Category Archives: School Leadership

Is Your School Network Model “Tight” or “Loose”?

This is the fourth 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.

One of my favorite conversations to have with growing school networks is about the role that the central office should play. How “tight” or “loose” will the relationship be between the network office and the campuses? “Tight” systems, processes, structures, and practices are centralized and/or standardized, meaning decisions about instruction, culture, and operations are made at the network level, with varying degrees of input from schools. “Loose” ones are decentralized and/or contextualized, meaning individual campuses can make their own decisions, often leading to school environments that look and feel completely distinct.

road signs with word "Custom" and an arrow pointing to the left, and below it a sign reading "Standard" and pointing to the right, word standard is circled in redIn a tight network, you’d expect to walk into two fourth-grade classrooms on two different campuses and see a lot of commonalities: set up of physical space, instructional delivery, cultural norms, and pace of lessons. In a loose network, you’d experience more variation. Perhaps shared values and the network focus, like STEM, are explicit, but one school might elevate biomedical engineering and another robotics. The personalities of the adults in the building – both the school leaders and the teachers – shine through in how instruction is delivered: for example, how students show appreciation for each other, or how work stations are set up in the classroom.

It’s important to note that there is no judgment implicit in being tight or loose! We have seen exceptional networks at both ends of the spectrum. One high-performing network (and a Broad Prize winner) designed itself to be tight for two primary reasons. First, due to the huge geographic area its schools covered, there were fewer opportunities for in-person collaboration. Second, because of the network’s rapid expansion and teacher demographics, with high numbers of new teachers and school leaders, more structure and scaffolding was put in place so as not to recreate the wheel on content each time. The network office focused on developing high-quality curriculum and resources for teachers and school leaders to use and implement with fidelity, and it had a large and strong team creating content and trainings.

On the flip side, another Broad Prize winner opted to give school leaders room to innovate, and therefore put a big premium on recruiting and onboarding top-notch talent. Leaders had access to shared resources such as technology, data management, and professional development from the network, but had ultimate control over their instructional models, so long as they produced results. Campuses also had more budgeting autonomies, with considerable discretion around managing on-site resources and incentives for local program development.

Many network leaders default to wanting tighter control, in the name of consistency and replicating a model that has seen success. While we’ve seen this play out well, there are a few notes of caution. As the tightness of control increases, networks typically need: Continue reading

What I Learned at a Rocketship “Launch” — and How It Changed My Career Trajectory

Five years ago, on a public school playground in San Jose, California, I joined a school full of students and teachers as they joyfully launched their day, an experience which ended up catapulting me into the elementary and secondary education world in an unforgettable way.

I was visiting a Rocketship Public Schools campus, where they begin every morning with what is known as “launch,” a combination of workout, celebration, information-sharing, and exhilarating warm up for the school day ahead. (Disclosure: Rocketship Public Schools, a national charter management organization, is a Bellwether client.)headshot of Lynne Graziano, Bellwether Education Partners

The students assembled into loosely organized classroom groups, many first stopping to greet, hug, or high-five their school leaders and teachers. Launch that day began with general announcements followed by recognition of teachers and students for various achievements. Next, everyone on the playground moved into a choreographed dance and vocal warm up to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Roar.” The students loved flexing their biceps and roaring at one another, and especially enjoyed shout-singing, “‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar.” Concluding with laughter and applause, the students and their teachers launched into the school day with energy and enthusiasm.

I remarked to my Bellwether colleagues that this was the way we should all begin our day: focused on important details, recognizing positive achievements, and getting our adrenaline pumping for the work ahead. I also asked a question that lingered with me: How do we allow some schools to take promising students like these, with a deep hunger to learn and unbridled desire to achieve, and fail them somewhere between the time they enter public education but before they reach the finish line? It was a question I couldn’t shake.

That morning, I witnessed Rocketship’s signature “launch” while working part-time as a contractor for Bellwether Education Partners. At the time, I was pursuing a Ph.D. in history, and while I always enjoyed working with young people, I thought teaching and mentoring at the college level was where I could have the most impact. But the launch experience lingered in my memory even as we completed our project. It followed me back to my dissertation work, and I eventually succumbed to its pull.

Less than a year later, I deferred my dissertation and jumped into the work of Bellwether full-time, with its mission of dramatically changing education and life outcomes for underserved students, many akin to the students I saw at launch that morning.

My career shift was an unexpected bonus of participating in that project. Rocketship has continued to replicate this school tradition as their network of schools has expanded. (I should note that across the country, many schools of varying types do similar morning routines to start their day.) Today Rocketship has 19 schools in four regions. In Washington, D.C. Rocketship Legacy Prep recently posted the highest score ever for a pre-K through eighth grade school on the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s School Quality Report. (They planned to open a second school in DC’s Ward 5 but were not able to, citing a facility/permitting issue.)

While Rocketship has its share of critics, its current students seem to be enthusiastic about attending school.  A colleague of mine recently witnessed this at Rocketship Legacy Prep. He was walking toward the school behind two kids who were maybe 7 or 8 years old — young enough that their backpacks seemed enormous, wider than their shoulders. As they approached the school, one said, “It’s three minutes to launch! We can’t be late!” They looked at each other before breaking into a run, backpacks bouncing in rhythm with their pounding feet.

So many students don’t attend schools worth running toward. I hope those two young learners made it to school on time, sang and danced during launch, and continued to hunger for education in a way will carry them through the years to come. And I hope that those of us in the education space continue to push for enough great public schools to keep students everywhere fueled and focused.

How to Engage Stakeholders: Three Considerations for Expanding Schools

This is the third 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.

Starting a new school or expanding an existing one requires support and action from many different groups of people, including parents, community members, district leaders, and staff. In our recent Strategic Growth Institute (SGI) cohort, participants talked about how hard it is to inspire support and action from these varied stakeholders given the range of perspectives each might have on growth and the limited time organizational leaders have. We heard about the dangers of under-investing in stakeholder engagement, which could result in a program model that does not reflect your community’s needs, an under-enrolled school, or a failed application for expansion. We also heard about the far-reaching benefits of doing stakeholder engagement work well, such as cases where parents and staff not only understand a growth plan but actively shape and champion it.

Many organizational leaders know that stakeholder engagement is key to the success of a growth plan, but planning for this engagement can be hard to do; there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for effective stakeholder engagement. We use a simple three-part tool to help organizational leaders plan stakeholder engagement, anchored on three questions:

School Growth Stakeholder Engagement Table

The engagement efforts that result from this planning tool will look quite different depending on an organization’s growth strategy and community context. However, we’ve identified important themes to consider during the planning process that apply regardless of the unique situation: Continue reading

More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? 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