A recent article by Derrell Bradford identifies lack of access to experts and technical assistance as a barrier for many single-site charter schools seeking to improve or grow. Bradford argues that this is especially a problem for charters led by people of color. I couldn’t agree more. It is imperative for the next generation of charter schools to grow into strong charter management organizations (CMOs) — or high-performing standalone schools — in order to meet the demand from students and families across the country for an outstanding education.
In my six years of work with Bellwether Education Partners, I’ve supported dozens of CMOs, single-site charters, and school districts, ranging in size and resources. Most recently, I’ve been working with groups of smaller operators in a “cohort” model that provides a structured strategic planning process to go from vision and theory of action development through initiative prioritization and implementation planning. My experiences collaborating with high-performing, earlier-stage operators, including The Kindezi Schools in Atlanta and EPIC Academy in Chicago, have helped me identify a set of common challenges that thoughtful planning can proactively address. A few of the most critical issues that leaders tend to encounter when planning for their next step include:
• Not defining a clear “why” and long-term vision for future plans. Expansion — of any kind — for the sake of expansion can cause pain down the road. Charter leaders should be sure to have a clear “impact destination” and tightly align their strategic priorities to the pursuit of that end goal, then communicate these clearly and often to all stakeholders.
• Misdiagnosing the starting point. To be able to effectively look forward, charter leaders need to know their current state. They should be looking holistically at their organization’s readiness and capacity for change across a breadth of dimensions, from instructional model to human capital to external engagement to finance and operations. They should then create a plan to build on strengths and address gaps or opportunities.
• Moving too rapidly. Whether redesigning their instructional model, changing human capital policies and practices, or preparing for replication, charters need time to prepare for new initiatives. Rapid change presses against the constraints of organizational capacity and systems, which will need to be created anew or refreshed. New sites in particular bring new challenges.
• Under-investing in organizational dynamics. In the face of change, charter leaders need to be clear how roles, responsibilities, and decision rights across the organization will evolve — and why. School stakeholders need to know their accountabilities and autonomies, and what they get to decide. This is often a big shift for small organizations who take for granted that coordination is easy and that existing relationships can just “figure it out.”
• Losing the voice of stakeholders. The best charter leaders are masterful at bringing a breadth of voices from their local communities into the conversation. These leaders inform and engage school staff, the Board, parents, students, and external supporters during any change process. Done well, this creates champions for change who can also move the work forward more effectively and efficiently.
I agree with Bradford that single-site schools and small, locally grown and community-based networks are crucial assets for the charter movement and important contributors to expanding access to quality schools in communities that demand them. The good news: while there is no set script for leaders to follow as they consider the next chapter for their organizations, there are proven processes, tools, and best practices they can access to chart their course. Strategic thinking today boosts performance tomorrow.
— Lina Bankert
Lina Bankert is a partner with Bellwether Education Partners and co-leads the Strategic Advising practice area.