Category Archives: Strategic Planning

The Looming Financial Crisis? Resources for the Education Sector

Efforts to lift economy could tip off a financial crisis.” School districts brace for cuts.” Will the Banks Collapse?

With headlines like these making the rounds, there’s no way to avoid questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic has and will impact the economy — and in turn, America’s schools. The uncertainty is very real, and the consequences could be as well, but how can education leaders make sense of often contradictory and evolving prognostications? And if the impact won’t be catastrophic, what is the more complicated outlook?

At Bellwether Education, we’ve worked with schools, CMOs, districts, states, and nonprofits to understand this moment, and have begun to build an understanding — unpredictable as this moment is — of where our sector is headed fiscally, how organizations and policymakers should respond, and the key variables to keep an eye on. We understand how school funding works, from the federal budget process to state legislatures to local levies, and we’ve coached hundreds of clients on planning for and through financial uncertainty. 

In this new series, The Looming Financial Crisis?, we bring our policy chops together with our practical experience with districts, schools, and networks forward to share perspectives on how a financial crisis might play out and where impacts will be felt. Some questions we’ll explore:

  • Where does school revenue come from, what do we know about how the economic downturn might affect lower income communities? 
  • How can districts and schools carry out short-term and long-term planning amidst uncertainty, while prioritizing students furthest from opportunity?
  • What are the potential impacts on private school operations, especially those private schools dedicated to serving high-need students?
  • Will an economic downturn lead to increased interest in charter school mergers, and how should school leaders approach these potential partnerships and their impact on students and school communities? 

We’re here to cut through the noise so the education sector can navigate the uncertain future as effectively and efficiently as possible. Follow along as we roll out insights targeting school districts, state education agencies, individual schools, charter networks, and more.

FAQs for Future Applicants to the Federal Charter School Program Grant

As applicants anxiously await the results of the FY2020 Charter School Program (CSP) State Entities grant competition, we want to offer some tips for prospective future applicants. As my Bellwether colleagues recently wrote, the CSP is a discretionary grant that provides federal resources to create, replicate, and support high-quality public charter schools. Developing a strong CSP application takes significant time and forethought. Although future funding of the CSP hangs in the balance, charter networks thinking about applying should plan far in advance to develop a strong application. 

Bellwether has partnered with a number of charter management organizations to develop winning federal education grant proposals, including CSP Replication and Expansion grants. The Frequently Asked Questions below explain what differentiates a successful application and provide advice on developing a winning proposal. 

Logistics of applying 

When should I start thinking about applying for a CSP grant? 

Six-to-eight-week turnarounds are fairly common: in 2019, the notice inviting applications appeared on November 26, 2019 and the deadline for transmittal of applications was January 10, 2020. Because the turnaround is pretty quick, occurs at a time of year when many staff may be planning time off, and the applications themselves are often over sixty pages long, preparing in advance is very helpful. 

As you think about applying, consider your network’s readiness to grow and increase impact. Indicators of readiness to grow can cross multiple dimensions, such as quality of programming, strength of student outcomes, clarity of instructional and cultural visions, student and staff retention and satisfaction, and financial health and sustainability. Bellwether offers a “Readiness to Grow” diagnostic tool that can help organizations assess their strengths and areas for focus before or during a growth process (see case study that used this tool here).  Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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