Category Archives: Education Governance

Lessons in Managing the Gut-Wrenching Process of School Closures

“I’ve never felt that way before, walking into a room and just being in total knots and also knowing the right thing to do.” That’s how former Denver Public Schools board member Mary Seawell recalls the night she and the majority of the board voted to close Montbello, an academically failing but popular neighborhood high school. As we interviewed district and community leaders for our Eight Cities project, the subject of school closures elicited a nearly universal response: emotionally draining and gut-wrenching angst.

photo of Mary Seawell, former Denver Public Schools board member, by Alexander Drecun — from EightCities.org

Photo of Mary Seawell by Alexander Drecun, via EightCities.org

While the superintendents and community leaders we spoke to acknowledged school closure as a painful but necessary tool, our interviews also reflected a culture shift: Some districts are no longer forcing closures of low-performing schools in the absence of quality alternatives. Instead many districts have started more carefully planning closures to minimize disruption and prioritize student success. Two recently released reports reinforce the need for districts to mitigate the pain of school closures by ensuring better alternatives already exist. Continue reading

What Is a School District Chief Innovation Officer? A Q&A With Margo Roen and David Saenz

Through innovation, organizations can adapt and improve their operations, but in large, complex school districts, who actually defines and pushes innovative efforts forward? 

School districts across the country are increasingly appointing a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) or similar role to drive transformation in their school systems. What do these leaders actually do? What should superintendents consider before adding a CIO to their leadership team? 

In order to answer these questions, I reached out to Margo Roen, the Principal of Innovative Systems & Schools at Education First, and David Saenz, Senior Officer in Fort Worth (TX) Independent School District’s Office of Innovation and Transformation. (Fort Worth Independent School District is part of Texas’ System of Great Schools Network, which Margo supports, and is a current Bellwether client.)

headshots of Margo Roen, Education First, and David Saenz, Forth Worth Independent School District

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What is a Chief Innovation Officer? What are the main responsibilities and skills?

Margo Roen: CIOs (or comparable roles) are fundamentally focused on creating more high-quality, best-fit schools for the students they serve, but this can look really different across districts depending on local needs.

CIO’s typically: 1) oversee an annual cycle for using data to assess their district’s strengths and gaps; 2) actively look for options to fill those gaps through internal capacity-building or external partnerships; and 3) formalize these strategic partnerships through performance contracts that clearly lay out expectations, autonomies, and supports for partners. 

David Saenz: The work of a CIO is all about change management. They need the ability to manage various projects at once while also being able to communicate effectively with internal and external partners and stakeholders. A CIO needs to have a working knowledge of most of the major areas of a school district: school management, school finance, personnel management, operations, and grant development.

A diverse array of districts have created CIO roles in the last decade or so. How has the role evolved, if at all, since then? Continue reading

Media: “A summit of states turned around US education 30 years ago — it’s time for another” in The Hill

Thirty years ago today, former president George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors in Charlottesville, VA for the nation’s first, and to date only, education summit. At this summit, the governors agreed to six national education goals. These goals have been the foundation for state and national education reform efforts over the last three decades.

I have a piece in The Hill today that argues it’s time for a second summit:

America’s education outcomes are largely stagnant. Gaps across subgroups remain a challenge. International test scores put American students behind their peers in other developed nations like Australia and the UK. Given this, it’s time for the nation’s governors to reconvene and create a new set of national education goals that reflect what we’ve learned and define where we want to go.

Read the full piece here. You can also learn more about the origins of this summit — and how states have worked to improve their education systems — in our resource on the American South here.

How Bellwether Transformed Agencies Supporting Youth in Utah, California, and Louisiana, Part 4: El Dorado County, California

You’ve read about Bellwether’s work in Utah, where we helped a team at the State Board of Education to develop a shared vision of quality for all their schools serving students in juvenile courts or the foster care system. And you’ve seen how our work in New Orleans resulted in an 18-month strategy to help the Youth Opportunity Center, part of the Orleans Parish School Board, evolve from a direct services provider to a community leader.

Our third partner in this work of ending fragmentation for youth was the El Dorado County Office of Education in California, where we partnered with leaders and stakeholders over 15 months to create a shared vision for improved countywide communication and information sharing. El Dorado County outperforms national averages on indicators of youth well-being as a whole, but it is also home to a population of young people unable to enjoy the County’s benefits. Our goal was to create a more coherent cross-agency experience for young people who come into contact with the County’s systems.

Atila, a young woman in El Dorado County, shared her story with us as we learned about how to better support young people. Atila now works with youth in one of the County’s juvenile facilities. Watch her story in the video below:

El Dorado County has many high-quality services, and there is, for the most part, enough to go around. But vulnerable young people and their families still struggle to thrive because of a lack of formal coordination between public agencies and community-based organizations, including courts, public safety agencies, behavioral health providers, and homelessness coordinators.  Continue reading

School Board Demographics Don’t Match Student Demographics  — And That’s a Problem

This post is part of a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness.

Today’s average public school board member is a white male with a family income of over $100K a year. 

The majority of today’s public schools students, on the other hand, are female, students of color, and very likely to be from low-income families. Many are first-generation Americans navigating their own lives while also serving as de facto interpreters for their parents. 

If school board members don’t look like the students they represent, how can boards understand and value the needs of our most underserved students — and make decisions through an equity lens?

Bellwether recently completed research on Rhode Island’s governance practices, including how  school boards operate. Similar to the findings of a 2018 National School Boards Association report, we found that more than 60% of board members in Rhode Island are white and have advanced degrees, while fewer than 6% grew up in poverty or received special education or English language learning support. In contrast, 49% of Rhode Island’s public schools’ students are people of color: 31% are Hispanic/Latinx and close to 10% are Black/African American. 40% of these students are from low-income families, almost 20% are identified as having a disability, and almost 10% are English language learners.

Rhode Island is not alone. A recent study of Ohio’s school boards illustrates how lack of representation and understanding hurts underserved students. In the case of Ohio, citizens from more affluent areas run for school board and are elected, and then amplify the voices of families from their neighborhoods. As a result, affluent students and their schools receive greater resources.

For more equitable school board decision making, here are three suggestions for state departments of education, school boards, and leaders:

Continue reading