Moving Towards Sustainability: Q&A with Charles King of Kansas City Teacher Residency

Teacher residencies, in which prospective teachers complete a classroom apprenticeship in addition to master’s-level coursework, have gained a great deal of attention as a promising pathway to teaching. Today, most teacher residencies rely significantly on philanthropic dollars, and often face post-startup financial sustainability challenges.

When faced with such sustainability challenges, organizations often make significant — and uncomfortable — programmatic decisions, like eliminating services or reducing cohort size. This spring, my colleagues Gwen Baker, Evan Coughenour, and I worked in collaboration with Charles King, executive director of Kansas City Teacher Residency (KCTR), on this exact sustainability challenge. KCTR was launched in 2016 by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation with a mission to recruit, develop, place, and retain mission-oriented individuals who want to make a deep commitment to working in high-need urban schools in the Kansas City area.

photograph of Charles King, founder and executive director of the Kansas City Teacher Residency

Our work with Charles and the KCTR team led to a redesign of KCTR’s program model, including a $4.6M (26%) reduction in fundraising needs. The new program strategies include strengthening partnerships, optimizing costs, exploring new revenue streams, and slowing the growth to scale.

After releasing a case study on KCTR’s path towards sustainability, Charles spoke with me about the strategic planning effort, his learnings, and his recommendations for others interested in supporting educators.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Over the last 3 years, KCTR has built a strong reputation in Kansas City. What factors have led KCTR’s success?

We offer an affordable and accelerated pathway to the classroom for individuals who are passionate about student success. Like most teacher residency programs, residents are immersed in a year-long clinical experience that provides in-depth classroom exposure. They are able to receive a living stipend, and they have all the same benefits of a two-year master’s degree. We have a strong focus on diversity, and we are proud that 45% of KCTR residents and graduates are teachers of color, and 35% are male. In our recruitment, we look locally and prioritize the diversity of a teaching corps that will not only stay in teaching but also stay in Kansas City.

Our graduates are committed to staying longer in the classroom, we are seeing early evidence of strong student achievement, and we have graduates who’ve been selected as teachers of the year.  However, we still have a lot to learn, so we are conducting an evaluation study with American Institutes of Research (AIR) that will give us more data. We are looking more deeply at readiness and preparedness to enter the classroom. The data we have received so far is showing strong outcomes.

Could you describe the moment you recognized that KCTR was going to need to find a new source of funding?

I would say sustainability has always been top of mind for us. It is something that the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR) named early on. (Note: KCTR is part of NCTR’s network of residency programs). The reality really hit for me when we were going through the budgeting process last year. We wanted to increase our impact and bring in more residents, but we were faced with constraints dictated by the budget. I was faced with the brutal question of “can we actually fundraise and bring in additional funders to offset the fundraising gap?” That is when we started deeper conversations about the long-term financial sustainability of the business model. That got us engaged with Bellwether to understand the economics of the entire program.

What is your recommendation for other residencies and those interested in supporting teacher development?

For residencies: don’t undervalue and underestimate yourselves. Really think strategically about your business case and the value of the residency experience beyond the pre-service teacher development side. For the model to be sustainable, you have to think about growing partnerships from a financial aspect so that partners are engaging and investing in the work you are doing. Avoid the pitfall of being pigeonholed into just one element of the program.  For example, some might think of residencies as just a recruiting pipeline to find teacher candidates. Yes, that’s one element, but residencies also support ongoing coaching, training, and retention efforts. Residencies can and should be hands-on and drive innovative work with schools.

For stakeholders (including philanthropists and community partners): Think about the long game and don’t do this work in silos. Understand and know that these models can be expensive. With innate startup costs, it’s good to come in with collective funding to support the residency experience. Have honest conversations with school partners to understand and think about the financial structures of the larger ecosystem. As an educational ecosystem, we need to think like one, and consider the value of teacher residencies beyond the first year teacher.  Residencies are part of the bigger picture, of recruiting, developing, and retaining high-quality educators who are passionate about students and are in the profession for the long-run.  Residencies are worthy of the investment, as they are something that will help students and communities in the end.

What is your biggest personal takeaway coming out of the strategic planning process?

My career began in classrooms, and I have only worked in education. I am an educator through and through, and KCTR is the closest I have been in my career to corporate America. There is altruism that comes with being an educator, and my thinking has always been: “I want to support you to do well, even if it is for free.” The spirit of innovation and business acumen — from brand awareness, valuation, and articulating the worth — isn’t always taught or talked about in education, but should be.