Five Ways District Central Offices Need to Shift to Oversee Autonomous Schools

As my colleague Tresha Ward and I have been writing about for a few months, districts are increasingly experimenting with launching district autonomous schools. But central offices were typically designed to offer consistent support — and autonomous schools need customization on a wide variety of issues.

Autonomous schools may leverage existing district infrastructure for facilities, finance, and procurement, and their staff may remain on the district payroll, but they also require differentiated support from central office staff. They might run a different academic calendar, leading to different student transportation needs. They may need alternate instructional materials or other resources that require new vendors. They may want to share staff across campuses or create a new role with a different title and/or compensation level. In other words, leaders of autonomous schools may need to ask several district departments to make exceptions for them.

Image via Christian Schnettelker, manoftaste.de

Shifting central office support as a whole is daunting. However, districts can support the unique needs of autonomous schools without a full redesign of systems and processes. In the short term, a district central office can take five fairly straightforward actions to better support autonomous schools:

Empower a central office leader

Designate a senior leader at the cabinet level to help autonomous school leaders navigate the central office. This senior leader must have the authority to negotiate with functional leaders in the district (like the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction or the Chief Operating Officer) to get exceptions approved around things like staffing, school calendar, and training.

Invest in relationship building

Ensure the leader of the autonomous schools effort engages in relationship building with other functional leaders at the cabinet level. Autonomous schools will continually ask for special treatment, so those relationships need to be strong.

Be willing to push

Everyone involved in supporting autonomous schools must be willing to question the district operations status quo. Central office leaders should ask themselves: “Why have we always done things this way? Is there a regulation that requires this approach, or is it just precedent?” Sometimes current staff inherit processes and have never been asked to examine how to do things differently.

Offer empathy

This willingness to push on existing processes must be paired with great empathy. Those supporting the growth of autonomous schools need to be willing to take the perspective of other functional leaders within the central office. These staff members may have deep knowledge of processes and regulations, and they have their own legitimate concerns which need to be actively negotiated in order to overcome obstacles. 

Have an eye toward the future

While a district can get an autonomous schools effort off the ground by building one-off processes with individuals, processes need to be able to outlast the current leadership team. As new processes are built, they must be documented, shared with other central office staff, and ideally, put into a larger context that questions how autonomies might be productively scaled to a broader group.

While it is not that difficult to build work-arounds within a central office structure for a few schools over a couple of years, if district autonomous schools are going to thrive in the long term, district leaders need to build sustainable systems that last beyond the work-arounds. Autonomous schools won’t deliver the outcomes educators are seeking if leaders need to continually navigate a thicket of central office systems that are not designed to support them. Precious time spent navigating bureaucracy is time spent away from meeting students’ needs. 

A future post will consider autonomous school governance — stay tuned.