How do you change a system comprising numerous stakeholders with conflicting needs, governed by multiple levels of regulation and funded from myriad private and public sources? This question goes to the heart of what many nonprofits have to grapple with to have impact. Consider the challenge facing organizations engaged in K-12 school reform, which must influence the activities of students, teachers, principals, parents, district superintendents, and politicians to create significant and sustained improvements in student achievement.
In such dynamic situations, the ability to learn from experience and change course as necessary is essential. This process can be incredibly hard, frequently requiring the organizations’ leaders to make difficult tradeoffs between activities that are all doing some good to focus on the ones that will do the most good going forward.
A technique that can help them navigate this evolutionary process is to get really clear about what the organization is trying to achieve and how they envision that happening. This clarity then can become a touchstone for making decisions that reflect the aspirations of the organization’s mission as well as the constraints of its bottom line. Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), an Oakland, California-based school reform organization, undertook just this sort of strategic exercise with the Bridgespan Group in 2003. The engagement helped BayCES develop a purposeful plan to guide its future growth.
BayCES at a Glance
In states like California, the need for education reform is painfully clear. There, just 57 percent of African-American and 60 percent of Latino students graduate from high school. The situation is even grimmer in cities like Oakland, home to some of the lowest performing schools in California—and quite possibly the nation. An entering African- American or Latino freshman at an Oakland high school has only about a 42 percent chance of graduating.
There is cause for optimism, however. At one Oakland high school, 39 percent of students used to drop out between the 9th and 10th grades. Now, after joining forces with Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES), only 2 percent drop out. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we’re saving kids’ lives,” said the school’s principal.
Founded in 1991 and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1995, BayCES’ mission is to create and sustain networks of small, equitable schools where all students can reach high standards. As reflected in the organization’s name, equity is central to its value system. BayCES works to ensure that no student is poorly served because of his or her race, gender, home language, or economic status.
The organization’s roots lie in coaching teachers and administrative staff in schools throughout Northern California. Its coaching activities embraced several critical roles, among them: advising school staff on school design, teaching practice, and curricula; facilitating professional learning communities; building leadership capacity; and helping schools create structures, implement processes, and build capacities for assessment and decision-making. Starting in 1997, BayCES began to engage communities in its work as well, harnessing their power to hold schools accountable for improving student achievement.
By 1997 there were already strong signs that BayCES’ work was paying dividends. School developers routinely used BayCES schools as exemplary small school models. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation described one BayCES-coached school, Leadership San Francisco, as “existence proof for effective high schools.”
Despite this success, BayCES leadership was starting to see limits to the organization’s approach. Bureaucracy in the school districts’ central offices—driven by factors such as external regulations, restrictive labor contracts, and internal resistance to changes in the flow of resources—was becoming a major impediment to classroom-level change. Concerned that improving individual schools wouldn’t be enough to create lasting reform and equity of achievement for African-American, Latino, and immigrant students, BayCES began experimenting with deeper investments of time and resources in specific, low-performing districts, to build capacity not only within a district’s schools but also within its central offices and communities.
Impressed with BayCES’ innovative approach, in 2000 the Gates Foundation made a $16-million, five-year investment in BayCES’ new district-wide work to create new schools. That same year BayCES launched efforts in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, aiming to use the creation of new small schools as a lever for comprehensively restructuring the K-12 school districts. The early returns were compelling. In its Oakland initiative, for example, more than half of the schools showed clear student achievement gains, and overall student attendance and parent participation increased in all the new schools BayCES had helped create.
These strong results landed the organization at a critical fork in the road. Simultaneously supporting its traditional school-by-school reform efforts as well as its new district-wide initiatives (never mind fielding requests from organizations around the country eager for advice about how to replicate BayCES’ success) was beginning to strain the organization. BayCES staff had started complaining about being “pulled in too many directions.” And rapid expansion from a $1.0-million organization in 2000 to a $3.8-million organization in 2003 had taxed the organization’s infrastructure and systems, such as accounting and internal staff development.
Executive Director Steve Jubb realized that the organization needed a strategic map for the road ahead, one that would leverage what he and BayCES staff had learned over the years. They needed to step back and figure out where to invest BayCES’ resources, where to limit investment, and where to pull back from activities that no longer fit its strategy. They then had to align the organization’s people, systems, and other resources around that strategy. At the suggestion of the Gates Foundation, BayCES engaged with the Bridgespan Group to develop a business plan that would provide this kind of direction.
