Category Archives: Strategic Planning

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 is the second post in a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness. The first post can be read here.

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.

Three Myths I Often Hear About the Dreaded Financial Model

This is the seventh 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

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

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.

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