Tag Archives: #SGInstitute

School Leaders Can’t Screw Up Like the Fyre Festival Organizers Did

This is the eighth 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.

If you’ve heard anything about Fyre Festival, the failed luxury music event co-founded by Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, you have a sense of what a debacle it was. In May 2017 festival-goers arrived on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma expecting to spend a weekend enjoying live music, private cabanas, and gourmet catering; instead, they got prerecorded EDM, soggy tents, and cheese sandwiches. A few hours into day one, the festival was canceled and everyone went home. In the aftermath, two tell-all documentaries have been released, nearly a dozen lawsuits have been filed, and countless internet postmortems have exposed the salacious details behind the misadventure.

So what does the Fyre fiasco have to do with a school’s approach to strategic decision-making? What can school leaders learn from the Fyre founders’ mistakes? While there are many reasons Fyre Festival flopped (unchecked greed and blatant fraud chief among them), a common theme was the lack of strong decision making. It’s clear that the festival organizers didn’t have a process to regularly pause, review, and decide whether to move forward with the event.        

This process is also known as greenlighting, a core concept we cover with schools and networks looking to expand their impact. In our context, greenlighting refers to the process by which school leadership decides to move forward with plans to serve more students (or make other significant investments of time and resources). It is a tool to aid decision making. We have found that seasoned schools and networks use a greenlighting framework to honestly and iteratively answer two questions:

  • Are we ready to move forward with our plans to grow?
  • If yes, what are the key milestones we must hit to ensure success?

Continue reading

Three Myths I Often Hear About the Dreaded Financial Model

This is the seventh 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.

Most people groan when they think about financial modeling, but it’s the part of strategic planning that I look forward to most. To be fair, I was the kid in math class who found it incredibly satisfying to see how numbers fit together in a clean and orderly way. A prime number is ALWAYS only divisible by one and itself. The angles in a triangle ALWAYS add up to 180. Algebra is like a riddle whose answer you can ALWAYS figure out — just isolate the X! (I know this makes me a nerd, but I embrace it.)

In my adult life, I get the same satisfaction from a good financial model that pieces together all the parts of a strategic plan in a logical way. For those new to the process, a financial model is basically a big, usually Excel-based, spreadsheet that lays out all the costs and revenue streams associated with a strategic plan, as well as the relationships between them, to calculate a total funding need. This spreadsheet can then be used as a “model” that helps you test various decisions associated with plan implementation, just like a blueprint is a model that guides construction of a new house or building.

Financial models help growing schools or networks understand their funding need, plan for the future, and justify budgets to potential funders. What I like about financial modeling is that it makes a strategy feel concrete. Before you get to modeling in the strategic planning process, the various goals, priorities, and action steps that make up your school’s plan for growth or improvement can feel like vague ideas. Once they’re in Excel and defined by real-world cost estimates, the ideas come to life.

For instance, let’s say you want to build out your data systems to support a growing organization. Okay, but what does that actually mean? Translating your ideas into spreadsheet form will require you to think through what the work will look like on the ground and what specific resources you will need to accomplish various tasks. You’ll probably need to invest in new or upgraded software, train your staff to use it, and perhaps bring a data expert on board to manage it. If you can make some informed guesstimates about how many of each thing you’ll need, when you’ll buy them, and how much they’ll cost, with a bit of math you can get to a reasonably realistic estimate of investment size.

Then you can use that estimate to adjust your strategic plan to better fit the reality of your day-to-day.  Back to our data systems example: Don’t think you can afford an investment of that size? To save costs, perhaps you can find less complex software, limit licenses to a few key staff members, or allocate time from a current resource to data management rather than hiring a new staff member. If you flex the inputs in the model to reflect those changes, what happens to the final number? I, for one, feel much more comfortable making decisions armed with numbers.

Now you’re probably thinking: “But financial modeling requires a skillset I don’t have (and don’t really have the time to build)!” Yes, you need to be comfortable with Excel, but I promise that comes with a little practice — and there are simple video tutorials readily available the internet. Beyond that, it’s much more approachable than you think.

