My name is Morty Ballen. I am an American, and similar to the 100 delegates representing 46 countries who attended the Global Schools Forum (GSF) Annual meeting in Nairobi last month, I am an educational entrepreneur. After teaching middle and high school, I conceived of Explore Charter School 20 years ago. We opened our doors to 168 students; today Explore Schools is a network serving 2,000 students in 8 schools in central Brooklyn.
When I stepped down from the role of CEO this past January, I discovered GSF as part of my journey to seek out my next set of professional adventures. Once I learned that GSF was established to support school-starters and school-scalers from around the world, I was immediately intrigued and curious. Are the triumphs and challenges associated with school scaling the same or different around the world? Are global educational entrepreneurs bonded by shared values? If so, what are they? I wanted to find out the answers to these questions, so I asked Aashti Zaidi Hai, GSF’s Director, if I could volunteer at GSF’s Annual Meeting to learn more. She graciously agreed. One month after returning from the Annual Meeting, I’m writing to share my perspective on three big “A-Ha’s” that I learned from this experience.
Many Models; One Shared Passion
As a New Yorker, I’m used to long winters with heavy snows. To the naked eye, snowflakes look exactly the same – little white blobs. But upon closer examination, snowflakes are vastly different from one another, each one characterized by unique geometric designs. Similarly, GSF members all run schools. Non-educators may hear the word “school” and conjure a single image in their mind. In reality, GSF members run and support schools that represent a vast diversity of approaches and models. Streetlight Schools serves 261 students in Jeppe Park, Johannesburg, while Bridge International Academies serves more than 250,000 students in 6 countries. And, while TCF (The Citizen’s Foundation) runs several hundred of its 1,500 schools through a contract with the Pakistani government, Dignitas in Nairobi provides technical assistance to more than 70 small, fee-paying schools. Regardless of the model, all GSF members share a passion to provide their collective 2.2 million students with an outstanding education.
A Thirst to Learn & A Hunger to Connect
I was struck by the thirst for knowledge consistently displayed by every delegate I met at the Annual Meeting. Leading and supporting and growing schools is isolating work; sharing with and learning from colleagues is not a “nice-to-have”; it’s a necessity. I left feeling confident that Bailey from SPARK in South Africa had arrived at additional strategies to engage her parent community and that Olenrewaju from SEED in Nigeria left with a different perspective on scaling, and that Jihad at the African Leadership Academy was prepared to offer the school leaders in her accelerator with new offerings to support their leadership development.
Challenges of Scaling Transcend National Borders
From my own experience scaling Explore into a network, I learned that the process is fraught with challenges. I näively thought that the skills it took to grow Explore as a stand-alone school were transferable to grow that school into a network. Wrong! Scaling meant identifying and solving much different issues such as strategically building a talent pipeline by growing leaders from within, or determining decision-making rights at the network (or HQ, as some of my global counterparts call it) versus autonomy at the school level. I learned that these challenges are universal. At the Annual Meeting, GSF colleagues bravely shared these exact same issues (and many others) with their colleagues at a “Challenge Carousel” in order to arrive at pragmatic solutions that would support their unique country and context.
As any educator and supporter of education knows, running schools is deeply personal. The responsibility of what’s at stake – changing the trajectory of children’s lives! – is profound. GSF created a forum so that its members could share its collective experience and knowledge with one another, in order to get better. As I write this, I’m reminded that the true beneficiaries of the GSF Annual Meeting are the 2.2 million students attending GSF schools, who are getting the quality education they deserve so that they may make their dreams come true.