Over the course of a five-month engagement, a project team consisting of Executive Director Jubb, eight members of his management team, and six Bridgespan consultants engaged in the business planning process.
Among the questions they addressed:
- What, specifically, do we hope to achieve and what is our theory for how this change can occur?
- Which programs and services do we need to provide in order to achieve our goals, and where should we direct our efforts geographically?
- What will it take organizationally to implement our strategy effectively?
BayCES leadership saw two potential paths for the organization. One was to continue its historically successful approach of working with individual schools. This work played to the organization’s strengths and was responsive to schools’ strong demand for its services. The other path was for BayCES to expand its newer district-level reform work. Its recent success with holistic district reform boded well, but BayCES leadership knew they still had a lot to learn about how best to support districts’ complex reform efforts.
To decide which path to pursue, Jubb and his management team needed a sharper understanding of what they wanted BayCES to achieve and how they believed the organization could make that happen. Once this was clear, they would have a firm basis for setting priorities and making decisions about which initiatives to undertake and which to let pass by. BayCES and the Bridgespan Group engaged in a series of discussions to surface the core values and philosophy that would guide the organization’s growth strategy.
What Impact, and for Whom?
The BayCES-Bridgespan team began by specifying BayCES’ intended impact—the benefits the organization seeks to provide and the beneficiaries it endeavors to serve. Very early on in the discussions, it became clear that the organization’s most direct, and highest priority, beneficiaries were underserved students—rather than school leaders, district personnel, community members, or other possible beneficiaries. BayCES defined underserved students as African Americans, Latinos, immigrants with language barriers, and low-income students.
The impact BayCES sought for these students was also clear: BayCES wanted to help produce improved and equitable outcomes, in the form of improved graduation rates and “college-ready” rates. Its ambitions did not stop at high-school graduation, though. The organization also wanted to create equitable opportunities for the students postgraduation via college access and college completion.
How to Achieve Impact?
Despite the organization’s clarity about its intended impact, many questions remained about how exactly it would bring this impact about—in other words, its theory of change. An important part of BayCES’ theory of change had always been its work with individual schools around Northern California. The organization helped to create model small schools that led to improved and equitable student achievement. The newer district-wide efforts in Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley pointed to a different theory of change—one that required engaging not only schools but also entire districts and communities.
Based on their recent experience, BayCES staff had come to believe that working simultaneously—and deeply—at the school, district, and community levels was far more effective than working only with schools. When BayCES worked only at the school level, they often had seen district bureaucracy become a roadblock to change. Additionally, they had observed the power of communities to hold schools accountable for improving performance. The team began to articulate a theory of change that specified the activities they believed had to occur at each level:
Schools: BayCES’ work with schools happens through “equity coaching,” defined as the “practice of instructing, provoking, guiding, and supporting people to achieve mutually agreed upon objectives that interrupt historical patterns of inequity.” Coaches work as content providers, change agents, critical friends, and facilitators. In Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley, BayCES’ school coaching is cited as one of the most important reasons for the progress achieved to date. One Emeryville school leader explained, “In education, your people are your programs. BayCES provides quality personnel support.”
Districts: BayCES’ work with district leaders helps to create an environment conducive to the districts’ work with schools. In Oakland, for example, BayCES contributed to a new policy promoting and supporting small school development. It was clear to BayCES leadership that their relationships with district leaders had become a considerable asset. In Oakland and Emeryville, in particular, BayCES’ work with district leaders was believed to have fueled wider reforms. Moreover, districts were asking BayCES for more support. Said one district leader, “Outside planning groups [like BayCES] are critical to helping design the schools while we build the district’s infrastructure. We could also use help with our own project management… I can’t name another organization besides BayCES who is doing this type of work well in urban districts.”
Communities: BayCES engages with communities to generate further momentum for change. In 1999, Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), an organizing group representing 40,000 families from churches throughout Oakland, recruited BayCES as a partner in its school reform efforts. OCO mobilized parents to show up at board meetings through traditional grassroots, door-to-door organizing, channeling community members’ anger over the poor state of their schools into effective demands for change and accountability. This overwhelming community support, together with OCO’s credible staff of former teachers and deep understanding of Oakland politics, gave BayCES an unusual degree of influence over the district. In fact, many people involved with BayCES believed that its community work was the backbone of its success, ensuring that district and city officials continued to implement reforms with a sense of urgency.
