Partnership Playbook Let's Partner

Lessons Learned

“Our experience over more than a decade in Los Angeles, and our track record of improved outcomes for students, prompts us to share our missteps and lessons learned with other districts committed to school transformation.”Joan Sullivan Chief Executive Officer

School transformation is messy.

It is non-linear, arduous work that requires not only the right model and the right people to align around a vision for implementation, but an unflinching determination to continue forward despite challenges and to constantly adapt and find new solutions. School transformation requires a continuity of effort and patience to persevere over the long haul, which despite the urgency for dramatic, short-term gains in student outcomes, is best measured with sustained growth over multiple years. 

With over a decade of working in schools within a large district, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to transform schools and change school systems so that student equity is at the center. We aren’t anything close to perfect, but we do believe that we have something important to share with the sector, including our missteps along the way. Here are some key takeaways for those interested in a partner-led approach to school transformation.

Allocate resources equitably, not evenly.

Allocate resources equitably, not evenly.
Put simply, equity should be at the center of the way we support schools. Even while we serve a subset of the highest-need communities in LA Unified, we have worked to be more cognizant of their profound histories and vast differences in terms of student mobility, student health and exposure to trauma, college completion rates, and a variety of other factors. We’ve learned over time that just because our schools are under-resourced does not mean that their needs are the same, or that by virtue of focusing exclusively on these communities we are being equitable.

We operate now with the understanding that even high-need schools can be at very different points in their development, and absent greater equity they may have slower progress, but we can do better if we differentiate the way we allocate resources. For example, some Partnership schools have built capacity and internal systems to a strong enough level that they can operate independently of our services on a day-to-day basis; these schools leverage our professional development and coaching as a means of deepening their improvements. Other schools may need our ongoing support with teacher recruitment, hiring, and more intensive professional development and coaching. We now allocate double or triple the amount of funding and resources at our schools in Watts, and across the network make investments and select advocacy issues that will help stabilize schools that have been historically under-resourced.

For school transformation to be successful, we have learned to embrace dramatically different approaches to certain schools where existing issues require it.

Shift adult mindsets about what low-income and students of color can achieve.

Shift adult mindsets about what low-income and students of color can achieve.
Cutting across all the work we do in schools is a fundamental belief in the power of adult mindsets to empower students and show them what’s possible. School leaders, teachers, and all the adults working with students must collectively approach the work with an asset-based mindset around the strengths our students bring with them and what they are capable of achieving. Working within our home office and a large district has shown us that adult mindsets can be hard to change, and institutionalized behaviors even tougher. Before new systems can be built, a school’s culture must begin with learning focused on the adults. We can’t transform culture, beliefs, and mindsets by following bulletins and only providing professional development – we change it through the language and behaviors we model, and the expectations, practices, and routines we embed into the school day.

Collaborate with school districts and avoid duplication of effort.

Collaborate with school districts and avoid duplication of effort.
In the early years of our organization, we sought maximum flexibility and autonomy from the District. This often resulted in distrust from District management, duplication of many well-run District functions, and the use of valuable philanthropic resources to supplant work rather than fill needed gaps or pilot innovative practices. The more separated we were from the District, the less positioned we were to change the system. What we have since learned is that close collaboration with the District is needed to leverage what is already done well and then to supplement in areas that we, as a non-profit, can more nimbly and flexibly address.

School transformation organizations like ours are best served by not supplanting or replicating all functions of a district. Many well-run and important functions of school districts – such as communications, operations, transportation, and more – should be leveraged so that resources from the non-profit can be strategically deployed in high-impact areas like professional development, family engagement, and curricula that model best practices for the district. Our current relationship with LA Unified reflects these lessons learned, and rests on an essential belief that our network has the power to impact more than just our 18 schools by intentionally existing within the system, not outside or in place of it. Collaboration allows us to combine resources with the district and more strategically deploy them to support our schools.

Build school site capacity to ensure sustainable change.

Build school site capacity to ensure sustainable change.
In the early years, it was difficult for us to maintain focus on building the capacity of our schools instead of providing a direct service. Alongside more strategic initiatives, we took over school budget development for some school leaders, directly coached teachers without bringing along the Assistant Principal to train them side-by-side, and even did the work of front office staff instead of taking the time to train them. Trying to find the right balance between this type of direct service to fill resource and service gaps and true capacity building remains a challenge for us. As an organization oriented toward service to our schools, our desire to help schools solve problems immediately creates a natural tension with our desire to build their capacity to sustain change.

Over time, we learned to call this tension out and we’ve become more aware of how we can work to both build capacity and meet the practical needs of a school. We now step back and ask ourselves: to what extent are we doing work for rather than with our schools? For school transformation to truly stick and for change to persist, we learned to elevate capacity building for the Instructional Leadership Team as a whole, and to work side-by-side with schools to create shared purpose, accountability, and continuity. Over the last several years, we’ve shifted our capacity building efforts to work in service of developing and sustaining school-site systems so that they can continue running despite changes in leadership, staffing, and enrollment.

