“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.
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.
Collaborate with school districts and avoid duplication of effort.
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.
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.
Community partnerships make school transformation easier.
Leverage philanthropic and public dollars side-by-side.
Invest in branding to attract talent, keep families in the system, and generate community buy-in.
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.
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.