Category Archives: Strategic Planning

We Helped Two Schools Create Reopening Plans — Here Are Five Lessons

This post was co-authored with Heather McManus of NewSchools Venture Fund.

With school starting in most places in a few weeks, school and network leaders are under tremendous pressure to finalize their reopening plans. With those leaders in mind, Bellwether just released a new planning resource that includes all of the components of a reopening plan, offers questions school leaders should address, and links to concrete guidance and completed plans as examples. We know it’s an overwhelming time, but we trust that these seven worksheets and linked resources will cut through the noise and set school leaders on a strong path for the fall.

boy in a face mask wearing black backpack at a school locker

Photo via Flickr user jill_carlson

Why are we so confident? Because the modifiable and customizable templates in our tool came directly out of our team’s work supporting two schools this summer to develop their reopening plans. Through a partnership with NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF), we spent six weeks with Urban Act Academy (a K-8 campus in Indianapolis, IN) and Comp Sci High (a 9-12 campus in Bronx, NY), meeting regularly with their leaders to help them structure, develop, and refine their plans. Their completed plans are available to view: Comp Sci HS – Instructional Plan, Comp Sci HS – Operations Plan, Urban Act Academy – Master Reopening Plan.

In working side-by-side with these two school teams, the thing that struck us most was how much there is to do in such a little amount of time. School leaders are preparing for multiple back-to-school scenarios, and for each they need to clearly define and communicate what academics, culture, talent, and operations will look like. And they are often doing this without clear guidance from their state governments. 

The tools and guidance in our new planning resource capture the approach and tools we used, and are intended to help other schools facing similar complexity accelerate their progress. Here are five lessons from our work: Continue reading

Tips and Tricks for School Leader Decision Making: A Tool

School leaders are faced with a variety of decisions each and every day, from the most fraught and challenging decisions navigating COVID-19, to day-to-day decisions pertaining to operational management. Some decisions feel easy and minor, informed by past experience and quality data. Other decisions are more daunting, requiring leaders to make difficult calls with incomplete information in a context that is rapidly changing.

This is especially true today. For instance, a decision about whether to buy devices to support remote instruction could go off-track if the manager of the I.T. department and the school executive director both think the other has the final say on which devices to purchase and how many are needed. And it’s not hard to imagine a well-meaning leader soliciting input from a multitude of stakeholder groups about how best to make meals safely available to students, and then feel overwhelmed by the volume of conflicting viewpoints. 

I’ve created a simple tool to share how to tackle strategic decisions for your organization, and offered some details and examples to support you and your team as you build your decision-making muscle. You’ll note that the process I map out is deeply aligned with a couple of planning toolkits my colleagues and I have shared over the past several months. I’ve chosen an example that is likely familiar to many school leaders for the sake of clarity, but the recommendations below are especially applicable in the current moment. In addition to the details and examples below, you can also download a simple, printable version of these steps here.

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Getting Strategic — and Practical — About Reopening Schools in the Fall

Planning to reopen schools in the fall is going to be complex, but it does not have to feel defeating. It should not mean spinning through a million different scenarios nor getting bogged down in abstract hypothesizing about the future of schooling. 

While many remain stuck intellectualizing about the 2020-2021 school year, leaders know they need to move forward now in order to support their staff, students, and families. Bellwether’s Academic Program Strategy team has worked closely with districts and schools since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, and we bring our practitioner lens to planning for reopening. We know that thousands of school leaders nationwide need practical support and clear processes to start planning — rather than thought pieces and ad hoc ideation. 

Drawing on our experiences as school founders, network leaders, and classroom educators and our work supporting clients, we have pulled together Essential Questions For 2020-2021 Reopenings: A Planning Workbook for Education Leaders

Our workbook simplifies the scenarios into three primary, high-level buckets: school occurring with every student learning in-person with social distancing guidelines in place, school occurring with every student learning at a distance, or a hybrid scenario with a subset of students learning at home and a subset of students learning in-person simultaneously. Continue reading

Applications Open for 3 Federal Grants: Tips From Bellwether

In the past few days, three major education-related federal grants have opened their application processes.

The Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Grant Program, the Teacher and School Leader (TSL) Incentive Grants, and the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Fund collectively offer approximately $266 million in funding to eligible education entities. (All three currently list a June 2020 application deadline.)

Teachers at Skyline High School meet with community partners to plan work-based learning opportunities for students.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

These programs closely align with Bellwether’s mission of supporting underserved students: 

  • SEED: “Increase the number of highly effective educators by supporting […] practices that prepare, develop, or enhance the skills of educators”
  • TSL: “Develop, implement, improve, or expand comprehensive Performance-Based Compensation Systems or Human Capital Management Systems for teachers, principals, and other school leaders […] especially [those] who […] close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students”
  • EIR: “Create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students; and rigorously evaluate such innovations”

While these grants require complex applications and can be highly competitive, Bellwether is here to help. Since 2010, we have successfully partnered with many organizations in their successful bids for federal grants. These include the following organizations, some of which have won several times with our support: Harmony Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, Louisiana Department of Education, National Math and Science Initiative, New Schools for New Orleans, RePublic Schools, Rhode Island Department of Education, and Tennessee Department of Education.

Back in 2016, I shared a series of tips on writing a successful federal education grant application, so we’re re-upping that conversation today.

But first, a few 2020 additions to our 2016 thoughts:

First, it is worth naming that we are navigating through highly uncertain times precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. Leaders across the sector are urgently attending to foundational needs and may see a grant application as yet another item on top of an already packed to-do list. We empathize — and also believe that now is an opportune moment for organizations to think ahead and consider how to evolve to address changing needs, either by accelerating existing work or by pursuing a bold new innovation.

Second, don’t feel like you have to go it alone. Many strong grant proposals are developed in partnership. We encourage organizations to have conversations early on with potential partners who can bring particular expertise or serve as a “test lab” for an initiative. (My colleague Allison Crean Davis will write a companion post tomorrow about the evaluation capabilities needed for a winning grant — and how we can support on that front.)

Finally, even if your application does not rise to the top, consider yourself a winner. Grant development can help you get clarity on where you’re headed and highlight gaps that you need to close before taking on a big new initiative. Going through the process of identifying strengths and opportunities can be just as valuable as actually acing the competition. Continue reading

Coronavirus Financial Planning for Education Organizations: A Q&A With Bellwether’s Lina Bankert

While public health concerns remain top of mind, we know many leaders are also thinking about the unfolding economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. How can you be smart about finances to minimize impacts on your employees and the communities you serve?

Quote from Bellwether Partner Lina Bankert: "In times of uncertainty and unrest, come back to what you are trying to do and why it is important. What are the things you will not compromise on?"

Partner Lina Bankert has been at Bellwether for eight years, supporting school systems, foundations, organizations, and others on their key financial and strategic decisions. In the conversation below, she offers some guiding principles for education organizations as they navigate the public health and economic crisis facing our country.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are we even talking about financial planning when a crisis is still unfolding?

Part of the challenge of this scary and unsettled time is that we don’t know how long things are going to be shut down, when the economy will recover, when we can travel again, or what the new normal will look like. A plan can help you weather uncertainty.  Continue reading