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?
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.
How did you decide on the appropriate size for your network support team?
Our network office has ended up a bit larger than imagined in the strategic plan. It has been an interesting balance because our instructional team has also grown faster than intended. In the original plan, we weren’t going to have a Chief Academic Officer (CAO) until 2020 — we had planned only to have campus-level instructional coaches and principals. That meant I was going to be further from the classroom action.
Around the time we were making that decision, another charter school leader talked to me about this distance from the classroom being the thing that challenged their growth. He showed us this staffing chart of how separate he was from instruction and cautioned us away from hierarchy in our instructional systems. As a result, I tried to make our structure a bit flatter.
We created instructional leadership positions network wide, so that the same people were supporting middle school and high school teachers. We saw common gaps across schools, so we addressed them with three specialized instructional leaders: one for literacy, one for STEM, and one for teacher pathways. We created that third position because we identified that most of our teachers are starting their careers and time in charters when they come to Intrepid. We wanted to get smart about what the runway should be for a teacher so that they would actually be effective in closing the achievement gap. That instructional leader supports our apprentice teacher programs and fellowships, and works with first-year teachers to cement the foundations of strong teaching. That’s why our team got so large!
Our operations team is closest to what we intended. We were supposed to have a data person come on in 2020. We brought that person on early because we wanted to become proficient at automating data reporting so that our instructional staff could focus on data-informed action (rather than data analysis) and we needed to rethink the supports for that. We partner with a variety of organizations that produce data (e.g,. Schoolzilla, Illuminate, Kickboard). We had many data systems but no owner for those systems, which was impacting our ability to use the data. Bringing on a dedicated staff person to own that workstream was a smart move.
How has the dedicated position for new teacher support worked out? Would you recommend it to others?
I would highly recommend this structure, but I didn’t invent it. Our decision was informed by David Singer at University Prep. He got a big grant to support the creation of internal teacher pathways for seniors right out of college. I don’t remember the staffing model but remember the basic concept: getting smart on expanding the human capital “pie” to (a) find people who wouldn’t consider a career in teaching and (b) give them a longer runway to enter the classroom successfully. This helps us hit on diversity, equity, and inclusion at same time because it expands the pipeline and helps us find teachers who weren’t originally thinking about going into education. Minority professionals like me can feel the tension between the perceived compensation structure in a social impact job versus going straight to your typical six-figure pathway in business, finance, law, or medicine.
We did have a few lessons learned along the way. To start with, we partner with Relay Graduate School of Education — they had a dedicated program we could funnel our apprentice teachers into. We have four apprentice teachers this year, and most are killing it like rock stars. One of our chemistry teachers had to relocate, but we were able to have an apprentice teacher step in after a half-year runway. She got more and more responsibility over time.
At the middle school, we have three apprentice teachers, each of whom is paired with a mentor teacher with a gradual release model throughout year. During the first period of a class, the apprentice teacher is observing the mentor modeling the lesson so that when they go into the classroom to teach the same lesson later, they can draw on that modeling. An added benefit is that mentor teachers get coaching experience, so this also became a leadership development pipeline for us.
How are you maintaining strong culture as you grow? How have you ensured a strong relationship between school leaders/teams and network staff?
We recently did work aligning the type of person we want to hire so that we can prioritize important values. We codified seven qualities we want to stay true to over time, which helps to create a more cohesive, aligned group of people. Internally, we set up happy hours and events for teams to connect with each other, monthly communications about talent, and discussions that I host for our educators of color to connect.
We came together as a network team in December to build on some of what we’re focusing on in the Achievement First Accelerator program. We engaged the team in a protocol where we honed in on our priorities around organizational culture. One thing we went deep on was how to strengthen relationships between the network and schools. Our middle school is fully grown out and established — and as it has grown, we’ve become more solidified in our roles and responsibilities. Everything has a clear owner. Our high school is in an earlier stage of growth, and that sort of role rigidity can actually hurt a school in that earlier stage. Someone might be grade-level chair and also have strong command of academic operations, so we have them contribute in both those areas.
Because those things are happening and we still have communications between campuses, we’ve seen teacher leaders at the high school feel overwhelmed by the startup culture. So we’ve shared research showing that type of role and responsibility allocation to be healthy and discussed how to strengthen communication structures so that individual strengths come through.
What additional advice would you offer to someone in your shoes?
We have collected data from teachers on how these shifts are landing with them. The data isn’t always pretty, but it’s important to have it so that we know if our teachers’ needs are being met. We do surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one meetings to unearth these things and avoid a pattern of innovating that isn’t improving teacher experience.
Stay tuned for our next #SGInstitute blog post, where we’ll discuss financial modeling. If you’re interested in learning more about the Strategic Growth Institute and whether it’s a good fit for your organization, contact Rebecca Gifford Goldberg.