Category Archives: Strategic Planning

Is Your School Network Model “Tight” or “Loose”?

This is the fourth 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.

One of my favorite conversations to have with growing school networks is about the role that the central office should play. How “tight” or “loose” will the relationship be between the network office and the campuses? “Tight” systems, processes, structures, and practices are centralized and/or standardized, meaning decisions about instruction, culture, and operations are made at the network level, with varying degrees of input from schools. “Loose” ones are decentralized and/or contextualized, meaning individual campuses can make their own decisions, often leading to school environments that look and feel completely distinct.

road signs with word "Custom" and an arrow pointing to the left, and below it a sign reading "Standard" and pointing to the right, word standard is circled in redIn a tight network, you’d expect to walk into two fourth-grade classrooms on two different campuses and see a lot of commonalities: set up of physical space, instructional delivery, cultural norms, and pace of lessons. In a loose network, you’d experience more variation. Perhaps shared values and the network focus, like STEM, are explicit, but one school might elevate biomedical engineering and another robotics. The personalities of the adults in the building – both the school leaders and the teachers – shine through in how instruction is delivered: for example, how students show appreciation for each other, or how work stations are set up in the classroom.

It’s important to note that there is no judgment implicit in being tight or loose! We have seen exceptional networks at both ends of the spectrum. One high-performing network (and a Broad Prize winner) designed itself to be tight for two primary reasons. First, due to the huge geographic area its schools covered, there were fewer opportunities for in-person collaboration. Second, because of the network’s rapid expansion and teacher demographics, with high numbers of new teachers and school leaders, more structure and scaffolding was put in place so as not to recreate the wheel on content each time. The network office focused on developing high-quality curriculum and resources for teachers and school leaders to use and implement with fidelity, and it had a large and strong team creating content and trainings.

On the flip side, another Broad Prize winner opted to give school leaders room to innovate, and therefore put a big premium on recruiting and onboarding top-notch talent. Leaders had access to shared resources such as technology, data management, and professional development from the network, but had ultimate control over their instructional models, so long as they produced results. Campuses also had more budgeting autonomies, with considerable discretion around managing on-site resources and incentives for local program development.

Many network leaders default to wanting tighter control, in the name of consistency and replicating a model that has seen success. While we’ve seen this play out well, there are a few notes of caution. As the tightness of control increases, networks typically need: Continue reading

How to Engage Stakeholders: Three Considerations for Expanding Schools

This is the third 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.

Starting a new school or expanding an existing one requires support and action from many different groups of people, including parents, community members, district leaders, and staff. In our recent Strategic Growth Institute (SGI) cohort, participants talked about how hard it is to inspire support and action from these varied stakeholders given the range of perspectives each might have on growth and the limited time organizational leaders have. We heard about the dangers of under-investing in stakeholder engagement, which could result in a program model that does not reflect your community’s needs, an under-enrolled school, or a failed application for expansion. We also heard about the far-reaching benefits of doing stakeholder engagement work well, such as cases where parents and staff not only understand a growth plan but actively shape and champion it.

Many organizational leaders know that stakeholder engagement is key to the success of a growth plan, but planning for this engagement can be hard to do; there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for effective stakeholder engagement. We use a simple three-part tool to help organizational leaders plan stakeholder engagement, anchored on three questions:

School Growth Stakeholder Engagement Table

The engagement efforts that result from this planning tool will look quite different depending on an organization’s growth strategy and community context. However, we’ve identified important themes to consider during the planning process that apply regardless of the unique situation: Continue reading

How Can Governments Make Change? Go Wide or Go Deep.

Imagine a child who has experienced homelessness and who has had to change schools multiple times due to moving between foster homes, shelters, and the street. Oftentimes a young person like this becomes involved with multiple government agencies, like the Department of Child Welfare, the Department of Juvenile Justice, or the Department of Health, because the work that each of these agencies does tends to be narrowly focused on a solving a specific set of problems. Some agencies aim to keep children safe from abuse and neglect, others seek to rehabilitate youth who have committed crimes, and yet others try to prevent and treat illness and disease.

While each sector can implement its own solutions that may work some of the time for some young people, sustainable social change requires government agencies to collaborate.

But at which level of government (e.g., local, county, state, or federal) should we direct our efforts? The answer lies in the type of change we hope to create. Continue reading

What Does Expansion Look Like? Three Lessons From Our Strategic Growth Institute

This is the second 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. Next up in the series: how do leaders know they are ready to take the next step?

We recently launched our tenth Strategic Growth Institute cohort here at Bellwether. Our cohort work brings us together with charter and district leaders who are actively thinking about expanding their impact by adding new seats or campuses. When asked “why grow your school or model?”, our school partners commonly remark that they’re already serving students and communities well (and often far better than other options), and that their model is in high demand. Occasionally, school leaders want to move quickly to take advantage of unique landscape conditions that might not last forever (a charter- or innovation-friendly administration, for example).

But a second question — “what does expansion look like?” — yields a broader range of answers. Getting clear on what constitutes success is critically important because it shapes how a school leader and stakeholders will prioritize strategic decisions for years to come. A school seeking to replicate its model and grow from one campus to three will be on a very different path from a school that seeks to be a “teaching hospital” and codify its practices to share with other operators. Many choices, including culture development, organizational structure, talent philosophy, and community engagement, are fundamentally impacted by the direction the school (often in partnership with a district or network) wants to head.

We offer school leaders three broad questions as they think about which vision or impact model is right for them: Continue reading