Operator-Driven Turnaround: Aligned with Local Values

Perhaps most interesting in the turnaround efforts for LoveWorks Academy for Visual and Performing Arts (LWA) was the selection of an operator to lead the turnaround. Historically, Minnesota has not been friendly to charter school operators and networks. Over the past 25 years, Minnesota charter leaders have stayed true to the pioneering origins of creating schools new, where each school is independently created to meet the needs of that community.

This was different. As recounted in the case study, Community-Driven Change: An Idea Whose Time Has ComeLWA parents and board members sought skilled expertise to lead their school’s turnaround. With help from The School Leadership Project (TSLP), the LWA Committee translated its learnings about high-quality chartering into a comprehensive RFP that invited turnaround operators to work with them who had proven track records of academic performance and respect for their local culture and vision, “The LoveWorks Way.”

For one parent, selection of an operator was the defining feature of the turnaround effort. When asked by another parent how this process was different, one parent responded, “I’m like you, I didn’t know what an RFP was but now I know: RFP is change.”

TSLP “recruited” operator applicants. It wasn’t an easy sell. This was a new market for most and there wasn’t a dedicated philanthropic commitment to establish new models in this market. There were no policy enticements like in other states. What was there instead? A community-driven turnaround–an opportunity for an operator to truly partner with the families and leaders of the school.

Here’s the lesson learned: When parent leaders have authentic decision-making authority in operator selection, the resulting dynamic pushes potential operators to tailor their models and approaches to align with a school’s unique vision for change.

That attracted Distinctive Schools, a small chartering network based in Chicago. Distinctive’s culture of design thinking and their site-specific turnaround approach–visible in their Chicago turnaround schools– aligned well with the vision for turnaround described in the RFP.

The selection committee evaluated three operator proposals, conducted site visits to the operator existing schools, and conducted a final interview of the operator’s school team. Though the Selection Team was impressed with several candidates, they ultimately decided that Distinctive Schools’ strong commitment to the academic turnaround required at the school and to preserving core elements of the school’s culture, aligned best with LWAs turnaround vision.

The newest chapter of this pioneering turnaround story is being written every day at the LWA campus. April Shaw, Director of Turnaround for Distinctive Schools Minnesota, is leading turnaround efforts.

This innovative pathway to turnaround may be a model for others. But it will only work if it is built on a foundation of trust. They took nine months to build that trust between LWA stakeholders and their new operator. That bodes well for a successful future.