Starting a School: 3 Best Practices (and 3 of the Worst)
This piece is a part of Camelback's Ruthless for Good series, sharing different ways that individuals embody the spirit of our manifesto and what they fight for. Applications to the Camelback Fellowship are open until 1/25/2018! We seek innovative school models -- if the stories of our school founders inspire you, please consider applying.
In a three-part series this week, we are sharing interviews with three of Camelback’s incredible school founders. Today in Part 2, Fellows share their best (and worst) decisions in the early days of their school and what to look for in a co-founder.
Click here for bios and school summaries of the Fellows featured in this post.
Amanda, Camelback Ventures (CBV): There’s no handbook or one-size-fits-all guide to creating a school. Think back to the beginning: what was something you did early in the process that you’re really glad you did?
Charla Harris (CH): That’s a perfect question. I did a pilot; that was a very powerful experience. Camelback encouraged us to do that. I think I would’ve gotten to that point on my own eventually, but Camelback pushed me to do that sooner and explore that opportunity. The pilot was extraordinarily helpful, and not just because of the content of the pilot we did, but just the sheer process of reaching out and stepping out of my comfort zone and having to sell that concept and idea to other people.
Even before a pilot, I’d say make sure you take the time to hone what you’re really trying to do. For the first year, I was solo (no co-founder yet) and I think I needed to be. I had to give myself time to incubate this idea, to be really passionate. I valued other people’s opinions, but I was selfish and I needed to be -- when you’re starting something, everyone wants to give you advice, and you need to make sure you’re staying true to what you want to do. That’s what helped me get it rooted and get it grounded in something real, rather than sharing loose ideas that were easily malleable. I took that time to do a lot of research, reading books, talking to other founders. Being solo at the beginning, yeah it was hard and lonely sometimes, but it was necessary. So, by the time I got to the pilot, I knew what questions I was trying to answer.
Jacob Allen (JA): Same! An after-school program was a good way for us to test our ideas. We wanted to have really honest conversations with kids about issues they’re dealing with, like gang violence and sexual identity. Our pilot workshops with students, which we did for a few years, enabled to see if our theory of change was right, that identity-based curriculum would improve students’ academic performance. And it did. The numbers, and qualitative feedback, we got from that experience gave us data that we could take when pitching to funders, local government, and communities. Whenever I talk to anyone who’s thinking about applying to the Camelback Fellowship, I always encourage them to test their ideas early -- I meet charter leaders who are about to open their schools, just like us, and they’ve never proved their ideas work. They’re going to test their curriculum for the first time in front of hundreds of students and staff, and they’re stressed. I think waiting to test those ideas is detrimental to everyone.
Maybe the best thing that Marie (my co-founder) and I did, and I would really encourage this advice, is to leave yourself wiggle room for failure. Our pilot after school program is transformationally different in so many facets from where we are today. Originally our work was called Navigate, and we were going to be a Saturday 3 hour program for parents to learn about high school options for their kids currently failing middle school. So, just keep iterating. We gave ourselves the time and place to be really bad at things to try and fail. And in my opinion, it’s better to make mistakes now than trying and failing with 300 kids in front of you Day 1 of your charter school.
"Honestly, the best thing I did as an early school founder was to do the Camelback Fellowship. No joke, and I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to you."
Hattie Mitchell (HM): Honestly, the best thing I did as an early school founder was to do the Camelback Fellowship. No joke, and I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to you.
When you’re in the education sector, you learn a lot about theory and philosophy, about how to engage with kids and with governments. But you don’t learn how to run a business. There was no job, even as an administrator, that taught me about personnel management, business finances, operations, facilities -- I had no idea about any of it. Even though we’re a school, we’re still a business -- we have a budget, we have rules and regulations, and we have operational needs. Going through the workshops at Camelback’s Summits really opened my eyes to things I was completely blind to and unaware of on the business side, and taught me so, so much about how to run a successful organization, not just a school. If you can’t do the Camelback Fellowship, then definitely spend the time needed to learn about business basics, because you’re going to need it.
