Five Lessons Leaders Should Learn Before Launching A NextGen School Model


Two years ago, Ken Montgomery, then an Assistant Principal in the San Mateo Unified School District, took the bold step to design and launch his own school. With a little help from his district, some great co-founders and some support from NGLC, Montgomery launched Design Tech High in the fall of 2014 (check out their innovative design). Now, with a year under his belt, Ken is sharing out the five most important lessons he learned about how to launch a new school model, what worked and what didn’t.

1. Involve Students at every step of the way: It is important to embrace your first class and their families as co-founders of the school. They have risked the most by enrolling in a brand new school and will forever have a unique role. Whenever we were considering how to solve a problem, we always asked ourselves if a student could learn something by solving the problem themselves.

Our school is a 1:1 Chromebook school, and when the first screen broke we gave the student the option of paying $120 to have it repaired or fixing it himself; he chose the latter. The cost of a replacement screen is $55, and we now have a cadre of students trained to repair Chromebook screens. Students also assembled the milling machine, maintain and repair the 3-d printer, negotiate contracts with yearbook vendors and run every aspect of the school dance. This not only creates ownership for the students but also helps them learn important skills in a safe environment.  

2. Use Google Docs or pencil and paper for first year tech needs: Rather than invest in a specific technology at the onset, try to do everything on Google Docs or use pencil and paper. After you’ve been in operation for a few months you will have a much better understanding of your needs and be better prepared to make potentially expensive decisions regarding technology purchases. We used a variety of free methods for delivering. These methods included Google Classroom, Moodle, and teachers building their own sites using Weebly. We also used Google Sheets as our weekly student scheduling tool. Going into year two, we now use Buzz as our LMS, Math XL for our math classes, and are working with volunteers to build our scheduling algorithm. These decisions were much better informed after spending time using our free prototypes.

3. Understand your needs before you start purchasing: We knew a learning management system was going to be a key component of our model. However, rather than buying a tool right at the beginning, we took our time. And we are glad we did. Here’s how we did it.

We started by creating a needs assessment chart from the perspective of various stakeholders, identifying the needs of students, parents, teachers and administrative staff. Among other things teachers needed a way to group students and push out specific assignments just to those students and easily provide feedback to students, parents needed a gradebook that made it very easy to understand student pace and performance in our competency-based system, while students needed a single sign-on and a way to easily submit assignments to teachers. Then we identified the non-negotiable items for each group. After we had a clear idea of what we wanted to be able to do, we reached out to the EdSurge Concierge service and shared our needs.

Concierge gave us a list of possible LMS’ and a way to compare them side-by-side. Then we began the work of testing them out and checking references. A key step for us was contacting similar schools to find out their experiences with a particular product. Sometimes you find out more than you wanted to know. One time a phone call about an LMS gave us great information about a world language provider that was next up on our shopping list.

4. Facilities are a very important to your model: Do not underestimate the impact of facilities on your educational program. We are attempting to redesign high school to create a more personalized experience for students. We were provided six traditional classrooms for 150 students to fulfill our Prop 39 request (Prop 39 is a California Code the requires a district that authorizes a charter school to provide it facilities if the charter school enrolls a minimum of 80 students from the district). Located in half-of a hallway, we affectionately became known as the hallway high school.

From the beginning we knew that we would have to develop several work-arounds to implement a non-traditional program in a traditional facility. Many of our work-arounds were unsuccessful, and we were fortunate that our authorizer found us a different facility for the next two years. We over-estimated our ability to adapt the space to our program and had to sacrifice some pieces of the vision to accommodate the facility. The opportunity to run the entire school out of half of a hallway created a lot of shared space and gave us all a chance to work diligently on our social-emotional skills, but if you do have to change pieces of your program to accommodate the space it’s important to communicate this to stakeholders as a temporary pivot until you have your own space.

5. Open bold, commit to innovation and manage expectations: When it comes time to open your doors there is tremendous pressure to become more conservative. Much of the pressure we received was from parents with good intentions. They would try to give us advice about what they have seen work previously in school.

We also were tempted to go back to the “tried and true”, but you have to resist the temptation to choose traditional solutions. If you don't, you run the risk of incrementally, decision-by-decision becoming a traditional school. This is not to say that many of the standard solutions are ineffective in a new model, as we in fact have implemented several things that would be considered “traditional.” But it’s important that you do not make implementing what you’ve seen work before into your default problem-solving mechanism.

Our general philosophy is to go as far out as possible on the innovation piece, even to the point where something does not work and then walk it back to the more conventional. It’s important to know just how far you can push your assumptions. A philosophy such as this must be coupled with the ability to manage student and parent expectations. An innovative school must communicate its commitment to innovation and let students and parents know that there will be bumps, but the payoff will be great down the road. 

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