The Networks for School Improvement (NSI) Community of Practice is a core component of the K-12 Place-Based Delivery Team’s overall strategy. To reach our north star goal of significantly increasing the number of Black, Latino, and low-income students who are on track in their first year to obtain a credential with labor-market value, we are investing in intermediaries who are building and supporting school-based networks that use data to engage in continuous improvement cycles to solve problems that affect student achievement. 

We too believe in continuous improvement, so have invested in building the capacity of intermediary organizations to sustainably support improvement at the secondary school level with a commitment to equity.  To support this, we designed into the strategy a Community of Practice (CoP) for intermediaries. We see this CoP as a suite of supports that includes face-to-face convenings, virtual supports for small groups, site visits, and customized technical assistance based on areas of growth identified by grantees.

In October 2018, we launched the face-to-face component of the CoP with a convening in Seattle, which was designed to seek input from grantees on the design of the CoP to ensure it meets their diverse needs, create opportunities for NSIs to build relationships with each other as well as support partners and BMGF team members, and to facilitate NSIs learning about each other’s work. In February 2019, we held the second CoP convening, which built on our learnings from the first convening, focusing on building our collective understanding of continuous improvement and the role issues of equity play within it, as well as continuing to provide opportunities for NSI leaders to build relationships with and learn from other NSIs, support partners, and BMGF team members.

We’ve already begun to see some positive impact of this work. Here are a few grantee reflections:

“We hosted a (resource sharing) table and it was incredibly beneficial to share and also get feedback and questions from others. The questions and conversations helped us to formulate next steps in our team planning. Great engagement and it also allowed us to better understand work of colleagues and build relationships with them.”

“My learning time with the CoP has been so valuable and I am leaving better prepared to do my job and help (my NSI) support student learning in a deeper, more user focused way.” 

It is great to hear this feedback. We continue to learn and work to improve to ensure we are meeting everyone’s needs. Some of the key takeaways already, include:

  • Involving grantees in up-front design pays dividends
  • The organizations in this work are willing to and energized by sharing their promising practices as well as their challenges – they see tremendous value in their colleagues’ experiences, resources, and counsel
    • Creating trust for these relationships to blossom and grow is essential
  • There’s an arc to this work, reflecting school year rhythms as well as the cyclical nature of continuous improvement practices

Our hope is to evolve from a “hub and spokes” type of network where the foundation is the central connector and convener to a more organic, interconnected network where connections are happening directly between NSIs. (We’ve already begun to see this as some NSIs have spontaneously arranged site visits to see each other’s work on action!) By investing in opportunities for grantees to build relationships and get to know each other’s’ work, we feel we’re on the right track. The next stage of this work will focus on how we continue to foster and maintain productive relationships and connections among NSIs while we add new cohorts of grantees into the mix. 

Jennifer L. Husbands, Ph.D. is a Senior Program Officer on the K-12 Education team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who leads the Community of Practice for the Networks for School Improvement. Prior to joining the Foundation, Jennifer was the founding Executive Director of Schools That Can Chicago, where she convened a cross-sector network of schools to share promising practices in real-world learning to catalyze school improvement.  Over her career she has held a variety of roles leading adult learning in school districts, CMOs, and non-profit organizations.