Tag Archives: #SGInstitute

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

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

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

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?

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 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.

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

How to Engage Stakeholders: Three Considerations for Expanding Schools

This is the third 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.

Starting a new school or expanding an existing one requires support and action from many different groups of people, including parents, community members, district leaders, and staff. In our recent Strategic Growth Institute (SGI) cohort, participants talked about how hard it is to inspire support and action from these varied stakeholders given the range of perspectives each might have on growth and the limited time organizational leaders have. We heard about the dangers of under-investing in stakeholder engagement, which could result in a program model that does not reflect your community’s needs, an under-enrolled school, or a failed application for expansion. We also heard about the far-reaching benefits of doing stakeholder engagement work well, such as cases where parents and staff not only understand a growth plan but actively shape and champion it.

Many organizational leaders know that stakeholder engagement is key to the success of a growth plan, but planning for this engagement can be hard to do; there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for effective stakeholder engagement. We use a simple three-part tool to help organizational leaders plan stakeholder engagement, anchored on three questions:

School Growth Stakeholder Engagement Table

The engagement efforts that result from this planning tool will look quite different depending on an organization’s growth strategy and community context. However, we’ve identified important themes to consider during the planning process that apply regardless of the unique situation: Continue reading