In addition to working with people at all three levels, the team crystallized another critical ingredient of the theory of change: a focus on work in places that not only needed better schools but also were willing to push for them. This meant communities with exceptionally high concentrations of poorly performing, underserved students. Moreover, BayCES had learned that for reform to be successful there needed to be sufficient community and district-wide energy that could be channeled to start and sustain change; in Jubb’s words, the organization needed to focus on “communities in distress” and “districts in pain” and harness that energy for change. With the intended impact and theory of change as a guide, BayCES leadership was ready to decide on the organization’s new direction. (Exhibit A below depicts BayCES’ intended impact and theory of change.)
Determining which activities did, and did not, fit with its strategy was now a more manageable undertaking. The BayCES-Bridgespan team divided BayCES’ activities into three categories—core, supporting, and non-core. For core activities, they would develop detailed three-year plans; for non-core activities, they would determine how best to exit them; and for the supporting category, they would work to better understand their fit with BayCES’ strategy. Then they would identify the districts where they would focus those core activities.
What is “Core,” And what Isn’t?
Out of the intended impact and theory of change flowed criteria for separating core and non-core activities, and therefore making decisions about which programs to focus on. Core activities would be those that:
- Allowed the organization to work simultaneously at the school, district, and community levels;
- Served BayCES’ target constituents (i.e., communities in distress with high concentrations of African Americans, Latinos, and other historically-disadvantaged populations; and districts in crisis).
The team also layered in four criteria related to implementation of the activities:
- BayCES is uniquely positioned to undertake the activity;
- The activity draws upon BayCES’ core capabilities;
- Elimination of the activity would adversely impact BayCES’ constituents, partners, reputation, and future efforts;
- The activity has strong potential to become economically self-sustaining after a start-up phase.
Over several months of analysis, the team applied these criteria to each of the activities in which BayCES was engaged.
Core: A common thread emerged among the activities they categorized as core: coaching. Whether working with teachers to help them teach more effectively, with district leaders to help them support school reform efforts, or with community members to help them hold schools accountable, BayCES staff shared a deep belief that any successful effort to transform schools must first transform the people who shape them. School, district, and community leaders echoed this sentiment:
- “Teachers become like self -winding watches that haven’t moved. They came into education with a dream, but quit dreaming. BayCES gets them moving again.” – School principal
- “Without BayCES, we wouldn’t be doing small schools or high school conversions. The district is pulled in 500 directions; those inside the district have 1,000 things competing for their attention and direction. BayCES can stay focused.” – District superintendent
- “[BayCES’ strength lies in] its depth of research and ability to help folks understand what conditions are important to attain quality educational outcomes. Their ideas have a lot of power.” – Community leader
Supporting: Beyond coaching, BayCES also provided a set of ancillary services to educators and community members. These included: professional development for teachers, administrators, and community partners; networking services for BayCESaffiliated leaders; grants to individual schools; research and evaluation of BayCES’ results; and community awareness-building and engagement. The team put these activities in the supporting category.
Non-core: Then there were the activities that emerged as non-core. As BayCES’ profile had grown, senior staff increasingly were being asked to speak at conferences around the country, as well as to consult to other school reform organizations eager to follow in BayCES’ footsteps. Initially, they were excited to help spur similar efforts and willingly gave of their time and expertise. Over time, however, the requests became more numerous and more draining. In fact, analyzing staff members’ weekly schedules revealed that senior staff on average were spending nearly 30 percent of their time outside of the East Bay.
Where to Focus?
Over the years, BayCES had grown rapidly throughout Northern California from its roots in San Francisco. Operations extended as far north as San Rafael in Marin County and as far south as San Juan Bautista, beyond San Jose. And BayCES was pushing deeper into the three East Bay communities of Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley with its district-wide work.
BayCES leadership knew the organization couldn’t possibly do it all. They needed to decide which districts matched well with the intended impact and theory of change. To do this, the team studied the existing landscape of Northern California schools, screening each district for fit with BayCES’ target demographic and academic achievement profile and then for BayCES’ ability to work there simultaneously at the school, district, and community levels.
The team profiled the districts using publicly available student demographic and academic achievement data. Many districts had relatively low concentrations of African- American and Latino students; many also showed mediocre, rather than poor, student performance. The team removed all of these districts from consideration.
