Kids Are Counting On Us: A Q&A With Bellwether’s New Academic Strategy Senior Advisers

Many organizations in the education sector seek our advice to deepen and broaden their impact in service of kids. Since our foundation, Bellwether has worked with CMOs and districts to set strategic priorities and build out detailed plans to accomplish these priorities from an operations, talent, and finance perspective.

headshots for Bill Durbin and Tresha Francis WardWe often get inquiries about whether we can help improve the academic performance of a subset of schools, or all schools in a network or district. We’re happy to announce that we’ve filled this missing piece: In 2017, we brought on Bill Durbin and Tresha Francis Ward as academic strategy senior advisers. In the Q&A below, we talk about their backgrounds and how they help schools drive the kinds of outcomes that all kids deserve.

Tell us a bit about your backgrounds. How will your work and life experiences translate to offering academic strategy advice?

Bill Durbin: Over the past 18 years, I have been a teacher, school founder, and school leader manager at both YES Prep Public Schools in Houston and DSST Public Schools in Denver. Through these experiences, I have developed a deep appreciation for the coordinated effort it takes across a school and network team to run highly effective schools. A school’s success relies on adults aligning around a common vision and executing strategies that are clear and which reinforce that vision for student success.

Whether the school is a public charter school or a traditional public school, teachers and leaders want to work in a place where they know what is expected of them to reach the desired outcomes for kids. I have supported various types of schools in aligning their outcomes, strategies, and practices, and I look forward to doing that even more as we continue to work with schools across the country.      

Tresha Francis Ward: I’m a first-generation college student, born and raised in the Bronx, NY. My own experiences with schools and in college are the primary reason I got into education. I have spent the last 13 years working in, around, and with schools as a teacher, school founder, director, and manager of schools, all serving historically underserved black and brown students. It’s my personal desire to ensure more kids that look like me have access to great schools and educators.

I started my career on the Southeast side of Houston at De Zavala Elementary School as a Teach For America corps member. The neighborhood was 99.9% Latino, so in addition to learning how to teach, I also had to overcome language barriers and find ways to build trust with my students and their families.

After four years of teaching, I was accepted to KIPP’s Fisher Fellowship, where educators found and lead new high-performing KIPP schools. In the fall of 2010, I opened KIPP Legacy Preparatory School on the Northeast side of Houston, serving a different population of students. Being a founding school leader was the most challenging and yet most rewarding thing I have ever done. It took time and a lot of iteration, but I’m proud of the culture we built. It’s a culture that still thrives, where our kids feel loved, cared for, and still held to high expectations in a respectful way.

After several years as a school leader, I joined the KIPP Foundation, where I was responsible for the professional learning of 200+ school leaders and for helping to implement academic initiatives across their campuses. After a few years at the Foundation, I missed being in schools, so I returned to my home city of New York to manage a K-8 turnaround campus in Brooklyn. That experience reiterated the importance of building relationships as a key part of a school’s success.

When I coach school leaders or work with them, I never forget how hard the job is — and I never forget how rewarding it is either.

Can you share a defining “a-ha” moment from your past academic leadership? How does that experience inform you today?

Tresha: My third year as a school leader was extremely hard: my school doubled in size and added three new grade levels. We added a ton of new students, families, and even teachers. I took for granted that the culture and systems we had established and cultivated up until that point were strong enough to withstand our growth.

In my haste to get to the business of academics, I didn’t ensure the relationship building happened — and I paid the price. The school felt horrible: adult culture was toxic and student culture suffered as a result. Parents weren’t happy. Teachers were leaving in the middle of the year left and right. Students felt abandoned. I often joke that I thought there were moments we’d be on the news! The school felt like it was on fire all the time.

Mid-year I was able to step back and reset with the help of a new manager and amazing mentor. I made a highly intentional plan with clear academic and culture benchmarks. At the start of the following year, we focused on relationships and talked about our tough year as a learning opportunity.

I draw on my experience that year when working with other leaders because that was the year I thought I couldn’t keep going. Too many school leaders don’t make it past year two or three, but the longer a leader stays in their seat, the better the school and student outcomes. If we are able to help more leaders get over that hump, the more likely they will persist and stay in the role. In my work, I strive to help them do just that.

I share my horror story to normalize the challenges and difficulties school leaders experience. When I walk into schools with poor culture, broken systems, and disgruntled adults, I’m energized to listen for trends, identify root causes, support some quick wins, and determine a strategic path forward. I push others to overcome their current state and do it quickly because there are kids counting on them.

What are the biggest missed opportunities or misconceptions when school operators tackle or overhaul their academics?

Tresha: Despite the mantra of “there are no silver bullets,” I still see people gravitating toward quick fixes: new programs, curricula, and training sessions implemented on an accelerated — and often unrealistic — timeline. Usually these approaches are ad hoc and not cohesively tied to a thoughtful strategy.

This puts extreme strain on adults, who have to implement new strategies without fully understanding the initiatives or how they fit into the larger school strategy. There is an expectation of seeing results immediately rather than recognizing that it takes time to see impact. I’ve learned that it’s best to create a multi-year plan for an initiative instead of having to roll back or modify something you already put out there. Once it’s out, it’s harder to change.

Ask yourself, what will year one of this reading program look like? What resources and systems are needed in year two? This should be done to build capacity and get the foundation solid before adding layers to it.

Bill: Here’s another lesson from a seemingly simple idea. Evaluating student work is an effective way for teachers and leaders to discuss instructional rigor, refine their teaching practice, and support skill development for individual students.

This seems simple, and yet for too long, I did not ask the follow-up question: “Okay, you made this adjustment to your teaching practice because of this student work review. How do you know that teaching practice worked? How are students more successful because of this change?” I needed to close the loop and clearly determine if the change in teaching practice actually benefited student learning.

We often wait far too long to review data and iterate — we need to create opportunities for teachers to refine their practices more frequently.    

Are there any simple best practices you can share as schools set the vision and strategy for their academic programs?

Bill: An important starting place for a school is defining its student success profile, which outlines the skills, beliefs, and mindsets the school expects students to leave with when they graduate or are promoted to another school. If this profile is created with fidelity and care, it drives the creation of related school outcomes, academic programs, and overall structure. The student success profile becomes the “North Star” for all school design decisions. This clarity helps all stakeholders — students, parents, staff, and community members — understand the mission and vision for the school, as well as the plan to reach these goals.  

Tresha: I agree. Think about the end result for students — what are the outcomes, goals, and skills students should leave school with? All initiatives should be tied to that.

Now that our academic strategy team is up and running, who should get in touch to work with you?

Tresha: Bill and I aim to work with individual schools or networks of schools to establish, strengthen, or even turnaround their academic program and student outcomes. We can work with schools across the spectrum: if your school is new or in the founding stages, we can help design a cohesive instructional program that will have a thoughtful multi-year plan to support implementation. We can help established schools take their program from good to great or help them plan to scale while maintaining quality. We also have experience developing strategies to turnaround struggling schools. Bill and I enjoy getting in schools and thinking about the big hairy problems that feel challenging to solve.

To learn more about Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team and how we can partner with you on academic support or other work, email our team at contactus@bellwethereducation.org.