Historically under-resourced schools need to rebuild before they can transform.

Historically under-resourced schools need to rebuild before they can transform.
We understand that the challenges our schools face were created through systems that have neglected communities of color for decades. Revolutionizing those systems to ensure an equitable education for all students requires strategic supports to build capacity at high-need schools. As an organization, we initially tried to solve way too many problems up front without having systems in place to deal with challenges on the ground. For example, we did not have the capacity building and advocacy model framework that focuses us now, and instead supported schools with ad hoc, in-the-moment needs. Our service-oriented approach to the work meant we were reacting quickly to schools’ requests for help, when in reality we needed to step back and address deeper challenges, such as adequate school staffing. We’ve learned that a reactive approach to meeting schools’ needs can translate to a lack of strategic, systems-based solutions. We’ve learned to regularly ask ourselves: Is our support meeting the differentiated learning needs of adults? Are we actually addressing system barriers, or putting a band-aid on a problem?

Community partnerships make school transformation easier.

Community partnerships make school transformation easier.
Over a decade of experience working in Los Angeles has taught us to approach the work humbly and in recognition of the very diverse array of partners and advocates who have been serving and providing resources for district schools, and fighting for and creating system changes on policy and practice long before we arrived on the scene. We have learned to embrace our place within a constellation of community partners and coalitions, despite the many challenges that come with it. Working with partners helps us to compensate for our blind spots, extend our influence to opportunities we couldn’t access by going alone, and ultimately better serve our schools and communities. We’ve particularly found value in working with partners who are different from us but have complementary strengths. For example, we’ve worked with legal advocacy groups on impact litigation, with college access partners who directly serve students, with grassroots organizers on funding campaigns, and with state-level policy groups on legislation. Working in partnership allows us to more effectively leverage our distinctive strengths alongside those of others and to focus our collective efforts on school and system transformation.

Leverage philanthropic and public dollars side-by-side.

Leverage philanthropic and public dollars side by side.
The Partnership’s financial model relies almost exclusively on philanthropy. We embrace the ways in which we are a powerful vehicle for philanthropists within reach of LA Unified to channel their dollars when they might not otherwise consider giving to district schools. At the same time, if we had to do things over again we would start with a different relationship with the District and diversify our financial model to be more intentional about leveraging philanthropic and public dollars side-by-side. The budgets of Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL) in Chicago and Urban Assembly in New York City, organizations like us that partner with the district to transform schools, each have a significant percentage of their budget funded by the district. This model has become the norm.

Invest in branding to attract talent, keep families in the system, and generate community buy-in.

Invest in branding to attract talent, keep families in the system, and generate community buy-in.
Because we did not invest resources early enough in branding our schools as Partnership schools, it has been a challenge to establish a network identity while also ensuring that our schools maintain their identity as a part of LA Unified. As an in-district network, we do not benefit from the clean slate and coherent network identity that new schools do in a charter context. This has impacted not just feelings of belonging and collective identity on our campuses, but also family engagement, staff recruitment and retention, and student enrollment as we grapple with declines statewide.

In 2019, we hired a full-time staff member who focuses exclusively on helping schools build their unique brand in a competitive school choice environment in Los Angeles. While we have benefitted from brand improvements with philanthropy and dedicated staff support, we know we must continue working to establish our brand in order to more effectively leverage it to attract great teacher talent, enroll students, and generate community buy-in. Ultimately, branding matters not just for us but for districts too. A successful brand not only helps to bring talent and students to a district, but it also plays a key role in building the community engagement necessary to generate resources and revenue through ballot measures, philanthropy, and advocacy. 

Create a home office ecosystem that models equity for the district.

Create a home office ecosystem that models equity for the district.
In our first decade, we focused a lot of energy on developing shared beliefs and mindsets about equity in our school communities. We encouraged school leaders to model the beliefs and systems necessary for students to thrive – including school culture, equity in hiring practices, and building up school-site systems, among many other areas vying for their attention – but we didn’t think as much about the ways our home office was itself the front-line ecosystem to model those behaviors and practices.

We were not, for many years, seizing the opportunity to create and model a system of support for schools. While pushing our leaders to focus on equity in their hiring practices, we were ourselves understaffed, underleveraged, and not prioritizing equity in our home office operations and talent teams. Now, to support our schools to attract and retain great teachers, we pair this with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in systems at the home office. Over time, we learned to embrace the flexibilities available to us to model equity and to invest in equal measure as a home office on the things we were asking schools to do. The home office must be a starting point for the change we demand in our schools and communities.
Next Up

Resources