CharterFolk Contributors Kristin Levine and Mike Montoya – Strategic Moves Improve Outcomes for Schools

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Kristin Levine, Director of Academic Services, Stronger Consulting, and Mike Montoya, the CEO and founder of Stronger Consulting.

Kristine Levine, Director of Academic Services, Stronger Consulting, and Mike Montoya, the CEO and founder of Stronger Consulting

I provide Kristin and Mike’s bios below.

Kristin Levine is the Director Academic Services, Stronger Consulting.  Kristin has 15 years of experience leading for education equity as a teacher, school administrator, founding executive director, and network leader in district and charter school settings in our nation’s largest cities. Kristin’s passion and expertise is in strategic planning, systems design, start-up work, and talent development. Most recently, Kristin served as the Chief Academic Officer at STRIVE Prep, a network of K-12 charter schools in Denver, CO, where she led organizational strategy and adult development programming. Prior to that, she was a founding school leader in New York City, and has helped grow new schools in teaching and leadership roles as part of Uncommon Schools and the Noble Network of Charter Schools. She began her career as a district school teacher and Teach for America Corps Member in Brooklyn, NY. Now you can find Kristin consulting with schools and nonprofits around the country on strategic planning, education equity, and talent development. When not working on work she loves, Kristin is obsessively rooting for her favorite baseball team or exploring the outdoors in Denver, CO with her two pups.

Mike Montoya is the CEO and founder of Stronger Consulting. A 28-year education sector veteran, Mike is an expert in helping organizations design, manage, and improve educational programs for young people. He has extensive experience recruiting, coaching, and supporting senior leaders in schools, school systems, and education non-profit organizations. Prior to founding Stronger Consulting, Mike was a senior director at The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems. He served as a director on the board of KIPP SoCal Public Schools, is a member of Education Leaders of Color, and is a Pahara Institute Education Fellow. A native of Colorado, Mike has a BA from Colorado College, and an MA from the University of Chicago. He currently lives in Boise, ID with his husband, Jake, and their five horses.

Strategic Moves Improve Outcomes for Schools

Those of us who have worked in and around schools for a long time know the troubling statistics – public schools rarely achieve consistently strong outcomes for all kids over time. And the pandemic has exacerbated the already existing challenges that schools face. Teacher shortages are worse than they have ever been, children have significant academic gains to make to recover from pandemic learning loss, and we have recently become far more in tune with the real social and emotional challenges our kids and teachers are facing. All of these things make it challenging for school and charter organization leaders to dedicate the time and resources needed to put clear improvement strategies in place and see them through. We Believe it is Possible!

Here at Stronger Consulting, we’ve collaborated with charter leaders around the country to understand the challenges they face and develop solutions to support them with incremental improvements that lead to success over time. When interviewing leaders about their hopes and aspirations and the obstacles holding them back, we heard consistent themes. School system leaders often don’t have the time or resources to invest in strategic planning for the year ahead. And when they do, they struggle with implementation either because their existing team is not structured to support it, team members lack some of the key skills, or other urgent needs take attention away from core strategic work. Dozens of studies show that fidelity of implementation of strategic work can be a herculean task without the right expertise and support.

In partnering with some of these leaders, we have learned a lot about where the solutions to these challenges lie. We now believe that there is a clear and systematic way to get out of the day to day urgency and really set schools and systems on a path to sustainable success. This approach requires short-term design sprints to set quick solutions in place to urgent challenges paired with simultaneous long-term strategy planning to address the comprehensive system – allowing us to achieve some quick gains in the short-term but not neglecting the root causes and systems at play to ensure success lasts.

