On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast, Tom talks with Nate Kellogg of The Learning Accelerator and Gwen Baker of Bellwether Education Partners about The Strategy Lab, a project of the Always Ready for Learning initiative.

Let’s listen in as Tom talks with Nate and Gwen about this important collaborative work within a network of schools and districts. Stay tuned until the end to hear from some of the participants themselves!

For the last few months, we’ve been partners with The Learning Accelerator on their Strategy Lab initiative, a nine-month, pro bono, cohort-based learning experience that supported seven districts in their safe reopening and planning for long-term sustainable change beyond the COVID era. Through monthly cohort sessions, biweekly planning meetings, and additional small-group collaboration with experts, districts:

  • Received targeted support and collaboration for prioritized needs for back-to-school to accelerate student progress;
  • Engaged in a process to make real-time, meaningful, and lasting improvements to move towards more equitable and resilient teaching and learning;
  • Connected to other district teams as well as existing experts and resources for the implementation of new models and approaches at scale.

As a culmination of this initiative, the participating organizations have released the Real-Time Redesign Toolkit, a realistic, inclusive, and rapid process for making targeted improvement toward more equitable and resilient teaching and learning. The toolkit includes step-by-step instructions and real examples from districts across the country to support school and system leaders to use the process in their own context.

We documented some of this work in a set of blogs and podcasts that you can check out: 

This work strongly aligned with Bellwether Education Partners’ mission. They are a national nonprofit that is “trying to change the life outcomes for learners furthest from opportunity.” Gwen used to work with Beth Rabbitt of TLA and they formed a strong relationship early on. When COVID-19 hit, they found themselves asking the same questions, one of which being: “How can we use this crisis as an opp to help orgs address challenges and gaps that were identified?”

The work that followed featured the participation of 7 districts: Renton School District, Phoenix Charter Academy, Monterey Penninsula United School District, Mastery Charter, Indianapolis Public Schools, Cedar Rapids Public Schools and Austin ISD. The application process focused on districts who were ready to leapfrog — meaning they might not have been on the leading edge, but they had a strong foundation and an interest in capitalizing on the disruption of the moment. Still, the districts and participants had a wide range of preparedness.

To start, Gwen and her team “started with an assessment across the portfolio.” From here, they asked the questions: “What is the lay of the land of needs and supports?” and “How might we reimagine redesigning our systems for resilience and equity?”

The primary need that the Strategy Lab initiative was trying to serve was the “cognitive overload at the district level.” By bringing together a group of professionals at different phases of response and redesign, they were able to form a deep level of camaraderie. They often heard leaders asking questions like: “Is this as crazy for you?” Oftentimes they were different causes of chaos, but it was a common thread of understanding between all districts.

The primary value add of the Real-Time Redesign Toolkit was not only the process and the language but the real examples of schools and districts who have implemented the process and learned from it. Case studies on many of the participating districts are already live on the site and other districts have added some brainstorms and mock designs as well.

One of the participating leaders shared a core learning from the process: “When you go a little bit slower, a little less straight on a line, you’re able to include and hear more voices […] the most powerful example of the whole process was the ability to interview students.”

At the level of DEI work, this process also enabled districts to approach it in a new and actionable way. Many districts are committed to it but not sure I actually have the tools. The Real-Time Redesign Toolkit has given people the tools to do it in a real and meaningful way.

“I really am so humbled by the work that these districts were engaged in,” said Gwen

We also asked a few of the districts who participated in the Strategy Lab to share some of their thoughts on the process. We asked them the following questions:

  • What was the most powerful part of the Strategy Lab cohort?
  • What are you piloting as a result of Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign Process?

At the end of the podcast, you will hear Warren Morgan of Indianapolis Public Schools, Suzanne Newell of Austin ISD and Bob Ettinger of Renton School District respond to the above questions.

Key Takeaways:

[:52] Tom welcomes Nate and Gwen to the podcast.
[1:09] Nate tells the origin story of the Always Ready for Learning initiative as well its three projects: the Parabola Project, the Coaching Network, and the Strategy Lab.
[2:34] Gwen shares how she and Bellwether get involved in this project and why they were personally compelled by it.
[4:25] Nate shares about the districts they originally focused on when beginning this project.
[6:02] Which services to Gwen try to quickly mobilize and offer to these partner districts with the Strategy Lab?
[7:33] Was there any learning between these districts? Were they learning together about shifting their education to remote and when/how they might go hybrid or in-person?
[8:32] Gwen elaborates on how the networking between districts was one of the most powerful tools for learning and growth.
[10:34] Nate explains the Real-Time Redesign toolkit.
[11:46] Would Gwen say that the toolkit is still highly useful for not only the participating districts but other districts as well right now?
[12:57] Nate shares his predictions and hopes for what may be better or different in the fall with their partnered districts as a result of the work they’re doing.
[15:22] Gwen shares her hopes and predictions for the fall as a result of the work that they’ve done with their partnered districts.
[16:56] Does this COVID-19 era mark the end of the individual practitioner and the beginning of teaching teams and embracing new strategies and tools around personalized and competency-based learning? And if so, does Gwen see this as a permanent shift going forward?
[18:40] Does Nate think that many of the districts that they’ve worked with will continue to have an online or virtual learning program post-pandemic?
[19:49] Does Nate believe we will continue to see enriched online programs that incorporate more project-based learning and more community connections, as well as more hybrid programs that stick around long-term, post-pandemic?
[21:04] Does Gwen have any predictions for new models that she thinks we’ll see in the fall or beyond?
[21:58] Where to find more information about the Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign toolkit.
[22:44] Gwen shares some parting words to districts and leaders curious about the projects.
[23:02] Tom thanks Gwen and Nate for joining the podcast!
[23:19] The districts that participated in the Strategy Lab share their thoughts on the process and answer the questions: 1. What was the most powerful part of the Strategy Lab cohort? 2. What are they piloting as a result of the Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign process?
[23:34] The Chief Academic Officer of Indianapolis Public Schools, Dr. Warren Morgan, shares his thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.
[26:55] The Director of Academics at the Austin Independent School District, Suzanne Newell, shares her thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.
[30:42] The Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at Renton School District, Bob Ettinger, shares his thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.

Mentioned in This Episode:


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