CBV: Entrepreneurs love to talk about mistakes as a learning opportunity. So on the flip side, at the beginning, what was something that you did early on that honestly was just kind of a mistake or a call you wouldn’t make again?
HM: I underestimated my and my team’s abilities, and early on, that really screwed us up. Everyone I knew who had started a charter told me that the move was to hire someone else to do your charter school petition. These aren’t casual consultants either; there are people out there who get paid $10,000 to $20,000 to work on these documents. Rather than trusting my gut that we could handle it, we hired someone. That consultant made a lot of mistakes, and it set us way back. I ended up having to write our petition myself, even though I had never done one before; I got feedback by a lawyer I knew and a California charter organization before submitting it. Luckily we were approved. But if I had trusted my gut, I could’ve saved five thousand dollars and two months of my time, much less the headaches in between. I went along with the grain, even knowing that I personally could’ve done it on my own. So of course, some people should still hire a consultant for that kind of thing if you need it, but if you truly know that you can handle something, believe in yourself and your team’s ability to get it done.
CH: Honestly, we had a similar situation to that. I think it comes to do: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. We hired consultants for specifically the budget portion for our charter application, and they made a few line mistakes, and that delayed our charter application. I just didn’t know what a budget was supposed to look like. I was feeling overwhelmed, and at every juncture where I could’ve asked questions, I didn’t -- I trusted that they were experts and that they would make the right calls. So when it blew up in our face...it felt like a “gotcha” moment. If we had been more forthcoming with questions, been more clear about what I needed, maybe we would’ve caught those mistakes earlier on and avoided the mess. But I released too much control because I was intimidated by dealing with things outside of my expertise, and I wanted to trust them to do it right. But at the end the day, I’m the executive director, I have to take the hit, and the responsibility to fix it. I need to be more diligent in the fine details as the leader to be like “Hey, I trust you, but I need to know what’s going on.” I’d recommend that new leaders be confident in owning that title -- you are the founder, and everything, good and bad, that comes with it.
"I released too much control because I was intimidated by dealing with things outside of my expertise...but at the end the day, I’m the executive director, I have to take the hit, and responsibility to fix it."
JA: Kind of like what Hattie said, I think we could have prioritized the business needs of our school earlier. The thing is, whether it’s taxes, financial documents, theory of change, programmatic materials -- chances are you’re probably not the first person to have to go through it. I was still teaching while starting PilotEd, and after a while, I realized, I can just call people and ask them about their experiences. So all of my free time was spent talking to people on the phone. There were months where I was on 5 phone calls a day -- during my prep period, during lunch, in the evening, on my commute home. I was calling people who were a year ahead of me and people who had multi-million national programs. There are trends in all groups of how they succeeded and failed, and I listened. Don’t make the mistake of being in a vacuum with your work; there are other people who are down to give you their time and share what they’ve learned.
CBV: Some people started a school alone (like 2015 Fellow Jonathan Johnson, who we featured last month). If you have a co-founder, what do you think is most important they have in common? How do they need to be different in order for you to have a successful leadership team? How did you know they were the right people to bring on?
HM: That’s an awesome question. With co-founders, you must have a common sense of trust. You have to trust them with your life and your shared common goal. One person can’t be trying to make money, the other, making a difference -- you have to be on the same mission. Where it’s helpful to be different is temperament and skill set. If you have all the same ones, then your leadership team, and by extension the school, is limited. When you have variety, it really adds value to your work. My co-founders are super different from me, and yeah, sometimes it’s really frustrating. But in the long run, given our various positions, it makes for a strong team -- we’re able to have balance between fast-pace, quick decision-making and thoughtful, reflective experiences.
My co-founders are actually my sister and my husband. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve wanted to start this school for years, and I needed people I could trust to do the work wholeheartedly. I approached them both in January 2016 and said, “I’m ready to do this. Are you with me?” They had experience more in business and law than education, but that was good -- we had a varied set of perspectives, and we set about the school as a problem to solve. And they’re still with me. My sister moved across the country, her kids go to our school now. My husband quit his job at the law firm, we didn’t have a salary in our home for an entire year. It was hard, but I was confident in our like-mindedness and shared values every step of the way; that allowed me to focus on what was really important: making a good school that served kids in need.
