Category Archives: School Leadership

Three Myths I Often Hear About the Dreaded Financial Model

This is the sixth 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.

Most people groan when they think about financial modeling, but it’s the part of strategic planning that I look forward to most. To be fair, I was the kid in math class who found it incredibly satisfying to see how numbers fit together in a clean and orderly way. A prime number is ALWAYS only divisible by one and itself. The angles in a triangle ALWAYS add up to 180. Algebra is like a riddle whose answer you can ALWAYS figure out — just isolate the X! (I know this makes me a nerd, but I embrace it.)

In my adult life, I get the same satisfaction from a good financial model that pieces together all the parts of a strategic plan in a logical way. For those new to the process, a financial model is basically a big, usually Excel-based, spreadsheet that lays out all the costs and revenue streams associated with a strategic plan, as well as the relationships between them, to calculate a total funding need. This spreadsheet can then be used as a “model” that helps you test various decisions associated with plan implementation, just like a blueprint is a model that guides construction of a new house or building.

Financial models help growing schools or networks understand their funding need, plan for the future, and justify budgets to potential funders. What I like about financial modeling is that it makes a strategy feel concrete. Before you get to modeling in the strategic planning process, the various goals, priorities, and action steps that make up your school’s plan for growth or improvement can feel like vague ideas. Once they’re in Excel and defined by real-world cost estimates, the ideas come to life.

For instance, let’s say you want to build out your data systems to support a growing organization. Okay, but what does that actually mean? Translating your ideas into spreadsheet form will require you to think through what the work will look like on the ground and what specific resources you will need to accomplish various tasks. You’ll probably need to invest in new or upgraded software, train your staff to use it, and perhaps bring a data expert on board to manage it. If you can make some informed guesstimates about how many of each thing you’ll need, when you’ll buy them, and how much they’ll cost, with a bit of math you can get to a reasonably realistic estimate of investment size.

Then you can use that estimate to adjust your strategic plan to better fit the reality of your day-to-day.  Back to our data systems example: Don’t think you can afford an investment of that size? To save costs, perhaps you can find less complex software, limit licenses to a few key staff members, or allocate time from a current resource to data management rather than hiring a new staff member. If you flex the inputs in the model to reflect those changes, what happens to the final number? I, for one, feel much more comfortable making decisions armed with numbers.

Now you’re probably thinking: “But financial modeling requires a skillset I don’t have (and don’t really have the time to build)!” Yes, you need to be comfortable with Excel, but I promise that comes with a little practice — and there are simple video tutorials readily available the internet. Beyond that, it’s much more approachable than you think.

Here are three common myths I hear about financial modeling from people unfamiliar with the process: Continue reading

Why This School Founder Symbolizes the Best of the Eight Cities Project

via @StokesSchool on Twitter

Last month I saw a tweet that Ms. Linda Moore’s famous Kindergarten tea parties had resumed at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes School Brookland* campus. In an instant I was transported back to our interview with Moore, who founded and named the school after her mother. We captured her voice in our Eight Cities project.  To be honest, I felt a little left out that I didn’t get to attend either her school or one of her tea parties. In all the cities we visited to research stories of dramatic educational gains, we interviewed many inspirational school leaders and educators, but Moore was one of my favorites. Leaders like her are the foundation that enables change — after all, systemic reform means nothing if kids don’t have a good school to attend.

On an almost-balmy March day last year, my colleague Tanya Paperny and I climbed the daunting hill leading to the Stokes Brookland campus. It is a modern, high-ceilinged former seminary housing over 300 pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade students. We both broke a sweat by the time we entered a small conference room, yet it was nothing compared to the warmth we felt when Moore (known to her students as Ms. Moore) entered the room.

Our conversation was less an interview, and more a travelogue of the journey she embarked on two decades ago, when she made the decision to start a dual-language school for students in her D.C. neighborhood. Moore recognized that “having schools that were founded by local people makes a difference to the people in our city.” Indeed, part of Washington D.C.’s secret sauce is the large percentage of charter schools opened by local residents, a contrast from cities like Camden, where transformation came with help from national charter networks. Moore’s idea to teach students in either French and English or Spanish and English seemed almost crazy at the time; thankfully, she persevered.

While our eightcities.org site is named for the places we profiled and their ability to get more students into better schools faster, it is really about the people who believe every child can learn and succeed. (We hope our site’s use of original photo portraiture made this obvious.) I got to meet people like Jamar McKneely in New Orleans, Chief Executive Officer at InspireNOLA charter schools. While two of their schools are “A” rated, McKneely pledges that they “will not stop until all our schools have reached their highest potential.” In Denver, Allegra “Happy” Haynes inspired us with her career-long commitment to the city and its students. Early in her Denver Public Schools career, she was tasked with telling parents how the system was failing them and their kids. Today, as the district continues to improve, Haynes believes a key lever was empowering “schools to be the real unit of change.” Supporting and improving school leadership is central to driving student achievement gains. Continue reading

School Culture Is More Than Fragmented Strategies — It’s Four Cohesive Elements

Culture can make or break a school’s success. It can propel academics forward or drag learning down into an unrecoverable spiral where kids lose precious time and teachers quickly burn out.

