The National Academy Foundation (NAF) is a federated network of more than 400 high school academies that offers students rigorous, career-themed curricula designed to prepare them for college and meaningful careers in fields as diverse as finance, hospitality, and engineering. Starting in 2009, and driven by a strategy that required network improvement, NAF’s leadership worked closely with a steering group of its academies to develop a self-evaluation tool that tracks performance indicators related to fidelity to the national model. Academies report on four components of their capacity, including both programmatic and organizational dimensions. Like the other networks profiled in this article, NAF then mapped academies into developmental stages based on their performance against these dimensions.
According to Associate Vice President for Programs Bill Taylor, NAF has put real thought into the way its leadership and academies can support one another in moving “up the ranks” in line with these performance standards. The center has created a guidebook on the “cycle of improvement” as a resource for academies, and academies rely on centrally produced planning tools to help identify the next steps they should take to further their development. In addition, the center offers resources to help academies tailor their supports to their own needs, through offerings including a summer institute for professional development, curriculum coaching, and forums to share best practices across the network.
Early results are encouraging. As Taylor noted, “Success is no longer nebulous now that academies have both the tools and clarity that they need to get better.” What’s more, in time the center hopes to tailor financial incentives—the resources that it applies to its network—to better meet the developmental needs of academies. Through a rigorous application of resources, new attention to planning for improvement, and shared ownership for getting better, NAF has piloted a promising method for helping more students succeed in life through their participation in existing NAF academies.
While the national office is using the diagnostic findings to improve the entire network, individual academy board and staff members can use the same material for their own organizations to determine where they should showcase their strengths and where they need to focus on improvement. And although the circumstances around each academy vary from all others to some degree (NAF often uses the line "When you've see one local [academy], you've seen one local"), having a rigorously developed set of network-wide criteria for what it takes to be effective can provide a strong road map for each academy to direct its own development, leveraging the strengths and synergy of the network along the way.