Here are three common myths I hear about financial modeling from people unfamiliar with the process: Continue reading

Scaling Up Your Network Office: A Q&A With Mia Howard of Intrepid College Prep

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?

headshot of Mia Howard, Intrepid College Prep CEO and Founder

Mia Howard

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

Do Codification and Systematization Sound Boring? Too Bad — If You’re Running a School, You Need Them.

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.

Think about your school’s morning arrival procedure. Maybe your school starts the year with a combination of a “kiss and learn” drop-off lane, a volunteer crossing guard, and a number of teachers and leaders who welcome students into the building and offer caring touchpoints. There is also a team of people ensuring breakfast is ready and in the proper location.

But maybe this doesn’t work out as planned. The procedure doesn’t work well in the rain, or when the time changes and it’s still dark outside. Or maybe it doesn’t work well because students need more time, or because parents stick around in the morning to talk with teachers and leaders.

So your school teams test, pilot, and refine this procedure, and maybe they even do so more than once. But what happens the following school year when the person who led the effort is on parental leave and the school welcomes new team members?

Far too often, these kinds of procedures — and the important lessons learned — don’t get written down and saved in an easy, logical place. This forces new staff to recreate the wheel and causes frustration and burn-out from returning team members. It means the team is losing valuable time thinking about problems that were solved in the past instead of building upon new opportunities to support student learning.

 We encourage all our Strategic Growth Institute cohort participants to systematize and codify their work, documenting the key activities and decisions that have been made over time about not only operational procedures, but also instruction, human capital, professional learning, budgeting, governance, and development. (The graphic below lists types of practices to consider documenting.)

"Has your school documented consistent & shared practices?" a chart by Bellwether Education Partners

Doing so creates an opportunity to reflect on two key questions: Continue reading

Is Your School Network Model “Tight” or “Loose”?

This is the fourth 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.

One of my favorite conversations to have with growing school networks is about the role that the central office should play. How “tight” or “loose” will the relationship be between the network office and the campuses? “Tight” systems, processes, structures, and practices are centralized and/or standardized, meaning decisions about instruction, culture, and operations are made at the network level, with varying degrees of input from schools. “Loose” ones are decentralized and/or contextualized, meaning individual campuses can make their own decisions, often leading to school environments that look and feel completely distinct.

road signs with word "Custom" and an arrow pointing to the left, and below it a sign reading "Standard" and pointing to the right, word standard is circled in redIn a tight network, you’d expect to walk into two fourth-grade classrooms on two different campuses and see a lot of commonalities: set up of physical space, instructional delivery, cultural norms, and pace of lessons. In a loose network, you’d experience more variation. Perhaps shared values and the network focus, like STEM, are explicit, but one school might elevate biomedical engineering and another robotics. The personalities of the adults in the building – both the school leaders and the teachers – shine through in how instruction is delivered: for example, how students show appreciation for each other, or how work stations are set up in the classroom.

It’s important to note that there is no judgment implicit in being tight or loose! We have seen exceptional networks at both ends of the spectrum. One high-performing network (and a Broad Prize winner) designed itself to be tight for two primary reasons. First, due to the huge geographic area its schools covered, there were fewer opportunities for in-person collaboration. Second, because of the network’s rapid expansion and teacher demographics, with high numbers of new teachers and school leaders, more structure and scaffolding was put in place so as not to recreate the wheel on content each time. The network office focused on developing high-quality curriculum and resources for teachers and school leaders to use and implement with fidelity, and it had a large and strong team creating content and trainings.

On the flip side, another Broad Prize winner opted to give school leaders room to innovate, and therefore put a big premium on recruiting and onboarding top-notch talent. Leaders had access to shared resources such as technology, data management, and professional development from the network, but had ultimate control over their instructional models, so long as they produced results. Campuses also had more budgeting autonomies, with considerable discretion around managing on-site resources and incentives for local program development.

Many network leaders default to wanting tighter control, in the name of consistency and replicating a model that has seen success. While we’ve seen this play out well, there are a few notes of caution. As the tightness of control increases, networks typically need: Continue reading