Several communities in the East Bay (including Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley), in contrast, surfaced as needing much more help. For instance, six out of Oakland’s 10 secondary schools earned the lowest score possible on the statewide ranking assessment. Although BayCES already was working with 23 of Oakland’s 110 schools, or about 17 percent of all students, staff and district partners felt that many more Oakland schools were in need of BayCES’ support. Said one district administrator, “A lot more schools will want to undergo reform, and [meeting their] coaching-support needs will be a huge challenge. I just hope BayCES can scale up their capacity.”
One large district fell notably outside of the bounds of BayCES’ criteria: San Francisco. BayCES had worked in San Francisco since the organization’s founding. Many people perceived San Francisco to be a “community in distress,” yet the district’s overall student demographics and academic achievement profile were substantially different from districts like Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville. In these three places, African-American and Latino students constituted between 50 percent and 80 percent of the student population, whereas they constituted less than 40 percent in San Francisco. (See Exhibit B below.) Moreover, nearly 40 percent of San Francisco students were Asian Americans, a demographic group whose average academic performance is generally high.
Next the joint BayCES-Bridgespan team scoured the list of Northern California districts to find places where BayCES could facilitate simultaneous school, district, and community transformation. One East Bay district was quickly eliminated, even though the superintendent had asked BayCES to partner with him to help create new small schools, because he did not have grassroots support (or the potential to build it) for his reform initiative. Likewise, other districts were eliminated because the superintendents were known to be opposed to BayCES’ comprehensive school reform approach.
Here again, San Francisco seemed to be a poor fit with BayCES’ criteria. Although BayCES had worked in San Francisco schools for many years, only recently had the nonprofit made contact with grassroots organizations in the city. Most of these organizations were neither as large nor as influential as Oakland Community Organizations. Similarly, while BayCES had been in dialogue with the San Francisco superintendent, and while the school district was undertaking its own comprehensive reform initiative, the district already had secured support from other school reform organizations, as well as from Stanford University.
Which Way to Go?
In the end, after exploring which activities and locations fit the strategy, BayCES leadership decided to redouble the organization’s efforts in Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley. Instead of increasing the geographic breadth of its activities, BayCES would focus on its East Bay districts to serve those communities more deeply.
The organization would scale back significantly the amount of far-flung scouting, consulting, and public speaking work and invest that time in its East Bay initiatives to ensure that those became successful “proof points.” Only after successful proof points had been established would BayCES share its best practices with others in the field, and then only in a way that would be most effective, such as through a guide to replicating the BayCES model in entire districts.
BayCES leadership also made a heart-wrenching and courageous decision: They would not include San Francisco on the list of future district partners and would exit school coaching work there. This move would set the stage for San Francisco staff to be reassigned to the East Bay as needed. That said, they couldn’t just walk away; schools in San Francisco were counting critically on BayCES’ support. In a series of discussions, Jubb and school leaders in San Francisco decided on a 12- to 18-month transition period, during which time BayCES would continue to coach its San Francisco schools. This would provide the schools time to line up other sources of support.
Aligning the Organization
Now that BayCES had identified coaching in the East Bay as core, the team set out to determine how best to strengthen that work. Based on extensive discussions with program directors, school staff, district leaders, and community members, the team identified several areas for investment.
Strengthening Core Capabilities
The business-planning process had surfaced multiple opportunities for fortifying BayCES’ core coaching services. Although BayCES was providing more coaching assistance than did most peer organizations, staff were becoming acutely aware that more and bettertrained coaches would be needed to stabilize schools that were either newly formed or struggling and eventually to show measurable and sustained gains in student performance.
BayCES staff had found that the ideal level of support varied greatly depending on the development stage of the school. For instance, during a planning phase, a school might need less coaching; during rollout, substantially more coaching; and during steady-state, less coaching. Support requirements also differed depending on whether BayCES was converting existing schools to the small-school model or creating new small schools, with the former requiring more coaching support. Unlike new small schools in which teachers and administrators opt in, conversion schools sometimes mandate that these constituencies participate. BayCES staff had to do much more to inspire, support, and change the minds of these potentially reluctant individuals.
BayCES’ district work had been resource-intensive, as well. Because some districts have limited expertise and capacity to deal with small-school reform, BayCES leadership had felt compelled to heavily support some related central-office responsibilities such as developing district policy, providing staff support, and hiring consultants—all of which lay beyond the organization’s own areas of expertise. This taxed BayCES’ own resources and capacity.
