BES has a long history of identifying and preparing excellent leaders to create and realize their visions for transforming education in their communities. Of course, the key to making their dreams a reality is successfully navigating the authorization process. However, getting schools authorized has been harder for some founders than it should be. We know because we, like many organizations, once held a narrow definition of success that inadvertently excluded voices that deserved to be heard.
Over the past several years, BES has undergone a strategic planning process that expanded our thinking and gave us a more inclusive perspective on what makes schools and school leaders successful. We’re sharing some key takeaways from our journey to support a more diverse group of school founders and models. We think these can also help authorizers better support great and innovative leaders who can create new, high-quality educational opportunities rooted in equity for all learners.
How can bias impact authorization?
Bias in school founding and authorization happens when high-quality models with diverse and innovative design elements are discouraged, delayed, or not approved. Too often, this disproportionately impacts leaders of color looking to intentionally design schools that challenge the status quo and respond to the needs of communities of color. For example, Akeem Brown, 2020 BES Fellow and founder of Essence Prep in San Antonio, TX, recently faced an unexpected risk of charter denial unless he removed all statements about anti-racism from his application and school’s website – statements that reflected direct input from the surrounding community. Political arguments – that originated outside of the authorizing or application process – regarding critical race theory (not mentioned in his application) nearly prevented him from completing the process to open the school, despite demonstrated responsiveness to community need. Fortunately, the application was approved by the authorizing staff. While the plight of Essence Prep may seem extreme, those of us working in the charter space share an understanding that some authorizers have a narrow definition of success in the school models they approve, without sufficient consideration of community needs. BES is committed to partnering in NACSA’s work to evolve definitions of excellence and proudly stands by Akeem as he navigates these politics and perseveres on behalf of his community.
In order to best serve communities, we must continue to push for the approval of high-quality diverse school models that are informed by the ideas and needs of those students and families. An analysis NACSA did on charter school applications and approvals from 2013-2018, clearly showed that there are some types of applications favored by authorizers – those supported by philanthropy, connected to a management company, and certain kinds of educational models – that may shut out more community-centered applicants. BES continues to partner with NACSA, and like-minded organizations, to support leaders to design schools around unique community needs. BES has added new Fellowship tracks and community co-design partnerships to this end, and the results are incredibly exciting. BES’ 2021 Fellowship cohort has completed nearly a year of designing public school models, crafted and honed through ongoing community listening and engagement, that include a Montessori school, a school focused on creative arts, and a school designed for the Gullah Geechee community in Beaufort County, SC – and those are just a few examples.
What are the structures in place that perpetuate bias?
When BES started the strategic work of building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization, we had to question what was at the root of our practices and training, and how this affected our Fellows. Through assessing our programs and listening to feedback from leaders, we realized that we’d been placing disproportionate value on what we perceived as “professionalism” and a narrow definition of academic success. This approach prevented us from effectively communicating with leaders and prospective Fellows, excluding an array of perspectives and voices, including those of leaders of color.
We have since diversified our staff, programs, and priorities to support school leaders who value working with their communities, rather than promoting one type of school model and its associated practices that perpetuate systems of power and injustice. We have overhauled our Fellow selection and interview processes to be more uplifting, equitable, and inclusive. This spring, we’ve continued our collaboration with Onward by holding internal sessions to intentionally mitigate unconscious bias and root out aspects of White Supremacy Culture from our programming and coaching.
What can you do to challenge and change that structure?
- At BES, we continue to look for avenues to listen and learn from our alumni. Authorizers, too, can ask for feedback from those who have experienced their processes, especially those who may have had a challenging experience. Use that feedback to clarify and analyze policies, procedures, and organizational values to ensure they’re rooted in equity and access.
- Be prepared to challenge fellow authorizers to question whether their stated value of inclusivity is being carried out in practice. Challenge assumptions about leaders and “best practices” that have kept problematic structures in place. Look for ways to support leaders who may have been excluded, and partner with organizations like BES to support leaders to hone their skills.
- Promote high-quality diverse school models founded by more people of color and those with lived experiences in communities. Consider redefining how leaders can demonstrate commitment to community engagement, moving from check-the-box methods to allowing leaders to show how their relationship with the community is authentic and growing.
Though this work takes both courage and time, it is rewarding and leads to better schools for kids. BES and NACSA are equally committed partners in lifting up the voices of leaders of color and supporting leaders to center communities in the school founding process. We see so many qualified people doing the work in and with communities, who directly understand the unique needs of the families and students they serve. Their voices are passionate and powerful, and their creativity is awe-inspiring. We are grateful for the opportunity to identify these committed, high-capacity leaders, and support them in crafting and communicating a new vision. When we shift our thinking, we can see that possibility through their eyes, and empower these new leaders to turn their dreams into reality.
Since 2001, BES has identified and prepared more than 2,700 excellent leaders to transform education in their communities. From serving three states at its inception through the flagship BES Fellowship, to working in more than seven times that many currently, BES has evolved its offerings beyond school founding, supporting leaders at every stage of their journey to lead schools that reflect and respond to community need. In 2019, BES renewed its focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, resulting in a new strategic plan. Today BES stands for its aspiration for every school: Build, Excel, Sustain. Learn more at bes.org.
Aasimah Navlakhi is 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, where she previously served as Communications Director and Chief of Staff. Having experienced firsthand the life-changing power of great schools, Aasimah began her career as a speech and performance teacher in her hometown of Bangalore, India and is committed to ensuring that all students receive an excellent education and have equal opportunities to learn, grow, and thrive.