(Repost of a March 16, 2023 article on the Barr Foundation blog. The Barr Foundation Education Program is dedicated to advancing equity and excellence in New England high schools.)
As foundations grapple with how to advance equity, many are seeking to reimagine learning and evaluation in their grantmaking. In a recent blog post, the Barr Foundation’s Yvonne Belanger described how for Barr, centering equity has meant a more collaborative approach to evaluation that is inclusive of a wider range of voices, including grantee voices. This approach involves more purpose-driven learning with shorter cycles of reflecting and acting on varied forms of data and evidence.
One of the places Barr has begun to put these principles into action is the Engage New England (ENE) initiative, for which SRI Education serves as the external evaluation partner. Barr’s Education Team launched Engage New England in 2017 as part of its strategy to Catalyze New Models of high schools. With this initiative, Barr set out to demonstrate how schools can support the success of all students—including and especially those who have not been well-served by the education system in the past and are currently off track to graduate from high school. To maximize learning, Barr approached the first phase of the initiative as a developmental stage, during which the Education Team and the initiative’s technical assistance partner, Springpoint, could adapt their strategy and supports as they learned more about grantee needs.
Specifically, Barr established multiple mechanisms for collecting information on initiative progress, including regular conversations between foundation staff and grantee leaders, monthly updates from Springpoint, and formative feedback from our team at SRI Education. Several key learnings about supporting equitable school transformation emerged from this process.
Prioritize instructional improvement
As Barr and Springpoint worked with grantees to design schools that better meet the needs of their student populations, they found that ENE schools had strong student–staff relationships but needed more support to make students’ learning experiences rigorous and purposeful. This finding is consistent with research on schools that predominantly serve students who are off track to graduate from high school. In response, the partners determined that instructional improvement had to be the “lead domino” for changing schools and students’ experiences therein. But as a Barr staff member noted, “What we could see was that [when school leaders said], ‘We will eventually or in parallel get to the instructional work,’ that wasn’t happening.” Barr staff found that schools were juggling too many efforts to prioritize instructional improvement and needed outside support to maintain this focus.
Barr staff found that schools were juggling too many efforts to prioritize instructional improvement and needed outside support to maintain this focus.
Select leaders with equity-aligned mindsets
Barr sought to identify and develop ENE grantees that could ultimately serve as exemplar high schools. These schools did not have to be high performing at the start of the initiative, but their leaders had to be committed to the work. One lesson that emerged from the initiative was the importance of selecting leaders who shared Barr’s vision for equity.
Barr identified two key equity-aligned mindsets leaders needed to be successful: an assets-based orientation including high expectations for students, and a conviction that staff development can transform instruction to better meet students’ needs. Most importantly, the foundation pressed to make sure school leaders believed all students could succeed and were not dismissing any groups. The Barr Education staff came to prioritize these mindsets over specific leadership competencies in selecting grantees because they found that leadership skills could be developed but mindsets were harder to change.
Barr identified two key equity-aligned mindsets leaders needed to be successful: an assets-based orientation including high expectations for students, and a conviction that staff development can transform instruction to better meet students’ needs.
Recognize that transformation requires a long-term investment
As the ENE initiative evolved, Barr revised its expectations of the time horizon and investment needed to support change and create exemplary alternative high schools. By extending the initiative’s funding timeline, including the launch of Beyond ENE in 2022 for continued support for a subset of the school partners, the foundation acknowledged the reality that school reform is an iterative process that requires a long-term commitment. This understanding is consistent with studies of school design that have shown the necessity of lengthened planning and funding timelines, and with the need to take the long view in assessing how organizational change impacts student outcomes.
Throughout the ENE initiative, Barr sought to balance having high expectations for progress with providing time for all the partners to learn and adjust. Additional learnings from the first phase of the initiative are summarized in a new research brief from the SRI evaluation team, Transforming High Schools to Serve Students Who Are Off Track to Graduate. By sharing our approach to learning and some of the insights gained from Barr’s ENE initiative, we hope to help inform other school transformation efforts.