A Tale of Two CMOs: Coordinating Change in Big and Small Charter Management Organizations
By Ginger Wu, Tim Burke, Marco Castaneda, and Paula Espinoza
Launched in January 2020, the Charter Students with Disabilities Pilot Community Initiative supports a networked improvement community (NIC) of 10 charter management organizations (CMOs) aiming to dramatically improve outcomes for their students with disabilities. This story is part of a three part series that reflects on the CMOs’ learnings from an unusual 2020–2021 school year. Improvement Teams faced school closures and remote learning, but also made time to plan changes that can systematically improve the way we serve students with disabilities.
No two charter management organizations (CMOs) are the same — they vary in size, culture, and organizational structure. One of the largest and most established CMOs in the country is Uncommon Schools. Uncommon opened its first school in 1997 to better prepare students in Newark, New Jersey for college. Today, it operates 55 schools and serves over 21,000 students across the Northeast. In contrast, STEM Preparatory Schools was founded in 2015 and operates 3 schools that serve 1,300 students in the West Adams and Jefferson Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles, CA.
Both CMOs share similar goals. They strive to prepare their students for college success and provide outstanding schools for the communities they serve. Additionally, both Uncommon and STEM Prep are part of the Charter Students with Disabilities Pilot Community, a networked improvement community of 10 CMOs nationwide that came together to improve educational outcomes for Black and Latinx students with disabilities experiencing poverty.
As part of the pilot community, Uncommon and STEM Prep are gearing up to implement changes for the next school year to better support their students with disabilities. How does Uncommon — the largest CMO in the community — organize improvement efforts compared to STEM Prep — the smallest CMO in the community? Does size matter when it comes to data-driven networked improvement?
Uncommon Schools: Organizing Improvement Efforts in 55 Schools
Uncommon Schools’ mission is to prepare all students for college success. Their schools have an impressive track record. Since 1997, 99 percent of Uncommon’s graduates have been accepted into college, and 75 percent of graduates have earned, or are on track to earn, their bachelor’s degree.
Still, Uncommon faces a difficult challenge that high schools across the country face: students with disabilities persist in and graduate from college at lower rates than their peers. Uncommon’s Improvement Team is developing Change Ideas to better prepare students with disabilities for college success. How does a CMO of Uncommon’s size initiate change and organize improvement efforts?
As a system of 55 schools, Uncommon leverages its large network of classrooms to collect data and gauge student success. The data allows Uncommon to develop evidence-based practices that serve all students.
“One of the benefits of having 55 schools is having thousands of teachers working with students. As a result, we are able to scrutinize student achievement data from hundreds of classrooms,” explained Sam Messer, Uncommon’s Senior Director of Special Education.
Uncommon looks at research-based practices by seeking out experts and school networks that are succeeding in areas they have identified areas for improvement. Messer elaborated, “If there is a particular area where we are struggling as a network, and we feel we don’t have the exemplar internally, we look externally to other schools to see if we can find it. We love a good school visit where we have the opportunity to learn from others outside our network as well.”
To test Change Ideas, Uncommon starts small within their locus of control. They test and evaluate ideas in a few classrooms before codifying what works and scaling out practices across the network. For example, Uncommon plans to pilot ideas in English 1 and AP World History classes at two schools, Uncommon Charter High School and Lincoln Park High School. Additionally, Uncommon looks for positive outliers, or bright spots, in their classroom data to identify what practices are yielding success for students. Messer summarized:
“We visit the classroom, interview the teacher, video tape lessons and attempt to codify what is working. We then share it with our entire network in an attempt to replicate strategies being used by our most successful teachers.”
Uncommon scales change by leveraging centralized structures, such as their network-wide Best Practices Roadshow professional development sessions. This summer, Uncommon plans to organize a wide-scale training to ground teachers in differentiation strategies that appropriately accommodate all students in all academic instruction.
STEM Preparatory Schools: “Just Try It” in 3 Schools
On the other side of the country, STEM Preparatory Schools operates 3 schools and serves communities in Los Angeles. Because it is a relatively small CMO, many of STEM Prep’s staff wear different hats and have ownership over a variety of areas. Mary Maher, the Director of Special Education at STEM Prep, sees the CMO’s size as an advantage.
“I think the benefit is that everyone in the home office knows what’s going on at all the schools. We’re really involved in the decision making at the sites, and vice versa. It’s not really a top down approach — everyone from the site has input on what happens org-wide,” said Maher.
STEM Prep’s mission is to provide its students with the tools to have careers in engineering, biomedicine, and computer science. However, STEM Prep recognizes that some of the current systems and structures create barriers for students with disabilities to access careers in science and technology. To remove barriers to STEM careers, STEM Prep is turning toward co-teaching to increase the percentage of students with disabilities who are proficient in math.
Maher explained, “We’ve always had support in our math classes. But we realized that we could get higher quality support by using the evidence-based practice of co-teaching, [which] not only brings greater access to rigor for students with disabilities in math classes, but [also] creates shared responsibility.”
To organize change, STEM Prep leverages relationships with its teaching staff and embraces a “just try it” philosophy. The improvement team checks in with each math teacher to communicate changes and address concerns. If there is hesitation to implement an evidence-based change, Maher encourages colleagues to just try it, even if the solution is not perfect.
“Try it out. See how it goes. We’re never expecting anything brand new to be perfect,” Maher advised. “I think that’s where a lot of anxiety comes from. In rolling out new things, folks want it to be perfect. But, just remind them that we have no expectations around that, we want them to try it, and we’ll take their feedback to adjust it as necessary. I’ve seen a lot of success with that.”
Uncommon and STEM Prep look very different on paper, and they organize change in different ways. Still, both CMOs are strongly committed to data-driven practices and an “all means all” approach. They are both identifying Change Ideas, testing new practices, and working toward improving educational outcomes for all students. At the core of their work is a desire to make strides for their students with disabilities through continuous improvement.
Whether you are a bigger organization like Uncommon or a smaller one like STEM Prep, you can use continuous improvement tools to define problems, set goals, and enact change.
Ginger Wu writes from Marshall Street Initiatives, a K-12 solutions lab that tackles persistent challenges in American public education. She co-authored this story with Marshall Street’s Improvement Advisors Tim Burke, Marco Castaneda, and Paula Espinoza. Learn more about Marshall Street’s work in continuous improvement at marshall.org.