On Friday July 12, Principal Associate Randi Feinberg and Associate Nisha Garg met with over 200 principals, teachers, district leaders and Citizen Schools staff from across the nation at the third annual Citizen Schools Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Partnership Summit. The group came together to consider how programs offered by Citizen Schools, a nonprofit organization which works with low-income public middle schools to provide a longer learning day, can enrich students’ academic experience—as well as how such programs can be funded. ERS’ Budget Hold’em for Districts game was a centerpiece of the discussion.
The Citizen Schools group actively engaged in School Budget Hold’em, an interactive exercise based on a deck of cards that represent savings and investments a typical school district might face. The object of the game is to select a hand of cards that combines strategic budget reductions and includes investments for improved student performance. While some participants noted how difficult it can be to use funds with perceived strings attached, others talked about a spirit of "cage-busting leadership"—a term recently coined and popularized by Rick Hess in his book of the same title. Hess points out that school and district leaders often feel as if they are in a cage due to the many perceived constraints on how they can use dollars and staff. But, he argues, the cage has more flexibility than they might imagine. After playing Hold’em and reflecting on this notion, most participants were eager to consider which investments will provide the greatest return on student performance and what the real constraints might be. For example, one person noted that Title 1 and other federal funds can be used for many types of initiatives, including ELT. Another noted that her district recently began using community organizations to provide non-core subject classes (such as art, music, PE) at lower cost—a novel concept in that district and one previously considered impossible. Creative resource use such as these can provide districts and schools the opportunity to maximize investment in their true priorities.
Groups were able to use this activity and the lessons learned to catalyze a conversation grounded in their real Citizen Schools funding situation. Around the room as teams finished the exercise, individuals could be heard saying, “Alright, now let's make some trade-off decisions on what we want to put our dollars behind,” or, “Let’s use this to start to think about our funding!” As we wrapped up, positive feedback was heard from all levels. Whether it was Chicago-based principals stating, “Performing this activity hits home for us, because we have needed to do some serious reflection,” to Eric Schwartz, CEO of Citizen Schools, saying, “This was a provocative, thoughtful exercise and is exactly the right conversation to be having,” we know that Hold’em can help teach lessons that can be applied to a real world context, thereby enabling us to tackle really difficult decisions in tough economic times.
Thanks to Citizen Schools for inviting us to participate in the summit, and thanks also for the mention in their Huffington Post blog: “Expanded Learning Time Summit Looks to Build Movement, Scale Success”
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