New Orleans CityBusiness: The E3 Fellows on Leadership and Crisis Response

July 28, 2020

In its July 17th digital edition, CityBusiness featured the following sponsored article by NSNO on the E3 Fellowship. In the article, E3 Fellows reflect on what it means to collaborate across schools, leading in a crisis, and the leadership that the city needs in this historic moment.

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Strong schools and school networks have strong leaders. And our system of schools is strongest when those leaders come together. We believe that collaboration—not competition—will serve our children best.

At New Schools for New Orleans, we want to make sure that our charter networks continue to have excellent leaders in the years to come. We also want to make sure that the next generation of these leaders are prepared to work together as a team. Together, they impact tens of thousands of children.

That is why NSNO is proud to have launched the E3 program, a two-year fellowship through which nine current school and single-site charter management organization leaders come together for high-quality, targeted training to prepare to become charter school executives. In addition to one-on-one coaching, national site-visits, and a four-day retreat, the E3 Fellows have a series of core sessions with national leaders like former Secretary of Education John King, KIPP Atlanta Chief Schools Officer Mini’mah Shaheed, and former Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White.

We hired a national education research firm to shadow top-performing CMO leaders nationwide. We picked that data apart to find what makes a charter network executive successful. We then looked for the roots of those skills and qualities in the Fellows we chose and built a curriculum to help them more fully develop them. We also intentionally recruited leaders of color for this program. The current class of Fellows is skilled, passionate, accomplished, and dedicated; you can read “bios” of them here.

Even as schools have been physically closed this spring, the Fellows have continued to meet virtually. As the landscape rapidly evolves in response to COVID-19, school leaders are called to collaborate and share best practices around response to the virus. Jay Altman, the former leader of FirstLine Schools and Katie Wamsley, Chief Financial Officer of KIPP New Orleans, facilitated online sessions on how leaders recommit to their mission, vision and values in a time of crisis, how leaders can map out multiple scenarios for reentry back to school, and how school leaders can make sense of changing finances in this moment.

We spoke with some E3 Fellows about collaboration, responding to crisis, and the future of education in New Orleans.

On Collaboration

“Many times as leaders we feel alone, on an island by ourselves. It is great to be able to collaborate with other leaders, especially in this time of COVID-19. We’ve never faced anything like this, and so, to be able to share and to bounce ideas to benefit the children is important.

We have an email chain, a text chain, we have the in-services together. We’re able to speak our minds and bounce ideas off one another.

We are the champions of each other. It’s not a competition among charters. We are saying, “let’s build for each other, let’s benefit from each other, let’s add to each other’s ideas. You take a piece of mine, I take a piece of yours, and we can create a mecca of communication in New Orleans.”

Our society is as strong as its education system. That is what we are trying to build—the educational system of this great city that we live in.”

“I think that collaboration is single-handedly the greatest potential of this group. There’s nine of us, and we all work for different types of schools…and there is diversity in who we are…but at the core, we have a lot of the same values: we all want really great schools across the city, we don’t want any network or any school to be worse than the others. If we were all to be a CEO one day, our power to initiate change will be greater because we share best practices.”

“It is great to be able to send a text to a group of ten people doing the same work. You get a lot of feedback and different points of view, and that is helpful when you have to make really quick decisions.

In a city where organizations might not always do the same things, it’s important that there’s a close community of leaders that will work together and have robust conversations. Even if outcomes may be different, we will all benefit from the fact that we all have those relationships and can hear from each other.”

On Responding to the Crisis of COVID-19

We had virtual COVID response sessions through E3. They were very timely. The sessions focused on what good crisis leadership looked like. Though E3 is geared toward readying people for chief level executive roles, I was able to pull things that I could apply to my practice as principal.

For instance, I’m a big planner; I don’t like to communicate half baked plans. I want every detail, even the minute ones to be certain before I share the plan. I learned though that good crisis leaders are vulnerable and communicate early and often, even if all of the details have not been figured out.

We had Zoom sessions with Jay Altman, the former CEO of Firstline Schools. One was on finances, one on content and operations. I think the benefit is Jay’s national and regional perspective but also hearing from the other E3 Fellows about how they are responding to this moment.

We were able to share and push each other. When it came to distance learning, everyone shared what they did and what they thought was beneficial. We shared resources, challenges, and questions. We all have different networks and contexts and we are all spread out across the city, but we are all very aligned on our mission and goals and focus.

On the Leadership Our City Needs Right Now

We have been working on understanding the nuances and thought processes of what a chief-level executive would go through in terms of managing crisis. We’re coming to understand that, as a chief level executive, you’re not necessarily leading change, you’re driving change. In a crisis, you’re pushing the vision, but you are reliant on other leaders to be at the forefront of doing that work. You have to empower them to make change on their own, to be responsible for the day-to-day. You have less control over a single school, but you can have impact for more children.

My goal has always been to impact the lives of more students. In my career, I have been a substitute paraprofessional, then a paraprofessional, and then a teacher. After that, I was over school culture, and then I was an Assistant Principal, and now I am the Principal of Lake Forest Charter School. With each new role, my work affected more children. Each time, I have had a greater impact and influenced a greater number of lives. Now, I almost finished with my doctorate in educational leadership, which will enable even greater impact.

I want to step into more leadership through E3. This is my city and my community. I was educated in New Orleans public schools, I went to universities in New Orleans, and I want to lead in education here. I fight the barriers presented by being a Black male at this level of experience; because of the way the system is set up, there aren’t many models of Black males in these roles.

I can be a model and a mentor by helping give some guidance on being Black male in this environment. I want to express that we have to deal with the present and the past, and work toward the future.

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The challenge of starting the school year amidst a pandemic is enormous, but we know our schools and leaders will continue to face great challenges. We know they are more likely to surmount those obstacles when they collaborate with their colleagues citywide. 

And we know our children need that. Just as we know they need great teachers in front of their classrooms and great principals in front of their schools for years to come, we also know they need a strong cohort of leaders ready to take on the challenge of managing our city’s schools. Our private sectors plan for leadership succession and our public schools can do so, too. 

In reflecting on E3, Nicole Saulny said, “after the first meeting we had, our first retreat, I was struck by the energy I felt, the intellectual level of everyone supporting each other. I felt like I could do this work for 50 more years.”

We hope that she will.

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