New Charter School Transitions

David Roberts from The Difference was brought into the Tahoe Expeditionary School, a new charter school in Truckee, Lake Tahoe, California, to help transition the founders’ vision to the team who would realize that vision.

In this article, David recounts his emotional and inspiring experience.

Part 1: Founders only
First we had a “letting go ceremony” for the Founding Group of 14 moms. This included re-creating their 18-month story, honoring themselves and each other for different skills and efforts, building a visual collage to provide to the larger community, and recognizing the toll this took on their husbands, families, and day jobs.

They are cathedral builders – this Charter School will last well past what they will get out of it. They now have a magical, functioning school and are very proud. They love their children and have sacrificed for them.

During this meeting the group of 14 founders selected a new, 7-person Board of Directors to take the vision forward. This process was very emotional, difficult, and in the end, productive.

Part 2: Larger school community session
Next, the weekend retreat transitioned to more participants, including all the founders plus all the teachers, the principal, and some parents and staff. The purpose was to define how to operationalize their values. In doing so, we answered some key questions: What does diversity/inclusion or social responsibility actually look like at this school? What are options for doing this better than its ever been done? What are trade-offs inherent in this? What’s our sphere of influence? What are resources required? What are recommendations for how we do it?

Then we facilitated alignment on the trade-offs required between key elements of the instruction, all of which were in the charter and had to be addressed, and all of which cost money. Specifically, they are (1) art, music, theater (2) spanish language/culture, and (3) expeditions/ being with nature and community. Questions in this discussion included: How should resource decisions be prioritized between them? What did teachers, principal, and board want? What did parents need to understand? How will they each react when a decision goes against what is best for their child?

Part 3: The new Board and Director
The final day’s session was conducted with a smaller group: only the new Board and the director/school principal. The objective here was to

1) get a handle on the strategic decisions ,

2) prioritize the list of big decisions coming up over the year,

3) decide the specific roles of Principle, Board, PTO, Latino parent community, media, etc,

4) agree upon a decision-making framework (based on a successful Colorado charter school methodology called ABCD decision-making framework), and

5) run the key decisions through this framework.

Some critical questions answered included:
How to decide whether we change locations for the school? How much and how fast do we grow the school? We know we want more classrooms and students, but how? Will 7th and 8th graders change the culture and ruin everything? How do we deal with a well-intentioned but overly-assertive parent? Where does our vision go from here? What about the “Brown Act” that makes it hard to communicate freely without breaking the law by having a private meeting?

Talk about transition.

Reflecting afterward
After the session, I hiked around Squaw Valley ski resort with his children, Finley and Cleo, wife Mariah, and a few other families. We all agreed not to talk. I kept thinking about how much emotion goes into our kids, the fierceness of that emotion, what these women had done through thick and thin to create this Charter School.

And now they were passing on for others to take and run. I felt a strong sense of how much trust was required and wondered how it would be possible to minimize the collateral damage that typically goes hand-in-hand with emotional fierceness of this kind.

 am fortunate to apply our brand of collaboration to this effort. Every event The Difference has run in the not-for-profit sector has caused us to

1) work very hard

2) challenge some of our assumptions, and

3) end up in a very rewarding place.