Category Archives: Talent

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School Culture Is More Than Fragmented Strategies — It’s Four Cohesive Elements

Culture can make or break a school’s success. It can propel academics forward or drag learning down into an unrecoverable spiral where kids lose precious time and teachers quickly burn out.

When I started my career as a teacher through the time I became a school leader, I pulled ideas about school culture and classroom management from a number of educators and resources. My inspirations included Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings, and books like Yardsticks, Power of our Words, Teaching with Love and Logic, and Teach Like a Champion. I also relied heavily on the experiences of my own upbringing as a black, West Indian woman in the 80’s and 90’s in New York City, with teachers and parents who let me know I was cared for but also “did not play” (in other words, they were strict). My guiding belief became, and remains, an unwavering faith in the limitless potential of each child, and the approach that followed was fueled by a lot of love, usually the tough kind.

My approach wasn’t foolproof. But this fundamental mindset was what I looked for in teachers that I hired. As a school team, we refined our approach to culture over time and adjusted the systems and practices that supported it. Building the culture of our school was a process we had to figure out through trial and error, which led to lost instructional time, frustrated teammates, or broken relationships with students when we didn’t get it right.  

Unfortunately, too many principals don’t learn how to build the kind of school culture where teachers feel successful and capable of teaching for many years and where students — especially students of color — thrive. Many of the existing resources on the topic tend to reduce advice down to ambiguous ideas, a few fragmented strategies, or case studies about charismatic leaders. They never demystify the elements necessary for a healthy culture or offer clear guidance on how to implement them.

School culture can be a touchy subject, particularly when leaders and teachers have different philosophies, approaches, and beliefs. While I have my own point of view on these topics, I unequivocally believe that consistency and alignment are the most important features of an effective school culture. A cohesive school culture isn’t built through a patchwork of random techniques, curricula, or professional development sessions. Instead, school culture is comprised of a thoughtfully defined cascade of four elements, described below in further detail:

school culture framework, by Tresha Ward of Bellwether Education Partners

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

This is the fifth 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

Reclaiming Your Time as a School Leader

“I’m overwhelmed. I’ve got so much to do and no time to get it done!” I can’t count the number of times I found myself at the end of a school day sitting at my desk and wondering where the hours went. As a young school leader, days went by in a poorly managed blur that left me working late into the evening and on weekends. But even though I worked all the time, tasks still slipped through the cracks at school and at home. I needed to do a better job of accounting and planning for my time if I wanted to get a good night’s sleep, endure as a school leader, and, ultimately, serve my students well.

black and white image of a clock showing 5:40

In order to increase their effectiveness and sustainability in the role, school leaders (actually, all leaders) need to ensure that their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules and calendars are planned in a way that reflects their priorities and maximizes every minute. I see this as a consistent roadblock with the leaders I support. With all of the competing and seemingly urgent needs at a school, focusing on your priorities and rigorously maximizing your time can feel easier said than done. The job of a school leader can feel never-ending and everyone wants some of your time.

Thankfully, January is prime time for setting resolutions, establishing new habits, and hitting reset on the school year. Here are a few strategies I used as a leader (and still use!) to help me be more effective, get the most out of the day, and ensure I have chunks of guilt-free time to spend with my husband or do other things that make me happy:

Get clear on your priorities

Ask yourself: What are the 2-3 most important things my school needs to achieve this year, this semester, or this quarter AND what is my unique role as the school leader in helping achieve these goals? Having a crisp answer to this question is the first step to reclaiming and reprioritizing your time. Your school may have several priorities, but they don’t all require your involvement — or your involvement 100% of the time. Getting strategic about your unique value add will help you decide what you need to engage in.

Know the capacity of your team Continue reading

Do Codification and Systematization Sound Boring? Too Bad — If You’re Running a School, You Need Them.

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.

Think about your school’s morning arrival procedure. Maybe your school starts the year with a combination of a “kiss and learn” drop-off lane, a volunteer crossing guard, and a number of teachers and leaders who welcome students into the building and offer caring touchpoints. There is also a team of people ensuring breakfast is ready and in the proper location.

But maybe this doesn’t work out as planned. The procedure doesn’t work well in the rain, or when the time changes and it’s still dark outside. Or maybe it doesn’t work well because students need more time, or because parents stick around in the morning to talk with teachers and leaders.

So your school teams test, pilot, and refine this procedure, and maybe they even do so more than once. But what happens the following school year when the person who led the effort is on parental leave and the school welcomes new team members?

Far too often, these kinds of procedures — and the important lessons learned — don’t get written down and saved in an easy, logical place. This forces new staff to recreate the wheel and causes frustration and burn-out from returning team members. It means the team is losing valuable time thinking about problems that were solved in the past instead of building upon new opportunities to support student learning.

 We encourage all our Strategic Growth Institute cohort participants to systematize and codify their work, documenting the key activities and decisions that have been made over time about not only operational procedures, but also instruction, human capital, professional learning, budgeting, governance, and development. (The graphic below lists types of practices to consider documenting.)

"Has your school documented consistent & shared practices?" a chart by Bellwether Education Partners

Doing so creates an opportunity to reflect on two key questions: Continue reading

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