Short-Term Design Sprints

Here’s an example. A school network we work with was facing several challenges that felt urgent in the spring of 2021. They had adopted new curricula for Math and English during the pandemic and teachers had not completely learned how to implement it well. Teacher feedback on curriculum and resource support was predominantly negative, student academic gains had not yet recovered even to pre-pandemic levels, and negative teacher sentiments were starting to lead to vacancies and turnover. While we wondered about other potential root causes at play within the system, we also knew that some short-term support to address curriculum implementation and assuage teacher fears was an urgent need. In the spring of 2021 and the fall of 2022, we implemented short-cycle sprints to provide targeted professional learning and implementation support directly to teachers to support curriculum implementation while also developing leader confidence and capacity with the new curricular resources. At the end of that cycle, 100% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that the coaching and feedback they received helped them improve their practice, and 89% agreed or strongly agreed that the professional learning they received helped them improve their practice. Teacher vacancies decreased, leader confidence improved, and leaders were asking for a more comprehensive strategy for the spring and the following year to apply the same level of clarity to other needs.

Long-Term Strategy Planning

The next step in our process was to work with the school and network leaders to comprehensively assess the system. We gathered data, information, and feedback about every component of the organization to assess strengths and areas of opportunity across four facets of the work: organizational clarity, academic program, adult development and culture, and operational systems. For this organization, we uncovered some key strengths in the organizational clarity bucket and some components of the academic program – the mission and vision were clear and shared, there were well-established organizational goals and progress monitoring systems to track these goals, and some foundational work had already been done to select high quality curriculum and align a comprehensive assessment plan.

In order to really elevate this organization’s impact, we settled on two big areas of focus for the year ahead: clarifying the shared vision of excellent instruction and strengthening the teacher coaching and adult development pathways. Both of these would require leadership team alignment and development as well to ensure consistency, quality, ongoing alignment, and continuous improvement.

For the 2023-2024 school year, we now have a comprehensive plan in place to develop and align the leadership team, center on a common vision of excellent instruction and teacher coaching and development plan, and work side by side with the team to implement that plan over the course of the school year.

Lessons Learned

While we are still immersed in the plan with this school partner, it represents the type of cycle we have seen work again and again. Here’s some of what we have learned along the way.

  • Go Slow to Go Fast: This concept is antithetical to our nature as school leaders. There are ALWAYS so many seemingly urgent ways to make the system better. But if we try to make them all better, all at once, none of them will ever improve. This is a very hard reality to adhere to but the only way to make dramatic school improvement is to tackle one thing at a time, methodically building systems to sustain it, until you’ve addressed the whole system. Yes you need to have the goals and big picture in mind, but you can’t bring the whole thing to reality at once. Prioritizing and selecting narrow focus areas that you can tackle is by far the hardest part.
  • Develop Early Wins: We have to show our teachers and staff that their hard work is paying off. That’s also part of the reason that narrow focus areas are important. If we select something narrow and specific and align key strategies to it, we’ll be able to show people incremental gains and improvement quickly. This will further invest them in our narrow approach and help to motivate them for future success.
  • Stay Disciplined: We’ve all had this happen. We set a few specific priorities in action and come October, an urgent need arises. We MUST resist the urge to change course except in extremely rare circumstances. The strategies we have set in place take time to take hold and lead to outcomes and if we don’t see them through we will never see success. If we always change course when a new need arises, we are back to trying to improve everything all at once. It is almost always better to stick with the plan so we can see improvement in one key area before moving to another.
  • Support Implementation: It is not enough to set the clear strategy and show people the way. Across the entire system we need to be clear about what’s expected of people and provide the support, tools, and resources for them to be successful. One of the primary ways our initiatives could fail is if we underestimate the level of detailed implementation support needed. As strategists, setting the strategy is only part of our responsibility. Then we become implementation specialists walking side by side with the leaders and teachers implementing the work day to day to ensure strong implementation and capture lessons learned to improve implementation across the system.

In our work, we are continuing to seek partners to do this work together. We have a team of former school leaders and chief academic officers who work with schools and charter systems on these short- and long-term improvement cycles to lead to stronger outcomes on behalf of kids and families everywhere. Let us know if you think we can be helpful to you or your school!