Leadership Program at The Harvard Business School is a Success
Maria McColgan is a relatively new school board member, having served on the Philadelphia Board of Education since April 2018. So, after hearing that the Harvard Business School offered a professional development program for urban school board members, the Accelerating Board Capacity (ABC) Institute, she was excited to receive an invitation to attend.
“In Philadelphia, the local school board is only one year in operation, and most of us are new to the role,” McColgan said in an interview with the Urban Educator. [The school board previously was controlled by the state.] “The timing of the ABC training was perfect for us, as we had enough experience to begin to understand what we don’t yet know and still needed to learn.”
McColgan was one of five Philadelphia school board members, along with the district’s superintendent, William Hite, who attended the ABC Institute, held July 28-31 this year. Custom-designed for the Council of the Great City Schools by a team of Harvard University faculty members, the program incorporated a mixture of case studies using real-world situations and large- and small-group discussions among the participants to focus on developing strong and effective school board governance.
The Harvard Business School welcomed 93 urban school board members and superintendents into the four-day program. The participants’ days started early and ended late with homework to prepare for the next day. Even before they began the program, each participant was given a thick binder of material to review.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero attended along with his entire seven-member school board because they realized the program represented a unique opportunity to learn alongside Council colleagues who were tackling many of the same issues.
A graduate of Harvard University’s School Leadership Program and its Urban Superintendents Program, Guerrero said in an interview with the Urban Educator that he was “excited by this more carefully tailored learning opportunity developed in collaboration with the Council.”
Professors from Harvard’s Business School, Graduate School of Education and Kennedy School of Government were the program instructors. Professor Francesca Gino from the Harvard Business School taught one of the more popular sessions, which included a discussion on decision-making and the importance of approaching decisions with a different mindset.
“She talked about how sometimes you can be overly reliant on readily-available information and not ask for the deeper, harder information,” said Carol Mills, a trustee from California’s Fresno Unified School District, in a story reported in the online newspaper GV Wire.
Mills, one of six Fresno trustees who attended the institute, along with district Superintendent Bob Nelson, also noted, “Sometimes when people have a predisposition, they only look for the information that confirms it, instead of looking at the information that might alter that proposition.”
McColgan found Gino’s session not only helpful but also thought provoking, noting that her biggest take away was the need for her school board to spend more time deliberating before polling members on where they stand on an issue, to avoid biases that might affect the board’s decision.
In addition to the sessions, participants also found invaluable the opportunity to discuss issues with school board members from across the country.
Fresno Trustee Veva Islas said in the GV Wire that she is already seeing evidence that trustees are using what they learned at the institute, evidenced by the thoughtful questioning she hears now from her fellow board members.
For Philadelphia school board member McColgan, attending the program provided reassurance that her school board is headed in the right direction, particularly in regard to the interpersonal and working relationships between board members and staff.
“I really felt this program was tremendously helpful,” said McColgan. “I am already seeing a difference in the way we communicate.”
Guerrero found the range of topics covered in the ABC Institute directly applicable to the work going on in the Portland school system, and the presentations and discussions--focused on issues of governance, strategic decision-making, and integration of community voice,--incredibly relevant to the district's efforts to improve outcomes for every student.
He also noted that a secondary benefit of the program was how the experience contributed to the sense of a broader community and a network of public education leaders who are committed to transforming their school systems.
“It reinforces the realization that the systems barriers and constraints we are all trying to resolve are shared challenges,” said Guerrero. “This forum has permitted the exchange of ideas and promising practices as we more coherently align our efforts to create more equitable opportunities and outcomes for students."
Boston School Committee member Michael O’Neill attended the institute with five of his fellow trustees and the district’s new superintendent, Brenda Cassellius. According to O’Neill, the group’s participation in the institute already has fostered a public meeting about updating the district’s strategic plan. In addition, there now are discussions on how to better align the plan with key academic goals, and on how the committee can better communicate and engage with the district and the community.
Just as important as those benefits, he believes, is the leadership program’s incentive to foster a longer-term discussion about the proper roles of school board members in their districts, and also to begin embedding best practices and fostering mentorship across districts, particularly between newer and veteran school board members.
“When one participant, an experienced superintendent, told me, ‘I have not been this intellectually stimulated in a long time,’ I knew the Council was adding value for its members in a deep and hopefully sustainable way,” said O’Neill.
Council Executive Director Michael Casserly attended the program and saw firsthand how participants learned and engaged with one another. “The ABC Institute more than exceeded our expectations in offering a rigorous learning experience and a first-class professional development opportunity for our school board members and superintendents,” said Casserly. “We thank the Harvard Business School for providing the opportunity and look forward to working with them on another program next year.”