Brian Greenberg on Creating Great New Schools

After teaching high school English in LA, Brian Greenberg (@briangreenberg) was a founding principal for Leadership Public Schools in the Bay Area. He coached principles for New Leaders and served as Chief Academic Officer for Envisions Schools.

Eight years ago, with support from the Fisher family, Greenberg opened Silicon Schools, a nonprofit that has funded the creation of 50 great new Bay Area schools that foster innovation and personalization in the neighborhoods that need them most.

“Great new school principals do three things well: 1) they are committed to academic excellence, 2) have strong knowledge of operations and finance, and 3) build strong cultures,” said Greenberg. “They are open to improvement, they know where they are not excellent, and hire teams that fill in the holes.”

“We don’t pay much attention to written proposals,” said Greenberg acknowledging that they can preference teams with strong grantwiring and fundraising ability. They prefer to spend time in person with entrepreneurs, “it can last six months to a year. We are the fist funder, the quit-your -job money.”

“New schools take between $1-2 million of philanthropic investment,” said Greenberg. And they are “a bargain for what you get.” Well designed, well planned schools with strong founding teams produce dramatically better results than existing schools–and the result last a long time.

“Just one class of 500 students in a good new school could earn more than $10,000 per year more producing more than $200 million surplus– just from one class.”

He’s concerned that it’s getting harder to start new schools, particularly charters, in low income neighborhoods. “The coalition of support has started to fracture. When you lose the ability to start new schools, we won’t see gains that address the equity issues we face.”

“We want more innovation with each new school we support–but can’t underestimate forces of gravity, all the ‘return to normalcy’ forces. It comes from authorizer expectations, parent expectations, student expectations, teacher expectations–all together it’s an incredibly powerful force that pulls innovations back to earth.”

“Schools are strong organizations that crunch up innovations and spit them out.” added Greenberg.

“We will tolerate failure and messiness,” said Greenberg about their grantmaking. “In the early days, you see wild ideas, they run design charette, then begin paring [down the design] to what they rely on; they stage innovations–moving some ideas into year 2 or year 3

With the closure of school buildings, Greenberg observed his grantee schools moving smoothly to remote learning. He attributes the transition to well developed academic programs and strong cultures.

For grantee schools and others, Silicon Schools published well designed guidelines for reopening this fall.

Key Takeaways:
[:56] Tom welcomes Brian to the podcast!
[1:35] The best and hardest parts of teaching English in Los Angeles.
[4:27] The biggest takeaway Brian learned as a teacher.
[5:09] Brian’s experience as the founding Principal for Leadership Public Schools.
[8:55] Key pieces to a successful principalship.
[9:48] Lessons Brian learned from his experience with mentoring principals for new leaders.
[12:48] What Brian learned from serving as Chief Academic Officer at Envision Schools.
[16:07] How Silicon Schools was opened with the support from the Fischer family.
[16:58] The importance of new school development and why it is high-return philanthropy.
[20:33] The challenges with taking good schools to greatness and taking okay schools to good.
[24:52] What the formula for success looks like for creating new schools.
[29:51] Where you want to be on the spectrum of a proven model vs. an innovative model when it comes to creating a new school.
[33:48] Key lessons Brian learned when their fifty schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
[41:07] About Brian and Silicon School’s two guidebooks/playbooks; the content they covered and what they were made for.
[42:02] The challenges educators face in planning for an uncertain August and September and how they can be solved.
[45:38] Tom thanks Brian for all of the incredible work that he does and for joining the podcast!

Mentioned in This Episode:
Brian Greenberg
Silicon Schools
Leadership Public Schools
Envision Schools
The Gates Foundation
Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, by Doug Lemov
Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College, by Doug Lemov
California Collaborative for Educational Excellence – The Playbooks
Getting Smart Podcast Ep. 259: “Eric Tucker on Reopening Schools with Equity in Mind”

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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