Incubators Deliver Talent and Time to Grow Great Schools

Among the key ingredients for growing high-quality schools are a pipeline of talented leaders with the vision and skillset for launching those schools, and adequate time for those leaders to implement their ideas. 

In the charter sector, incubators have cropped up to help provide the assets of talent and time, leading to the creation of more excellent public charter schools. Private schools can borrow from charters’ lessons, as Andy Smarick emphasized in his recent report, The Chartered Course, including those from Indianapolis, a trailblazer in school incubation.

In 2001, Indiana passed a law enabling the Indianapolis mayor (then Democrat Bart Peterson) to authorize charter schools. Peterson, an avid charter backer, took full advantage of the law, building a mayor’s authorizing office that won Harvard’s Innovations in American Government Award in 2006 and chartering several schools that today outperform districts. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) studies have shown mayor-sponsored charters in Indianapolis produce two to three months of additional learning gains compared with traditional public schools.

But Mayor Peterson and I— his first charter schools director—saw a big roadblock to building more excellent charters: attracting the talent, particularly the entrepreneurial talent, needed to launch and run high-quality schools. Indianapolis simply wasn’t a place where people flocked for education innovation, or where local talent felt empowered to drive change. To address this gap, Mayor Peterson and I started The Mind Trust in 2006.

If you provide leaders with opportunities to drive change, they will seize them. That’s as true in Indianapolis as it is in coastal cities, and it applies equally to the public and private school sectors.

Among The Mind Trust’s initiatives is our Charter School Incubator, through which we entice talented leaders to start or grow high-quality charter schools in Indianapolis by offering them awards of up to $1 million. As part of the planning process for launching their schools, we encourage winners to take at least a year to ensure their schools are ready for success. The impact of this approach has been tremendous.

One of our first two Charter School Incubator winners, the George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academy (PLA), opened in August 2013. The Mind Trust encouraged the school’s founder, Earl Martin Phalen, to take additional time to launch the school, and that additional time has yielded positive results.

“As eager as we were to launch our first school,” Phalen told us, “we were right to take the time to get it right. The additional time allowed us to dig more deeply into the planning and implementation of our school and is a key reason that our scholars have achieved such strong results.”

In its first year, PLA has improved the percentage of all students on track in reading from 33 percent at the beginning of the school year to 90 percent. The percentage of kindergarteners on track in math has grown from 3 percent to 96 percent, and more than 64 percent of second graders are on track in math, up from 25 percent at the beginning of the year.

Before we launched the Charter School Incubator, The Mind Trust created our first incubator, the Education Entrepreneur Fellowship, to offer education leaders who want to start charter schools or other nonprofits addressing critical education needs in Indianapolis with two years of salary, benefits, and startup support ($250,000 in total).

The response to both the Charter School Incubator and Education Entrepreneur Fellowship programs has been remarkable. Since 2008, when we began accepting applications for the Education Entrepreneur Fellowship, more than 3,600 applicants from 48 states and 36 countries have applied. Of that pool, we’ve awarded eight fellowships, including our most recent winner, a longtime district educator who plans to spend her two years designing and launching a Spanish-language-immersion public charter school.

The Charter School Incubator also has generated tremendous interest through its first two application rounds, which collectively have drawn 65 teams of applicants from across the country.

This response makes clear the powerful role incubators can play in attracting talented people to start high-quality schools. If you provide leaders with opportunities to drive change, they will seize them. That’s as true in Indianapolis as it is in coastal cities, and it applies equally to the public and private school sectors.

As is highlighted by the Phalen Leadership Academy story, incubators also provide planning time that is essential for leaders to successfully design and launch their schools.

Such planning time is especially critical because research shows the schools’ early performance determines their trajectory. A 2013 CREDO study found that the performance level of most charter schools can be determined by the school’s third year of operation. Schools that start strong tend to stay strong, while those that get off to a weak start struggle to improve.

Too often, though, ample planning time does not exist for school leaders. A report on charter school creation by the U.S. Department of Education and the American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation identified lack of planning time among the top four challenges startup charter schools face. This challenge is equally relevant for traditional district, magnet, and private schools.

And the impact incubators can make on addressing the need for talent and time is not limited to public charter schools.

In April 2014, we expanded our incubation efforts to benefit autonomous public schools within Indianapolis’ largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), by launching our third incubator, the Innovation School Fellowship. Through the program we will select talented leaders to launch high-quality autonomous schools that have contractually guaranteed autonomy from the IPS Central Office but access to district resources, including buildings. The Innovation School Fellowship will provide these leaders a full salary and benefits so they will have at least a year, plus expert support, to design and launch their new schools.

We believe this incubator, like our other two, will provide powerful incentives for attracting top talent to the district and will equip those talented people with the time and resources they need to succeed.

The concept would translate into the private school sector, too.

Still, we must acknowledge that private schools in Indiana (and elsewhere) face barriers to expansion on top of those that public schools, including charters, confront. Indiana private schools must receive accreditation before accessing vouchers, which makes it difficult for them to focus on serving students with economic need from inception. And requirements that private school students, in many cases, must attend public school before receiving vouchers also inhibit private schools’ growth. These obstacles should be addressed by changes in public policy.

In the meantime, though, private schools can address two of the barriers that are universal to school growth—talent and time—and incubators could play a key role in their ability to do that.

By knocking down those obstacles, private schools can grow to serve more students. And in doing so, they can provide more opportunities for quality schools to students who most need them.