruction manual, and you don’t know where to begin.

This blog post is for you.

As the leader of your organization, you’re the one ultimately accountable for delivering on the strategy. Delivering on a strategy is not easy work; as you move forward, it’s important to keep your mission front and center. Remember the kids, families, communities, and teachers who will benefit from you diligently executing on the plans you laid out. But this doesn’t mean you can or should be responsible for the bulk of the work of the strategic plan. Your personal responsibility falls into three buckets:

(1) Make sure the organization is actually executing the plan you laid out.

Two tips on this one: First, break your high-level goals into an actionable implementation plan so that all team members understand how the work they’re doing contributes to the overall mission and vision. Second, assign someone else as the project manager for that plan (and hold them accountable for driving that work forward). You must focus on leading rather than getting lost in the day-to-day of effective project management, but your organization would be wise to put project and portfolio management best practices into place to move the work forward. This can include everything from clearly defining roles and responsibilities for executing the work, to ensuring regular step-backs (see below), to establishing a mechanism for anticipating and mitigating significant risks that might threaten success.

(2) Identify how and when you will step back to evaluate progress and gauge whether your strategy is actually having an impact.

As with project management, it is wise to ask someone else to hold you accountable for plan outcomes. A board often plays this role, but it could also be an outside advisor or coach. Coupled with this, schedule strategy review sessions for you and your leadership team to step back and evaluate progress/impact. Depending on your pace of change, you may want to hold these every six months or so.  

(3) Decide when to change course.

Decide up front how and when you will adjust course. Metrics can be useful here, but ultimately there will be some amount of judgment and deliberation. If something doesn’t seem to be working, don’t continue to push relentlessly forward, potentially wasting precious time and money. In the spirit of Vanilla Ice, stop, collaborate, and…figure out what the problem is. Instead of proceeding down the path you set years ago, keep your head up and make sure there is a clear stage-gate or “greenlighting” process in place for major investments and new pieces of work. You want to move fast, but moving too fast is a recipe for failure. Finally, when you do change course, do so with conviction — and make sure to communicate the “why” to your team and other important stakeholders.

Need some support drafting or implementing your strategic plan? Contact our Strategic Advising team at: strategy@bellwethereducation.org.

What Does it Take to Be a Quality Authorizer?

The autonomy-for-accountability bargain at the heart of the charter movement rests, crucially, on the effectiveness of the entities — known as authorizers — that have the ability to approve charter schools and the responsibility for holding them accountable. If authorizers are lax in their responsibilities — approving weak applications, failing to effectively monitor or assess school performance, or refusing to close low-performing schools — the accountability part of the bargain isn’t held up. But if they overstep their bounds, by limiting the kinds of schools they will approve, being overly prescriptive about requirements for school approval, or trying to micromanage schools they oversee, the autonomy part of the bargain goes missing. Getting the right balance between holding schools accountable and protecting their autonomy is a crucial question, both for authorizers and the charter movement as a whole, and since the start of the charter movement, it’s been the subject of heated debate — one that has intensified in recent years.

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