Category Archives: Education Innovation

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.

Summer Camp Offers Numerous Scholarships to Low-Income Campers: A Q&A With Galileo Learning’s Glen Tripp

Oakland, California-based Galileo Learning offers engaging and high-quality Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) summer programming for students in the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, and Chicago. Their programs aim to foster lifelong innovators through project-based learning and exploration. 

Galileo has a high bar for quality: they select top-notch instructors, have low student-staff ratios, and invest in extensive curriculum development. This unwavering commitment to excellence means the programs typically cost about 25% more than city-operated summer programs.

But Galileo has a deeply held belief that all students should have the opportunity to become innovators, so in their model, families paying the full cost of camp tuition subsidize the attendance of those who cannot afford the program. With 10% of their students receiving scholarships, Galileo came to Bellwether in 2016 and asked the question: how can we increase the number of low-income students we serve? 

When my colleagues Lina Bankert, Genny Orr, and I arrived at their Oakland headquarters, we found ourselves walking into an innovation zone. Right inside the front door, staff worked on prototypes of machines students would build the next summer at camp. The open-concept office was spacious, fostering collaboration and community. Glen Tripp, Galileo’s CEO, invited us to attend their all-staff meeting, where we witnessed humor and laughter, support and care for one another, and unbounded energy. 

Over the next several months, we developed a three-pronged strategy to help Galileo achieve its impact goals: 1) increase scholarships to attend Galileo camps, 2) build strategic partnerships to extend Galileo’s approach to new educational settings, and 3) leverage the existing corps of teachers to infuse innovation thinking into more classrooms.

As of 2019, Galileo has increased the percentage of students receiving scholarships from 10% to 15% and is on track to provide scholarships to 22% of campers in 2020, equaling about 20,000 kids. I spoke with CEO Glen Tripp to understand more about Galileo’s model and how they were able to accomplish these impressive numbers.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to set an ambitious scholarship goal?  

Galileo’s mission is to develop innovators who envision and create a better world, and we believe that impact should belong to all kids. Finding fulfilling work in the future will require innovation skills, and our educational systems are not set up to deliver them. While many are understandably trying to close the math and reading achievement gaps, a new “innovation achievement gap” has emerged, and Galileo wants to combat this.

Initially we set a goal of awarding scholarships to 10% of our students. In 2019, we made it to 15% and in 2020 we are targeting 22%. That means that 20,000 students will receive partial to full scholarships in 2020, with very little foundation or public funding involved.  Continue reading

Leading an Autonomous School — and How That’s Different From Being a Traditional School Principal

A handful of districts across the country are launching in-district autonomous schools, where schools remain part of the district but are granted some degree of autonomy, similar to what is typically granted to charter schools. As my colleague Mary Wells explained, there are a number of ingredients necessary for success in these schools, one of which is the leader in the building itself. 

Leading an autonomous school is very different from a typical building principal role. As one San Antonio-based autonomous school leader Brian Sparks put it: “This role is not for everyone, and what made you a successful principal may not help you be a successful [autonomous school] leader.” 

I’ve supported fourteen autonomous school leaders in four districts and have noticed that they typically have a few things in common:

Results orientation

Successful autonomous school leaders are driven by delivering better outcomes for their students. Maintaining a laser-like focus on this goal gives them courage to do things differently, such as creating year-round learning for their students or pushing their teams to leverage data to provide tailored support for students.  Continue reading

Bellwether Recognized For Core Value of Synergy as Key Partner in $20 Million Grant

Collaborating across teams sounds simple, but it’s not easy, and it has even been described as “dangerous.” 

When organizations and individuals join forces with those outside their immediate circles, they do so to reach common goals, recognizing that their combined efforts, if synergistic, can create greater impact than their separate ones. But because human beings, and the groups with which we affiliate, bring our cultures, jargon, preferred solutions, and power dynamics to collaboration, synergy is not inevitable — or easy. It requires deliberate effort, a willingness to work outside of one’s typical patterns, and a desire to meld together the best of various disciplines to provide holistic solutions for complex problems. 

Synergy matters because education is complex: its problems are not one-dimensional, so its solutions can’t be either. 

Entering our tenth year as a nonprofit, Bellwether has long harnessed our organizational superpower of synergy — and in fact it’s one of our core values. We intentionally bring together people with different specialties, work experiences, identities, political affiliations, and approaches to advance a shared mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students. Some of my colleagues are former teachers who think through the lens of facilitation and skill-building when working with adults. Some, like myself, come from the background of evaluation, and reference the scientific method when we approach problems. Others have a business or consulting background and think about making organizations more effective and joyful places to work. Still others within Bellwether think about the policy contexts in which these organizations operate. 

This approach is getting some recognition. In late September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a five-year grant worth $20 million to a collaborative partnership involving Bellwether Education Partners, Westat (the lead grantee), RMC Research, and Academic Development Institute to support a National Comprehensive Center (“National Center”) aimed at improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and enhancing the quality of instruction. Through this work, we’ll get to take synergy to the next level by leveraging skill sets within our team and across these partnering organizations. 

Some context: Since 2002, regionally based comprehensive centers (RCCs) have been quietly providing capacity-building services to education agencies across all 50 states and territories. Funded by the Department of Education, RCCs are intentionally focused on the specific needs of the state and local education agencies they serve, which can vary based on local priorities, policies, and student populations. 

Until now, the benefits and lessons from this targeted support have remained largely within the states and regions being served. The Comprehensive Centers have done important work, but they have lacked the synergy superpower. 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