One Founder’s Lessons Learned in a Year Like No Other

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One Founder’s Lessons Learned in a Year Like No Other

This blog post was written by Aasimah Navlakhi, CEO of BES.

BES Fellows spend countless hours, days, weeks, and months planning, working in high-performing schools as resident leaders, distributing thousands of flyers, and gathering hundreds of signatures.

Rather than prescribing a new school’s vision, our Fellows—individuals who embark on a four-year process to design, found, and lead an excellent public school—listen and learn from local stakeholders. They seek to understand what their unique community is looking for in a school—information they will present during the authorizing process in their respective cities and states.

Though the BES Fellowship is nearly two decades old, there has never been a year with so many unknowns, and partnering with communities has never been more necessary. We’ve changed our approach to supporting founders and their teams, helping them as they re-examine the school experience they first envisioned. Their goal is to meet the current and changing needs of families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we shift, we’re also considering what authorizers can do. For excellent, community-responsive schools to have a transformational impact, authorizers must also reflect on their roles and how they evaluate and support schools. Our latest suggestions build on those I offered during BES’s presentation at the NACSA 2020 Virtual Leadership Conference. 

When thinking about how charter authorizing might shift, we wanted to get the perspective of a founder who had recently participated in the process. I spoke with Isaac Rivas-Savell, Founder of Voz Collegiate Preparatory Charter School in Albuquerque, NM. Isaac took part in the 2018 BES Fellowship, thanks to the generous support of Excellent Schools New Mexico.

Due to the pandemic, Voz’s opening was pushed from Fall 2020 to Fall 2021. Like many of his colleagues, Isaac used this time to rethink how his team could respond to urgent and longer-term family needs and build necessary community partnerships. Isaac offers insight into what it’s like to prepare to open a school during a pandemic, and what authorizers can do to support founders moving forward.

Aasimah: Inequities have become even more illuminated over the past year due to a global pandemic and racial reckoning. What are some high-level shifts you’ve made as you plan for opening?

Isaac: We are slowly evolving into a community-responsive school. Removing any kind of stress from our families has been a priority for our team since the beginning. However, this may not have been such an important focus in the spring before opening if this had been a normal year. 

As we spend more time engaging with community members, we see an opportunity to rethink what it means to meet families’ needs:

  • We’re developing a curriculum for our families to provide knowledge they may not already have, on topics such as financial literacy, homebuying, and mental health.
  • We’re exploring how we can serve as a hub for community resources.
  • We are partnering with homeless shelters and food banks so we can share a list of vetted organizations with our families.
  • We’re in talks with a local barber shop to provide haircuts during the first week of school.
  • We’re working with the Boys and Girls Club to spearhead a student athletics league to give kids that social outlet they’ve been missing.
  • We’re looking to license our school building through the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department as an afterschool program, at no cost to our families.

These are all resources and services that local families tell us they need.

Aasimah: As someone who recently went through authorization, what do you believe could shift regarding community engagement in the authorizing process?

Isaac: Authorizers should consider asking how founders and their teams have diversified their community engagement, given both the remote nature and the inequities that have come to light. Authorizers should encourage diverse approaches, inclusive of families with different needs, abilities, and demands, and protective of families who aren’t comfortable revealing their identities. Give founders a chance to talk this through, to show the ways in which they’ve been nimble and provide authorizers with insights into their choice of the school model and vision. 

Additionally, authorizers should ask leaders how the past year’s events have shaped their definition of locally responsive schools. What specific needs have arisen in their community? How have they been addressed so far? What is their plan to address those in school for the next two, five, or ten years and beyond?

Aasimah: It’s imperative that founders show up as their best selves for families and communities. How can authorizers support founders, particularly leaders of color, to advocate for their communities during a time when opening a new school seems nearly impossible?

Isaac: Leadership is lonely, and there is a lot of learning that happens “on the job.” This year especially, it was helpful to work with colleagues in my cohort. I was able to collaborate with leaders making the same decisions, going through the same “firsts,” and asking the same questions—especially important during a time when we are so isolated. 

Building a school is even more difficult for founders who don’t have built-in support through a Fellowship, or a pre-existing network and access to financial resources. And yet, these leaders are often closest to their communities and may have some of the best ideas. Perhaps authorizers could partner with outside organizations to provide support to founders and new leaders in the same region, or create avenues for mentorship among founders and current leaders who’ve previously gone through the local school founding process.

As we end the 2020-21 school year and begin the next, it’s more important than ever for founders, and those who support them, to consider the “new normal” for schools and for communities. Like founders, authorizers are tasked with the charge of representing community voice. Just as we’ve seen founders seize this opportunity to rethink what it means to be locally responsive, we look forward to seeing how authorizers rise to the challenge this year and in the years to come. 

About the Author

Having experienced firsthand the life-changing power of great schools, Aasimah Navlakhi (she/her/hers) is committed to ensuring that all students have equal opportunities to learn, grow, and thrive. Aasimah began her career as a speech and performance teacher in her hometown of Bangalore, India, and now serves as the Chief Executive Officer of BES (formerly Building Excellent Schools), a national nonprofit that identifies and prepares excellent leaders to transform education in their communities.

Read more about how this commitment to collaboration #WithCommunities happens in practice and why it’s critical to advancing quality education systems. To read the full guide for educators, school leaders and advocates, visit WithCommunities.org.


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