When I started my career as a teacher through the time I became a school leader, I pulled ideas about school culture and classroom management from a number of educators and resources. My inspirations included Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings, and books like Yardsticks, Power of our Words, Teaching with Love and Logic, and Teach Like a Champion. I also relied heavily on the experiences of my own upbringing as a black, West Indian woman in the 80’s and 90’s in New York City, with teachers and parents who let me know I was cared for but also “did not play” (in other words, they were strict). My guiding belief became, and remains, an unwavering faith in the limitless potential of each child, and the approach that followed was fueled by a lot of love, usually the tough kind.

My approach wasn’t foolproof. But this fundamental mindset was what I looked for in teachers that I hired. As a school team, we refined our approach to culture over time and adjusted the systems and practices that supported it. Building the culture of our school was a process we had to figure out through trial and error, which led to lost instructional time, frustrated teammates, or broken relationships with students when we didn’t get it right.  

Unfortunately, too many principals don’t learn how to build the kind of school culture where teachers feel successful and capable of teaching for many years and where students — especially students of color — thrive. Many of the existing resources on the topic tend to reduce advice down to ambiguous ideas, a few fragmented strategies, or case studies about charismatic leaders. They never demystify the elements necessary for a healthy culture or offer clear guidance on how to implement them.

School culture can be a touchy subject, particularly when leaders and teachers have different philosophies, approaches, and beliefs. While I have my own point of view on these topics, I unequivocally believe that consistency and alignment are the most important features of an effective school culture. A cohesive school culture isn’t built through a patchwork of random techniques, curricula, or professional development sessions. Instead, school culture is comprised of a thoughtfully defined cascade of four elements, described below in further detail:

school culture framework, by Tresha Ward of Bellwether Education Partners

Continue reading

Scaling Up Your Network Office: A Q&A With Mia Howard of Intrepid College Prep

This is the fifth 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.

After all the excitement of growing your single-site charter school into a successful network subsides, the difficult questions start pouring in: how similar or different will the schools in your network be? How will you set up a network office to support these schools? How do you strike the right balance between building out the capacity of your network team versus using funding to better support your schools?

headshot of Mia Howard, Intrepid College Prep CEO and Founder

Mia Howard

While these questions are common to every single-site school or network that is growing or expanding, there are no “easy answers.” To help school leaders navigate these tricky decisions, we caught up with Mia Howard, Founder and CEO of Intrepid College Prep in Nashville, TN. Mia founded Intrepid College Prep back in 2012, expanded to open a second school in 2017, and is currently laying the groundwork for a third campus. During our interview, Mia shared about her experience growing from a single school to a multi-school network and the challenges and opportunities that presented.

When did you first begin to think about building out your network office to support scaling?

In 2015-16 (our third year of operation, with grades 5-7 at the original campus), we started thinking actively about the launch of a potential high school. Our mission to get scholars to and through college drove us to add another campus so that our middle-schoolers would be able to continue on with us into high school, but we knew that growth would place a strain on our team. We were working with Bellwether to develop our five-year growth plan and knew that because our second campus wasn’t going to have the same grade span, we would be stretching ourselves to develop expertise on both middle school and high school.

Before scaling, we first thought about what functions we wanted the network office to have to support a strong team. We wanted our operations team to be oriented to serving our school leaders so that our principals could operate as instructional leaders without getting overrun by compliance and other day-to-day tasks that take away from supporting teachers.

We also wanted to create criteria for growth that would prioritize quality growth and not just rapid growth. While we had been invited to expand down to elementary school and open in other states, we didn’t want to pursue growth at all costs. I was impressed with the tools Bellwether provided around how to use data to clearly inform our growth plans. We decided we wouldn’t grow unless we had hit certain benchmarks. Continue reading

Reclaiming Your Time as a School Leader

“I’m overwhelmed. I’ve got so much to do and no time to get it done!” I can’t count the number of times I found myself at the end of a school day sitting at my desk and wondering where the hours went. As a young school leader, days went by in a poorly managed blur that left me working late into the evening and on weekends. But even though I worked all the time, tasks still slipped through the cracks at school and at home. I needed to do a better job of accounting and planning for my time if I wanted to get a good night’s sleep, endure as a school leader, and, ultimately, serve my students well.

black and white image of a clock showing 5:40

In order to increase their effectiveness and sustainability in the role, school leaders (actually, all leaders) need to ensure that their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules and calendars are planned in a way that reflects their priorities and maximizes every minute. I see this as a consistent roadblock with the leaders I support. With all of the competing and seemingly urgent needs at a school, focusing on your priorities and rigorously maximizing your time can feel easier said than done. The job of a school leader can feel never-ending and everyone wants some of your time.

Thankfully, January is prime time for setting resolutions, establishing new habits, and hitting reset on the school year. Here are a few strategies I used as a leader (and still use!) to help me be more effective, get the most out of the day, and ensure I have chunks of guilt-free time to spend with my husband or do other things that make me happy:

Get clear on your priorities

Ask yourself: What are the 2-3 most important things my school needs to achieve this year, this semester, or this quarter AND what is my unique role as the school leader in helping achieve these goals? Having a crisp answer to this question is the first step to reclaiming and reprioritizing your time. Your school may have several priorities, but they don’t all require your involvement — or your involvement 100% of the time. Getting strategic about your unique value add will help you decide what you need to engage in.

Know the capacity of your team Continue reading