The joint BayCES-Bridgespan team revisited the organization’s coach allocation process and made several key decisions:
- The number of coaching hours BayCES provided to each school would be increased by at least 50 percent, to 10-15 hours per week. BayCES staff believed this level was the minimum amount of coaching needed to begin to see movement on important school improvement measures.
- Coaching hours would be increased dramatically for struggling schools, as well as for new schools early in their rollout, resulting in nearly one full-time staff member being assigned in some cases.
- BayCES would hire three senior coaches to help oversee the Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley initiatives, relieving the organization’s senior staff of many of their supervisory duties and enabling them to focus greater attention on important district- and community-level work.
- BayCES would provide all of its coaches with more training so that they would be better equipped to coach school, district, and community leaders more intensively than ever before.
Optimizing the organizational structure
Beyond strengthening the organization’s coaching capabilities, changes in BayCES’ organizational structure would also be necessary to implement the new strategy effectively. Jubb would be spending so much of his time managing district and community relationships and raising funds that the organization needed to migrate some of his other responsibilities (such as supporting the management team and making resource allocation decisions) off his plate. Accordingly, BayCES committed to hiring an associate director. The new position would handle day-to-day management responsibilities and oversee the organization’s finances and operations, which would each be led by two new managers.
The addition of the new associate director position also meant changes to reporting lines to ensure that staff received appropriate supervision, mentoring, and support. Jubb would now be responsible for supervising the associate director and the development director, as well as for mentoring the program directors and helping them to develop and refine their program strategies. The associate director would supervise BayCES program directors, the new financial analyst, and the new operations manager. The program directors would manage the coaching staff in their areas. (See Exhibit C below.)
Making Change and Moving Forward
BayCES leadership had chosen the strategic path they believed would allow them to make the most difference in underserved students’ lives. In the process, they implicitly made a tradeoff involving the organization’s pace of growth. Under its earlier school coaching model, BayCES was able to grow rapidly and flexibly by extending its services to schools throughout Northern California; the only major impediment to growth was the availability of skilled coaching staff. Now, because so much of the organization’s ability to achieve impact depends on deep local knowledge, district relationships, and an active political constituency, as well as the availability of skilled coaching staff, BayCES cannot replicate its model as quickly and easily in new locations. For BayCES, maximizing impact won’t mean rapid growth or broad geographic reach.
BayCES leadership learned some important lessons through the business-planning process—lessons they are committed to applying going forward. They recognized the power of using the organization’s intended impact and theory of change to help prioritize activities. They saw the benefit of focusing on the things that are most important to the organization having impact, investing deeply in those things, and aligning their resources accordingly. The core/non-core framework also continues to live on; although incredibly simple, this categorization has proven to be a powerful device for BayCES. It has provided them with a way to limit mission-creep. By the end of the engagement, Jubb’s mantra had become, “I think this is core.”
BayCES has carried through with its plans to invest in its core coaching activities and to exit its non-core initiatives. The organization’s district level work has taken hold—so much so that when the Emeryville and Oakland districts were taken over by the State Superintendent of Schools for fiscal mismanagement, the business community, city leadership, and new district leadership looked to BAYCES to help turn the districts around.
In the Summer of 2004, the Broad Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a $43-million Oakland Unified School District-BayCES plan to redesign the Oakland Unified School District into a new organization. Jubb assigned himself nearly full-time to playing the role of “head coach” to the district, leading the redesign team. More broadly, BayCES is serving as a partner to Oakland State Administrator Dr. Randy Ward to help him, his staff, and key funders ensure the district’s transformation and, ultimately, the success of every student Oakland.
Adding strength and support for the redesign effort in Oakland is the recent release of scores from California Standards Test. For the first time in the last two decades, Oakland showed strong gains in both English Language Arts and Mathematics in every grade level on every test. Emeryville Secondary School made large improvements on the California High School Exit Exam and the California Standards Test. Berkeley’s new small schools are showing positive leading indicators in attendance and family involvement.
“Clearly there is a lot more work to do,” says Jubb. “However, I have learned that our biggest barriers are in our own hearts and minds. As a leader I must be relentless about achieving results and expecting success of ourselves and others. You have to keep learning and doing until you get it right.”
 "Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in California," The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University, March 24, 2005.