The Nuts & Bolts of Opening A New School
Given the complexity of opening a new school, Scott Benson, NewSchools Venture Fund suggests, “Start early. Give yourself time to explore, design, seek feedback and build support among the community and funders.”
If you’ve already gained approval, found funding, securing a location and are in final countdown, here’s advice on that final pre-opening checklist. (This the fourth in a series on opening great schools; see tips on culture building, leadership, governance.)
“Have a count down,” said Diane Tavenner, Summit Public Schools. “Know your goals, objectives and the folks responsible for each. Check in regularly and make sure you are on target. Course correct if needed. Ruthlessly prioritize.”
“Create a project plan with key deliverables, roles and responsibilities and due dates. Have someone manage the project plan,” encouraged Peter Piccolo from Denver Public Schools, which has opened more than 100 schools in the last decade. He recommends meeting with the core team at least once a week to review the project plan to ensure all key work is on track. (See Piccolo below right visiting Roots Elementary, an innovative new blended learning model in Denver.)
“Despite all the planning, something will go wrong day one, week one,” warns Piccolo. “Plan for it, learn from it and plan for how you will respond if a train falls off the tracks.” He recommends districts have an escalation procedure.
Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the 183 school KIPP network, emphasizes the importance of execution. “Remember that countless seen and unseen details are the difference between mediocre and magnificent. The biggest difference between those schools (and other organizations) that succeed and those that fail is the ability to execute on the plan written down on paper, making course corrections as necessary, but always executing.”
When it comes to adopting software systems, try to avoid a lot of customization. “Unless you have internal expertise and deep pockets, do not plan to build custom software to support your school model in the first few years of operation,” said Scott Benson.
“Under commit and over deliver. Managing expectations of students, families and faculty is critical as you open a new school that will take years to fully form. Communicate the vision frequently, as well as the reality of what it will take to get there,” said Kelly Wilson, High Tech High Graduate School of Education (see white paper).
Plan & Market for Enrollment
“Enrollment matters. No kids, no money for kids,” said Matthew Wunder, CEO of Da Vinci Schools, four innovative schools near LAX. “Keep your enrolled students connected and engaged with the school. Recruitment and retention is the financial lifeblood of your startup.”
“Put in the extra effort to have the right number students in your program,” said Danny Medved, founder of Denver School of Innovation & Sustainable Design. “This takes time away from design, but without a critical mass of students you are not able actualize the school design.”
Despite an innovative design, Medved found that it took sustained outreach efforts to Denver elementary schools to build enrollment in a market with a growing number of quality options.
“Invest in your students and families so they all show up the first day excited and ready to go,” added Alex Hernandez, Charter School Growth Fund. “Hard to focus on innovation if enrollment is below expectations.”
“Ensure everyone on the team is orienting their work around the successful execution of the mission beginning with preparation and organization of the classrooms, planning of an outline for the year, planning of detailed lesson plans for the first month of school, visiting the homes of the children who will attend your school (if that is a component of school start-up, which I highly recommend),” said Aaron Brenner, who is supporting development of KIPP-inspired schools around the world through 1 World Network of Schools.
“Every action in those last 90 days should be a reflection of the belief in and commitment to that mission,” added Brenner.
Prep for Day-to-Day Ops
Seek support on the basics of starting a school; organizations like charter associations and operations/finance support organizations have a long history of advising on school startup,” recommended Scott Benson.
Nicole Assisi, Thrive Public Schools, recommends having everything you need to operate on Day 1: attendance plan, safety plan, nutrition plan/provider and procedures for everything (e.g., coming on campus, checking in late kids, cafeteria use/behavior, dismissal, traffic control, technology use, classroom management).
Matthew Wunder, Da Vinci Schools, stressed planning for service quality for internal and external stakeholders. He added, “People like clear procedures but they don’t care what you know until they know you care.
“Stress test as many of your key process and systems before students arrive,” recommended Peter Piccolo. “For example, if there is full school welcome meeting on the first day of school, do a dry run, ideally with young people so you can feedback first hand from your stakeholders.”
If you’re opening a charter school, “Apply for your 501c3 as early as possible. You cannot do any fundraising until you have this,” said Assisi. “Most people forget about this little step and have huge consequences of not being able to bring in money. Non-profit status for schools takes longer than other organizations, so start now.”
“Secure critical resources to ensure that you can work the plan, reach year one goals and initially bring the vision to life,” said Danny Medved, who just finished his first year as principal at Denver School of Innovation & Sustainable Development (right). “Know the element that sets your school apart (STEM/ Maker, Entrepreneurship/ PBL, etc.) and secure and prioritize resources that will allow this to shine for an early year one win.”
The principal of an innovative district school said that, despite senior leader commitment, working with middle managers to gain access to resources was a challenge. “Many of them will do the same thing they have always done, or what they do for other schools, but I think every school should be a little different.” He spent more time than planned dealing with bureaucracy, getting ready to open a new school.
For charter schools, Assisi said, “Don’t take operations into your own hands when it comes to finance and school operations. It can be very complicating and counter intuitive. Just because someone has business experience, that doesn’t mean they understand how school finances work. For example, we used to have an accountant on our board who adamantly disagreed how the state of California is handling finances, but just because it is bad business, doesn’t mean we can change the state. Team up with someone like ExED or EdTec or another vendor who ‘knows the business of school business’ and its quirks.”
Assisi adds, “A good lawyer is worth their weight in gold. Think of a charter petition as a gigantic legal contract. You will want someone to look it over.”
- Aspire Public Schools: An Approach to Opening New Schools (2007)
- Fairfax County Public Schools: New School Opening Handbook
- Jersey City Public Schools: school opening checklist
- Michigan Association of Public School Academies: preopening checklist
- Kenneth Lane: Strategies for Opening New Schools: A Planning Guide for School Personnel (2009)
For more, see:
- Get the Culture Right: The Most Important New School Factor
- 10 Lessons in Leading New School Development
- Want a Great School? Get the Board on Board
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