Help the central office become “service-providers”, not compliance watchdogs, to support schools
For this school planning process to go smoothly—and to support all the steps outlined below—the district must change how it operates on a day-to-day basis. In order for a district’s SBB/Strategic School Design strategy to be successful, the central office must reorganize and evolve to serve schools and school leaders in a new way.
The first big change needed at the central office is a shift from a compliance-driven mindset to a new “service-provider” mindset; from top-down control to “get to yes”. Under SBB and with Strategic School Design, the district can no longer simply tell principals what to do and how to do it. Instead, administrators must work directly with principals to find solutions that best meet the unique needs and vision of their schools. For some central functions, the needed culture change may be enormous. The very thing that may have made them successful previously –the ability to provide their specific program or service across all schools, no matter the unique conditions in each school—risks becoming a liability. They are no longer delivering program independent of school leadership and conditions; they now need to support and advise the school leadership on how to customize solutions based on school conditions.
To facilitate this fundamental change in culture, some districts choose to revamp their structure of support. For example in CMSD, the Network Support Teams play this vital role of first line of support for principals. In addition to creating new structures, the central office staff and support teams must also be comfortable and confident supporting principals in strategic school design and school planning. For most districts, this means investing in professional development around strategic school design at the central office level. This may also mean giving central office staff more opportunities to visit schools, so that they have a better understanding of the realities principals face every day.
Secondly, the central office should evolve current practices and processes to enable principals to make strategic school design changes. This involves connecting the budgeting process to the school planning process, but also many smaller process changes as well. In CMSD, for example, we mentioned earlier how principals were given control over the substitute budget. This seemingly small change required the central office to implement a new system to track their substitute budget at the school level, such that principals could see how much they spent on substitutes as compared to their budget at any given point in time. Changes such as these often require cross-departmental coordination across the central office, requiring the central office staff to work together differently. To meet this need, some districts create cross-functional teams to identify processes that need to be changed and to work together to come up with new solutions. No matter how exactly it’s done, it is important to create the time and space for different departments to come together to address these types of changes as a whole.
Educate school leaders on school design before implementing SBB
Just as school leaders should start strategic school planning before they feel tied down by their budget, it is important to start educating them on the basic principles of Strategic School Design before getting into the nitty-gritty of SBB. This encourages principals to focus on school design first, without feeling limited by resource constraints, and, just as importantly, it gives the district a sense of what principals want freedom to do, before the district sets the rules on what they can do.
First, by training school leaders on school design before implementing SBB, principals will enter the process without feeling constrained by their budget. If principals are given their budgets first or at the same time as they are thinking about school design, they are more likely to make small, incremental changes, rather than “thinking big” about what their school needs. CMSD worked with their principals on SBB and Strategic School Design in parallel. This had benefits, as it got school leaders thinking in terms of Strategic School Design from the very start. But school leaders could have benefitted more from having dedicated time and space to reflect on their school’s needs and vision before taking on the tactical work of balancing their budgets.
Secondly, the district can use the Strategic School Design process to understand what changes principals want to make, and identify any potential barriers or needed supports. For example, if in their school plans principals consistently seek to add new intervention or tutoring blocks, the central office has time to find the necessary expertise for these types of instructional blocks—either in the district, or through outside partners or professional development. As CMSD worked with their principals on SBB and Strategic School Design, they uncovered some gaps between what principals wanted to do and what they were able to do given the policies in place. For example, the district encouraged school leaders to use technology to provide more personalized learning and support to students. But as principals explored these possibilities, they ran into barriers with both in the teacher collective bargaining agreement and the technology infrastructure. If principals explore Strategic School Design early, the district can address those kinds of issues before final school plans are due.
At its core, SBB and Strategic School Design require a mental shift—from a world where the central office doles out resources and rules, and school leaders act within those constraints, to a world where the central office provides guidelines and support to help school leaders succeed. Making this shift requires more than a few weekend training sessions; it requires a coordinated effort to educate school leaders and central office functions on how to set goals collaboratively, creatively organize resources to meet those goals, and accept accountability for results.
