Category Archives: Strategic Planning

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

How Bellwether Transformed Agencies Supporting Youth in Utah, California, and Louisiana, Part 3: The Orleans Parish School Board’s Youth Opportunity Center

Last week, you read about Bellwether’s work in Utah, where we helped a team at the State Board of Education develop a shared vision of quality for all their schools serving students in juvenile courts or the foster care system. Today I’ll provide more information about our work in New Orleans, where we supported the Youth Opportunity Center, part of the Orleans Parish School Board, to create an 18-month strategy to evolve from being a direct services provider to becoming a community leader.

Social workers employed by the Youth Opportunity Center provide intensive case management services for some of the highest need youth and families in the city of New Orleans. While the Youth Opportunity Center has historically provided direct service work, their goal is to build the capacity of other city partners and ultimately become a strong community voice, magnifying their reach and impact by positioning other agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations to provide aligned supports for young people in a coherent way.

In New Orleans, the poverty rate is twice the national average, and in the last school year, 25 percent of students were chronically absent — up from 21 percent the year before. Staff at the Youth Opportunity Center see that students and families struggle to re-engage in their education because of significant barriers to accessing social services (e.g., transportation, illiteracy, and/or negative prior experiences with government or law enforcement). Because of New Orleans’ decentralized education system, schools vary in their capacity to support the highest need students without resorting to exclusionary disciplinary practices that lead students to further disengage.

The video below is from Buffy, a lifetime New Orleans resident who struggled to succeed in school herself and who is now trying to ensure that her child has a better experience than she did.

The work that the Youth Opportunity Center did with Bellwether resulted in the creation of an 18-month plan focused on three goals: Continue reading

Moving Towards Sustainability: Q&A with Charles King of Kansas City Teacher Residency

Teacher residencies, in which prospective teachers complete a classroom apprenticeship in addition to master’s-level coursework, have gained a great deal of attention as a promising pathway to teaching. Today, most teacher residencies rely significantly on philanthropic dollars, and often face post-startup financial sustainability challenges.

When faced with such sustainability challenges, organizations often make significant — and uncomfortable — programmatic decisions, like eliminating services or reducing cohort size. This spring, my colleagues Gwen Baker, Evan Coughenour, and I worked in collaboration with Charles King, executive director of Kansas City Teacher Residency (KCTR), on this exact sustainability challenge. KCTR was launched in 2016 by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation with a mission to recruit, develop, place, and retain mission-oriented individuals who want to make a deep commitment to working in high-need urban schools in the Kansas City area.

photograph of Charles King, founder and executive director of the Kansas City Teacher Residency

Our work with Charles and the KCTR team led to a redesign of KCTR’s program model, including a $4.6M (26%) reduction in fundraising needs. The new program strategies include strengthening partnerships, optimizing costs, exploring new revenue streams, and slowing the growth to scale.

After releasing a case study on KCTR’s path towards sustainability, Charles spoke with me about the strategic planning effort, his learnings, and his recommendations for others interested in supporting educators.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Over the last 3 years, KCTR has built a strong reputation in Kansas City. What factors have led KCTR’s success? Continue reading

School Leaders Can’t Screw Up Like the Fyre Festival Organizers Did

This is the eighth 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.

If you’ve heard anything about Fyre Festival, the failed luxury music event co-founded by Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, you have a sense of what a debacle it was. In May 2017 festival-goers arrived on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma expecting to spend a weekend enjoying live music, private cabanas, and gourmet catering; instead, they got prerecorded EDM, soggy tents, and cheese sandwiches. A few hours into day one, the festival was canceled and everyone went home. In the aftermath, two tell-all documentaries have been released, nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed, and countless internet postmortems have exposed the salacious details behind the misadventure.

So what does the Fyre fiasco have to do with a school’s approach to strategic decision-making? What can school leaders learn from the Fyre founders’ mistakes? While there are many reasons Fyre Festival flopped (unchecked greed and blatant fraud chief among them), a common theme was the lack of strong decision making. It’s clear that the festival organizers didn’t have a process to regularly pause, review, and decide whether to move forward with the event.        

This process is also known as greenlighting, a core concept we cover with schools and networks looking to expand their impact. In our context, greenlighting refers to the process by which school leadership decides to move forward with plans to serve more students (or make other significant investments of time and resources). It is a tool to aid decision making. We have found that seasoned schools and networks use a greenlighting framework to honestly and iteratively answer two questions:

  • Are we ready to move forward with our plans to grow?
  • If yes, what are the key milestones we must hit to ensure success?

Continue reading

Key Lessons for Effective School Boards

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

The members of elected and appointed school boards play an important role in governing schools and allocating resources. But beyond these practical responsibilities, a growing body of research suggests that what school board members believe, know, and do can set the conditions for effective classroom instruction and higher levels of student achievement.

For some recent projects, Bellwether reviewed the evidence base on school board effectiveness. Research indicates that effective school boards focus on student learning, make decisions informed by data, and build strong relationships with leadership and the community. Based on this evidence, important practices for effective school boards emerge across five domains.

  1. Beliefs and priorities: Research shows that it is important for boards to hold beliefs and priorities that focus on student learning rather than school management. In addition, a 2006 meta-analysis of 27 studies found that districts with higher levels of student achievement had boards, districts, and schools that were clearly aligned in their efforts to support non-negotiable goals. This further underscores that it is important for boards to clearly codify their beliefs and priorities.
  2. Data use: Boards in districts experiencing academic improvement tend to use more data more often to inform their decisions. For example, a notable study by the Iowa Association of School Boards found that board members in improving districts received data about exemplary programs and practices, test scores, dropout rates, and other measures on a regular basis from superintendents, curriculum directors, principals, and teachers, as well as sources outside the district.
  3. Strategic planning and goals: Effective boards craft strategic plans that are clear and reflect district and community input, and they hold themselves accountable for meeting goals and improving student learning. For example, a study of 10 school boards in British Columbia found that boards in districts with higher levels of student achievement and lower costs were more knowledgeable about district programs and practices and had a clearer sense of their goals. In addition, these districts shared firm values and beliefs about students and learning, and also deliberately articulated and discussed these values and beliefs among themselves and with their communities, suggesting that strategic planning must work in concert with board practices in other domains in order to be most effective.
  4. Communications and community engagement: Research has found that effective boards often have strong community partnerships and cooperative relationships between staff and the community. They also have strong structures in place to ensure clear communication with stakeholders like teachers, parents, and the media. In addition, case studies of school boards from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that business leaders, in particular, can play a critical role in supporting effective school board governance and reforms that improve student achievement.
  5. Effective relationships with district or school leadership: Strong working relationships between school boards and superintendents are important for district and student success. For example, a study of 10 districts across five states found that “strong, collaborative leadership by local school boards and school superintendents is a key cornerstone of the foundation for high student achievement,” and a study of Texas school districts suggests that there is a link between improved student achievement and high levels of trust between the superintendent and school board. Additionally, multiple studies have shown that stable leadership is correlated positively with student achievement. However, research from the Brookings Institution found that superintendents have relatively little influence on student achievement, and that student achievement does not improve with the longevity of superintendent service, suggesting that some turnover among board members and superintendents may be healthy and lead to more effective policies.

Research shows that effective school boards can play an important role in overall school quality. This research has informed Bellwether’s recent work, including developing a framework for evaluating school board effectiveness with Colorado Succeeds, as well as surveying school board members in Washington, DC and Rhode Island. As they look for ways to improve student learning, districts and charters alike should ensure that school boards are using effective practices and prioritize supplying adequate training and support for board members.