This is the sixth 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. Continue reading
Someone is knocking on my office door to ask my opinion on new enrollment marketing materials. Next to me, an exhausted first grader is snoozing on a bean bag chair. My board chair is texting me about our upcoming meeting. Our charter renewal application is waiting in my inbox for review, among 33 other unread emails.
This is not a scene from a former job of mine; it’s from a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently serving as Interim Executive Director for a single-site charter school for which I’ve been a board member for a few years. It’s a role that I’m thrilled to be filling, and one that gives me particular empathy for my current clients, as I toggle between school leadership at my charter school and school advising at Bellwether.
Bellwether team members and an SGI participant at a March 2018 convening in Phoenix, AZ
At Bellwether, we are about to launch our tenth Strategic Growth Institute (SGI), a four- to six-month-long cohort-based experience in which single-site charters, small charter management organizations (CMOs), and district schools develop strategic plans that enable them to reach more students. I absolutely love leading SGI cohorts, and I’ve seen how useful they can be for participants. School leaders don’t always have time to step out of the day-to-day to think longer term about their work. But to successfully grow and avoid common pitfalls, they’ll need a three-to five-year view and some intentional planning.
That’s where Bellwether comes in. I get to guide leaders as they develop a plan that is uniquely theirs, one that mitigates the breadth of challenges that small, scaling organizations often encounter. Continue reading
Earlier this week, I wrote about what Teach For America can teach other scaling organizations about how to structure their central and local teams, roles, and responsibilities. But Teach For America’s experience offers one additional, crucial lesson for national organizations that operate across multiple sites:
Create a clear value proposition for the central team.
In our work advising scaling organizations, one of the most common challenges we see involves defining the structure and roles of local and central teams. Most new education organizations start out with a single school, city, or site. As they grow, they often expand to additional schools, sites, or regions. As a result, they often come to have a network of school/local/city/regional teams that carry out the work at a local level, as well as a central team that coordinates, oversees, or supports work across multiple local sites. Deciding how to structure these local and central teams; how much autonomy local teams should have; and what specific functions, roles, and responsibilities to place at the local and central levels, is an important and challenging question for scaling organizations.
Regional-central roles and relationships, and their evolution over time, are also a key focus of our recent report on Teach For America’s growth over the past 15 years. In its earliest years, Teach For America had relatively little centralized capacity to support or oversee regional teams, but as it grew rapidly in the mid-2000s, it put in place a highly centralized “matrix” operating model in which dedicated national teams supported, and in some cases helped to manage, regional staff’s work on development, communications, programming, and alumni support. Today, however, Teach For America is transitioning to a more flexible approach in which regions will have greater autonomy over their budgets and staffing and receive varied levels of support from the national team depending on their regional capacity and needs.
Teach For America’s experience shows that there’s no one “right” answer to the question of how to structure local and national teams–so scaling organizations looking to Teach For America for an easy answer to questions about regional-national structure will be disappointed. That doesn’t mean these organizations can’t learn from Teach For America’s experience, however. Specific lessons include:
- There are trade-offs between different approaches to organizing regional and national teams (and Teach For America’s experience with different models at different stages in its growth illustrates these trade-offs)
- The “right” answer for a particular organization will vary depending on the nature of the organization’s work, its stage of growth, talent pipeline, and the external context in which it operates
- The best regional-national structure for a particular organization may evolve over time, as the organization matures or its talent pipeline and external context change.
These lessons don’t necessarily lead an organization to the right local-central structure, but they can help organizations identify and think about trade-offs between possible structures. Later this week I’ll talk about one more specific lesson from Teach For America’s experience that scaling organizations must take into account as they define their local-central structures.
Earlier this week, Bellwether released a new report on the history of Teach For America’s growth over the past 15 years and the lessons for other scaling organizations. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing some of those lessons here on the blog.
The first lesson scaling organizations should take from Teach For America’s experience: Know Your Theory of Change.