Key Learnings from Launching an Education Program in Chicago

Bryce Bowman is the Executive Director of Citizen Schools Illinois. This post was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog. 

Seven years ago, while spending my days working in business in Chicago, I started mentoring Chicago Public School students and — unknowingly — headed down the road to launching Citizen Schools Illinois. Working with students at Wells, Manley and Marshall High Schools on Chicago’s West Side was eye-opening and I began to learn and understand in a very micro way the intertwined strengths and challenges of the nation’s third-largest school system, and, more importantly, the fulfillment that comes from opening an opportunity to a student that otherwise might not have been received. Then I read an article which described how only six in 100 Chicago Public Schools students will graduate from college by the age of 25, and to say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. From my time as a mentor I knew our students were smart, gritty and had what it takes to be successful. They just needed access to high quality schools and opportunities.

With that determined focus, I transitioned into education for a full time career three years ago. Today, as the Citizen Schools Illinois team and I are experiencing the highs and lows of a nonprofit launch in one of the largest cities in the country, we regularly turn to these personal stories. Citizen Schools is just establishing itself in Chicago and in many overlapping communities — Chicago Public School partners, education reform, corporate community engagement, philanthropy and volunteer management. It is a lot to navigate, so I am pleased to share my greatest takeaways from the last nine months.

1. Make Friends 

Chicago has one of the country’s strongest nonprofit sectors. According to the Donors Forum, in 2011 the nonprofit sector in Illinois accounted for more than 10 percent of jobs in the state, with the highest concentration in Chicago. One of the first things we did when considering launching in Chicago was to find and get to know organizations working in our arena. We learned about groups that were providing after-school tutoring, student internships and college prep. There was no one else providing the combination of extended learning time, academic support, 21st century skill-building, and hands-on learning opportunities offered by Citizen Schools. Once we launched, we did not stop building and cultivating those relationships. And we are not just friends with these other organizations — we are partners, hoping to complement one another and work together to address a challenge larger than any of us. Six months into our launch, these relationships continue to be a priority. I am part of a group of executive directors that meets monthly to share resources, experiences, and advice in order to strengthen all of our groups.

2. Be Nimble

As a new organization — even with a strong program model and impact data carried over from other cities — it is essential to be flexible. This ranges from our workspace to our partnerships with schools and corporations. Our staff currently comes and goes from 1871, a co-working center for digital startups in the Merchandise Mart, finding a comfortable place to work and making connections with the next generation of innovators. I would never have imagined six months ago that this is where we would be based, but we were able to respond when the opportunity was presented.

Our school partners, Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Back of the Yards and Walsh Elementary in Pilsen, have different needs and priorities dictated by their populations. We have been flexible with our extended learning time to meet their needs — including more computer-based learning in some classrooms, adapting academic support to align with daytime lessons in others, and creating customized learning opportunities for students with special needs at both schools. We are confident in the impact of our extended learning time – a study of our school partnerships in Boston showed we are capable of closing the achievement gap for students in an astounding three short years — and that knowledge allows us to make the small adjustments necessary to address school’s individual needs.

Our corporate and community partners return our flexibility in their own ways. For 10 weeks in the fall and another 10 weeks in the spring, corporate and community representatives become Citizen Teachers, leading our students in 90-minute apprenticeships that connect learning to career opportunities and start to close the inspiration gap. Partners from corporations – for example, AOL leaders teach marketing and finance — re-arranged their schedules when we faced issues like our local teachers’ strike, which impacted the fall apprenticeship calendar. And we are able to bring students to the apprenticeships when partners like Deloitte want to participate but need to have the students come to their offices.

3. Communicate Clearly and Often

You have to share what you are willing to do and not to do. As Patrick Lencioni so articulately points out in his book, “The Advantage,” leaders must communicate clearly, they must do it often, and their team must know exactly where they stand so all team members feel empowered to make clear decisions with a focus on our stakeholders at all times. While we will not be perfect, if we have that clarity across our team, and that shared focus, we will build together rapidly and impact students.

4. Focus on Impact

Often in our team meetings, we debate strategic issues and when there are conflicting views, a team member will ask, “What is best for our kids?” Typically, the answer becomes very clear and we quickly rally around this decision. It is my job to lead with this view, and to never divert from this. In a launch organization, there is pressure to do everything — and to do it all well. As any great business would say, focusing on our core competency is where we need to turn. We are a partner to schools, and we bring opportunities to students in order to help them achieve their dreams. That is our focus, and that is how we must make decisions on a weekly, daily, hourly and minute-to-minute basis.

Launching a new organization is never easy and there are many moving parts. In urban education, there are a lot of complex moving parts. It’s part of the reason I love this work. But I hope our priorities help you think about your own organization’s focus. What lessons have you learned launching a nonprofit?