Category Archives: Strategic Planning

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

Operations and Decision-Making in a Crisis: A Q&A With Bellwether’s Gwen Baker

At Bellwether, we’re responding to the COVID-19 reality alongside our clients and partners — while helping them address the situation we all face. 

Many leaders are asking about how they can steer their organizations honestly and transparently during these turbulent times. What adjustments or adaptations to organizational operations are necessary? 

Quote from Bellwether Education Partners' Chief Operating Officer Gwen Baker: "A lot of people will think process is just bureaucracy — you’re trying to control something you can’t control. But putting systems in place, or relying on existing systems, will prevent you from wasting time when you don’t have any spare time."

As Bellwether’s Chief Operating Officer, Gwen Baker has been sending regular communications to our team about policy changes in light of COVID-19, but also encouraging us to have grace for ourselves and one another. I chatted with Gwen to learn more about being an organizational leader in this time of crisis.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As Bellwether’s lead on operations, what things are currently on your mind regarding systems and decision-making?

The thing I really hold on to is the importance of process. A lot of people will think process is just bureaucracy — you’re trying to control something you can’t control. But putting systems in place, or relying on existing systems, will prevent you from wasting time when you don’t have any spare time. If you have a process that works, it allows you to put your brain power behind things that really need your attention. Continue reading

Reground, Prioritize, Plan, Connect: Bellwether’s Tool for Education Leaders During COVID-19

Update: We’ve now turned the tool from this blog post into a full customizable toolkit. Read more here.

Over the last two weeks, education leaders across the country have had to make a flood of challenging and unfamiliar decisions: Should we close our school doors, and for how long? How do we quickly and radically change our operations and instruction to support kids and families, possibly indefinitely?

Education leaders typically make hundreds of decisions a day under extreme pressure, but the past weeks’ events could leave even the best decision-makers feeling overwhelmed. The uncertainty of how the next several months will unfold only makes it harder for leaders. One leader we spoke to shared: “There is a knee-jerk reaction to do everything right now.” Direct-service providers and nonprofits are similarly facing knotty challenges. We empathize deeply with leaders on the ground.

If you’re a school or nonprofit leader, strategic planning might be the last thing on your mind during this current crisis. Certainly, it has been an unimaginable few weeks for us, as we think through the real needs of students and families. However, moments like these are when it is, in fact, most important to take a moment to breathe, reground yourself in your mission and values, and make a simple, yet flexible plan. 

To cut through the noise and focus limited time, energy, and resources, we recommend the following four-step approach:

Continue reading