Give examples of strategic schools designs that work in your district
Strategic School Design is an empowering process for school leaders—but it is also potentially intimidating. School leaders need access to Strategic School Design frameworks and self-assessment tools to help them identify where to start. But most importantly, they need exposure to real-life examples of strategic schools, preferably from their own district. This way, principals will not only have models to replicate, they can easily call up an experienced peer and ask for advice throughout the process.
CMSD set up its SBB implementation with ample opportunity to experiment with flexibility and Strategic School Design before rolling it out to all schools. As mentioned earlier, CMSD piloted school flexibility with nine Transformation Pilot Schools during the summer of 2013. This not only helped the district prepare for SBB, but it generated Strategic School Design examples. When CMSD trained the rest of their school leaders on school design, they gave out templates showing each Transformation Pilot School’s goals, as well as the specific school design changes and corresponding tradeoffs they decided to make. The district also provided examples of how principals made their decisions—for example in a budget loss, budget surplus, and no budget change scenario. Some of the nine principals who participated in the pilot also shared their experiences with their peers at district-wide trainings. CMSD principals provided strong positive feedback about these district-specific examples, and sought them out throughout their own planning.
In addition to a pilot program, it is helpful for central office academics staff to highlight examples of Strategic School Design already happening in the district. Though school leaders may not have had as much flexibility in the past, many examples of specific strategic choices—from personalized learning to high-functioning teacher teams—have probably existed in the district for some time. SBB-Strategic School Design presents an opportunity to identify and share those. Finally, districts can offer examples of Strategic School Design from across the nation—for instance, by visiting ERS’ School Design in Action site, which explores the school design choices of fourteen schools. With such examples it is important to keep in mind each district’s context—such as union contracts and state legislation—that may make some outside examples more relevant than others.
Create clear accountability for school design review and support
Finally, for any innovative reform like this to flourish, the district should offer school leaders both support and accountability. Because SBB-Strategic School Design touches on so many elements, from staffing to instructional technology, the central office needs to provide coordinated support from many angles, not just the budget side. It’s also important for school supervisors to be closely involved, as they work with school leaders throughout the year and can bring a full perspective on their schools’ specific needs, strengths, and context.
In CMSD, the Network Support Teams played this role. Because they were made up of representatives from several departments, including budget, Human Resources, Special Education, and Academics, this created an atmosphere of holistic problem-solving, as opposed to one of isolated and potentially conflicting feedback. As school leaders created their school plans, they used a planning document that prompted them to consider both strategic and technical elements. Network Support Teams acted as coaches, helping school leaders put together their budgets and school plans throughout the process.
The teams were guided by a set of review criteria, made up of both compliance checks and strategic assessments and recommendations. For example, Network Support Teams were asked to assess whether the design features in a school plan sufficiently addressed the school’s most urgent needs and priority areas. By requiring Network Support Teams to comment on specific strategic questions, CMSD focused planning discussions on Strategic School Design and not just budget compliance. While network team members themselves identified lots of room for improvement in meeting schools’ needs in the first year, principals rated the Network Support Teams to be the most helpful form of support they received as they developed their strategic school plans.
There are many potential ways to provide school leaders the support and accountability they need to execute SBB-Strategic School Design successfully. The most important elements to keep in mind are clear coordination between several departments; a coaching, not compliance relationship; and a set of clear criteria for effective support focused on technical and strategic elements.
For the past several years, school districts across the country have tried to do more with less—to provide an excellent education on budgets made ever tighter by the recession. Now some districts are seeing an increase in funding, but still grappling with the question of how to ensure every child is prepared for college and careers in the 21st century.
Student-Based Budgeting is one way to ensure that limited dollars are directed to where students need them the most, rather than where they’ve simply always gone. And it’s also a way to open the door to innovation and targeted solutions that fit each school—not one-size-fits-all mandates.
But even as SBB takes root, we need to follow those dollars to the schoolhouse door and support principals in using them strategically, through Strategic School Design. With any big initiative, it’s easy to get lost in the details of implementation—new structures and timelines, trainings and templates. But we must never lose sight of the purpose of all of these planning. We believe that these seven critical success factors-- from leadership, to flexibilities, process, collaboration, preparation, modelling, and accountability—should only serve to focus us on what matters most: student success.