CH: I agree with a lot of that. Like I said, I was solo for a long time and I think that was good. At a certain point, I knew the work was moving into reality, and to bring it to fruition, I knew I needed a co-founder. She was a friend, colleague, and educator. I knew she had similar views as values and experiences to mine, which I didn’t know right away that it was important, but it became clear that it was. Once she understood my concept for the school, she got it instantly. And believed in it. I was like wow, yeah, you’re the person.
I think it’s important to recognize your co-founder as their own person. She has her own thoughts and opinions, so she could challenge me on things and help me expound on some others. She’s very detail-oriented, and I’m the big-picture, visionary. That works for us. It helps us balance decisions. For example, we had a meeting with a potential vendor and I got excited right away from the pitch thinking wow, what a great asset, our kids are going to love this. Then she comes in and says, “Hold on, we’re not signing anything yet. Let’s really discuss. What does that mean, how does that look, can you give me an example, I want to see it, what’s the budget.” As we dig deeper, we realize if something is really a good fit or a terrible fit — and we need that balance.
JA: In common -- allowing each other to fail. Having grace. Be failure advocates, counselors, cheerleaders -- know that you’ll switch in supporting each other at different times. For differences...I think the best thing for us was comfort in splitting up who took what work. Early on, we took time to say you’ll own that, I’ll take this. We’ve been running that way ever sense. It’s made it possible for me to become an expert at fundraising and board management and strategy, and it’s enabled her to be an expert at creating curriculum and teacher advocacy and supporting principal professionals. We tried a co-leadership model at the beginning, and I think it lasted like two weeks -- we didn’t get anything done, and we were always fighting. So we’re really intentional about it now.
"School co-founders; allow each other to fail. Have grace. Be each others' failure advocates, counselors, cheerleaders."
I think one thing that worked well for us, and I would recommend for anyone seeking a co-founder, is to recognize how our different skills and interests enabled us to move the school forward faster. When we were splitting things up, we looked at assets -- who had more experience, paid or volunteer; and then secondly, who had more passion for that work. For example, I had a taste of the way that Teach for America did fundraising in Chicago because I interned there for literally one quarter of a school year. Is that the most experience? No. But that made realize I LOVE development, and that I had a knack for it. I wanted to go out and get as much freaking money and press for my school as possible because I believe in it, and I love that kind of work. When we were discussing it, I asked Marie if she wanted to do that given her experience and she said, “No way!” Her passion is to create incredible curriculum and to make sure are teachers are crushing it and supported. That’s really put us, as co-founders, on a path of success.
CBV: What’s the number one piece of advice you would give a school founder just starting out? How did the Camelback Fellowship make its biggest impact on you?
For answers to these questions, check out Part 3. You can also read Part One where School Founders share their personal journey and how they realized they were ready to start a school.
Are you a school founder or know someone who is? Camelback Ventures seeks school founders for our Fellowship who are ready to take their visionary model to the next level. Click below to learn more our Fellowship and find out how to start your application today. If you have any questions specifically about being a school founder, such as stage or curriculum leadership, feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Camelback Fellows featured here:
Jacob Allen (JA) - co-founder of PilotED schools, 2015 Camelback Fellow. PilotEd’s curriculum is built around identity-based curriculum, encouraging students to engage openly on topics that are not often given attention in traditional school models. PilotED recently moved from Chicago to Indianapolis and received a 7-year charter, and will open its first campus next year.
Hattie Mitchell (HM) - Founder of Crete Academy, 2017 Camelback Fellow. Crete Academy is designed to provide opportunities for students living in poverty. Their academics put students on a path to college, and their wellness program provides medical, dental, and nutrition to students, as well as assistance with safe travel to and from school. Crete Academy opened in Fall 2017 in Los Angeles.
Charla Harris (CH) - co-founder of Learning by Design, 2016 Camelback Fellow. Learning by Design is an innovative school model rooted in whole-child education, bringing in all stakeholders, including the students themselves, to develop a personalized learning plan (utilizing technology and hands-on learning). Learning by Design will hear about its charter authorization this month (!) in Los Angeles.