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Charter Board Partners

Investing in talent at the board level, too

December 19, 2018 | by David Connerty-Marin

BUFFALO—“In charter schools we saw a lot of amazing leaders, but difficulty getting traction and making gains,” says Ann Levy Walden, the Program Officer for Education at the Cullen Foundation in Buffalo, N.Y. “We saw that we need talent at all levels, including on the boards of charter schools.”

Ann Levy Walden
          Ann Levy Walden

In addition to investing in school leadership, Cullen decided to invest in training for as many charter school board members as they could reach, and asked Charter Board Partners to help. As of November, CBP had reached close to 80 board members from the 15 Buffalo schools that Cullen and CBP are working with. That’s about three-quarters of the members of those boards. Participants said they learned tangible information that they will put to use in their own board work.

Of the city’s 43,000 students, about 22 percent learn in charter schools. And neither Buffalo’s traditional public schools nor its public charter schools are making the grade, according to Walden: “Not a single charter school in the city is considered high quality by our standards,” she said. Neither are any of the city’s traditional public schools, with the exception of three test-in schools—schools to which students must apply and be accepted. 

With 22 percent of families opting for charter schools, “we want to make sure it’s true choice, true high quality options,” she says.

In the past, people were asked to join charter school boards by friends who were already on those boards. Those people have good intent and strengths, but they haven’t had an understanding of what their role should be in supporting the school leader in being effective, and supporting the school through an honest assessment of the school’s progress.

Selling board members on the value of the training wasn’t hard, says Walden. She was already familiar with CBP and its work from doing research and speaking with SchoolSmart KC and others in Kansas City about CBP’s training initiative there. “Once you meet the CBP team, that was the real stamp of approval from most of our boards,” she says. “They were like: ‘Oh, yes, we want to be part of this.’ We’ve had a huge response.”

She says board members have been overwhelmed—in a good way—by the content of the all-day Governance Academy, and energized by meeting board members from other schools, by the sense of energy and purpose. She is excited about the upcoming series of smaller, more targeted trainings.

Working with school board members to give them the information and skills needed to be more effective aligns with Cullen’s other work on improving the quality of education, especially in the city’s charter schools. That’s because Cullen has been largely focused on talent—finding, supporting, and coaching school leadership teams. Cullen has also invested in a residency program at two schools of higher education.

“We continue to be so grateful—what a niche approach to this work,” says Walden. “There’s no silver bullet, but making sure that (board training) is part of the work will set Buffalo up to be successful in the long run.”

CBP is finishing up initial assessments with the 15 charter school boards to help plan for individualized coaching and some group trainings on topics such as: diversity, equity and inclusion; using dashboards to monitor school progress; how to do school leader evaluations; and forming the right committees. The subject matter will be determined based on assessing where there is the greatest need.

Buffalo is one of the latest in a growing list of locations throughout the country where CBP is working. In the past 18 months, CBP has initiated new relationships with schools, authorizers, nonprofits and other organizations in New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York City, Pennsylvania, Indianapolis, and St. Louis, Missouri. Programming ranges from full recruitment and training programs, to targeted coaching, and presentations. CBP works in over a dozen cities from Boston to Los Angeles. See all the places we work.

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