Category Archives: Strategic Planning

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

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

If Your District is Losing Enrollment, Borrow Some Tools from Denver

As families make their school choices during the annual enrollment season this winter, there are a lot of unknowns for district leaders to manage. The size of the student population shouldn’t be one of them. When district student enrollment numbers drop, a whole community can find itself in a panic. School principals start worrying about potential cuts to their staff. District administrators start worrying about consolidating or closing schools. And if all this happens unexpectedly, then parents and students are the ones who suffer.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) is at a similar crossroads: enrollment levels are in decline after a period of population boom, but their leaders are able to nimbly respond to enrollment changes due to a number of systems they have in place. Other city leaders take heed.

In most traditional districts, enrollment data isn’t used for a great deal of strategic decision-making, but thanks in part to Denver’s universal enrollment system and student-based school budgeting process, they have a much richer set of data to understand which schools and parts of the city are attracting (or losing) students. Leaders use this to aid in decision-making when it comes to high-stakes subjects like school creation, turnaround, or closure.

These tools also allowed Denver to grow quickly while improving student outcomes. As former DPS official and enrollment management expert Brian Eschbacher explained recently in The 74, during his seven years as the executive director of planning and enrollment services in Denver, he and his team could detect, assess, and respond to changes in student enrollment. Through their annual Strategic Regional Analysis process, DPS staff were able to understand what areas or programs were popular with families as well as where enrollment was beginning to wane. In both cases, it allowed district leaders to be more proactive in their decision-making based on a detailed understanding of enrollment trends. 

Understanding enrollment trend data is only the first step to managing declining enrollment: it needs to be paired with action that can help mitigate some of the negative effects of school closure decisions and provide high-quality options for students and families affected by those decisions. That could mean consolidating schools, as is happening with a Denver charter school, but it’s important that such dramatic steps are accompanied with supports for students and families. (My colleague Lynne Graziano recently wrote about how districts can help families navigate the school closure process.)

Better understanding of enrollment data can also help districts adjust course before such drastic actions need to be taken. Understanding what kinds of schools attract families can help districts shift their offerings to better align with what families want for their kids. One example of this can be found in Jeffco Public Schools (a district neighboring Denver), where they are turning a school that’s losing enrollment into a “classical school,” a model that’s been popular in neighboring communities. 

Leading a school district through declining enrollments is never easy, but the impact can be managed through smart leadership. If districts learn from and adopt Denver’s “detect, assess, respond” approach to enrollment trends, they’ll be better prepared to ensure that enrollment dips don’t lead to negative outcomes for kids and families.

Summer Camp Offers Numerous Scholarships to Low-Income Campers: A Q&A With Galileo Learning’s Glen Tripp

Oakland, California-based Galileo Learning offers engaging and high-quality Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) summer programming for students in the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, and Chicago. Their programs aim to foster lifelong innovators through project-based learning and exploration. 

Galileo has a high bar for quality: they select top-notch instructors, have low student-staff ratios, and invest in extensive curriculum development. This unwavering commitment to excellence means the programs typically cost about 25% more than city-operated summer programs.

But Galileo has a deeply held belief that all students should have the opportunity to become innovators, so in their model, families paying the full cost of camp tuition subsidize the attendance of those who cannot afford the program. With 10% of their students receiving scholarships, Galileo came to Bellwether in 2016 and asked the question: how can we increase the number of low-income students we serve? 

When my colleagues Lina Bankert, Genny Orr, and I arrived at their Oakland headquarters, we found ourselves walking into an innovation zone. Right inside the front door, staff worked on prototypes of machines students would build the next summer at camp. The open-concept office was spacious, fostering collaboration and community. Glen Tripp, Galileo’s CEO, invited us to attend their all-staff meeting, where we witnessed humor and laughter, support and care for one another, and unbounded energy. 

Over the next several months, we developed a three-pronged strategy to help Galileo achieve its impact goals: 1) increase scholarships to attend Galileo camps, 2) build strategic partnerships to extend Galileo’s approach to new educational settings, and 3) leverage the existing corps of teachers to infuse innovation thinking into more classrooms.

As of 2019, Galileo has increased the percentage of students receiving scholarships from 10% to 15% and is on track to provide scholarships to 22% of campers in 2020, equaling about 20,000 kids. I spoke with CEO Glen Tripp to understand more about Galileo’s model and how they were able to accomplish these impressive numbers.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to set an ambitious scholarship goal?  

Galileo’s mission is to develop innovators who envision and create a better world, and we believe that impact should belong to all kids. Finding fulfilling work in the future will require innovation skills, and our educational systems are not set up to deliver them. While many are understandably trying to close the math and reading achievement gaps, a new “innovation achievement gap” has emerged, and Galileo wants to combat this.

Initially we set a goal of awarding scholarships to 10% of our students. In 2019, we made it to 15% and in 2020 we are targeting 22%. That means that 20,000 students will receive partial to full scholarships in 2020, with very little foundation or public funding involved.  Continue reading