Joán Álvarez is presented with the 2019 Ryan Award

Crisis Hits, Leaders Rise

Accelerate Institute leaders across the country leveraged their training to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and meet the quickly changing needs of their school communities.

Following the stories of 31 leaders across 4 states, we have witnessed how they are fearlessly leading their teams, networks, students, and families through the toughest challenges of this crisis.

Many of the challenges our leaders are facing are similar to those of school leaders across the country, including: 

  • constantly changing information coming from states and districts;  
  • limited time to plan and transition to a new remote learning environment;  
  • and a need to re-negotiate teacher union contracts to ensure that students can continue learning. 

But some of the challenges are unique to leading a high-poverty and high-minority school, and this crisis is shining an even brighter light on the inequities that are pervasive throughout our country. Our leaders have had to think through additional action plans for how to facilitate student access to computers and WiFi, how to distribute food to students who are food insecure, and how to best communicate with parents who might speak limited English but need to understand how to engage with their children as they are learning remotely. 

The weight of inequity is on the shoulders of our leaders daily, but even more so throughout this crisis, as they know that the opportunity and achievement gaps that they are dedicated to helping their students overcome are only going to grow. Their students will face a greater “slide” because they have less resources and less opportunities to make up for lost learning experiences, such as field trips and college visits. 

Their students are also more likely to experience trauma at home due to parent job loss and the stress of uncertainty, as well as higher numbers of parents and classmates testing positive for the virus with serious critical health needs and poorer outcomes. 

Nonetheless, we have stories of leaders rising and responding to this crisis in ways that inspire and show the strength of an Accelerate Institute leader. 

With student needs at the forefront, they are leveraging two key tools from their learning in our program: the Accelerate Framework and the Transformational Leadership Building Blocks

The Accelerate Framework gave leaders a structure to guide their planning through this unforeseen crisis and ensure they were focused on the most important objectives without missing out on any key areas. 

Click on the links below for more specific examples of how leaders are implementing the Accelerate Framework objectives in new ways. 

Leaders’ Transformational Leadership Building Block skills, which they have honed during their time in our program, have helped them successfully manage their teams, families, and students in a new virtual world. In leading fearlessly through this crisis, they have exemplified all of the Transformational Leadership Building Blocks, but especially strategic thinking and planning, communication, relationship building, resilience, and “get it.” 

They have had to be calm and controlled while everyone is looking at them for the answer. They have had to be vulnerable, name the challenges, and admit that they do not have all the answers and they are uncertain, too. These Building Blocks are at the heart of every leader’s ability to lead through this crisis. 

Leading through this crisis is a “first time” experience for all our leaders, even the veterans. Accelerate Institute’s cohort program model has given leaders essential peer support, allowing time and virtual space for them to come together to problem solve and share ideas with each other. 

Cohorts have been sharing resources, doing weekly problems of practice, and even gathering for virtual “happy hours” for some unstructured time to connect and de-stress. Each and every day, our fearless leaders fight for better outcomes for their students. And it’s clear that during the toughest of times, they rise to meet the challenges in front of them. That gives us so much hope for the future of education in America. 

Maximizing Learnings from Accelerate Institute to Initiate a Two-Phase Response

Our leaders were faced with short timelines to respond to the directive that school buildings would be closed, and the length of the closure was uncertain. Accelerate leaders were able to leverage their learning from Accelerate Institute and apply it to their strategic response to the crisis at hand.

What we saw was a two-phase response:

Phase 1: Focus on Maslow’s Hierarchy to meet foundational student needs

Phase 2: Reach sustainability in student learning

In their Phase 1 response, our leaders were able to use the Accelerate Framework as a guide to focus on the foundational physiological and safety needs outlined in Maslow’s Hierarchy,   Interventions to meet students’ basic needs for food, shelter, and stability align to the drivers in Aspirational & Constructive Environment and are supported by the drivers in High-Performing Team. In the Accelerate Framework, the Aspirational Environment is the door to the school and creates the foundation that students need to be able to learn and grow. Our leaders entered this crisis through the door of Aspirational Environment. As it turns out, creating an Aspirational Environment becomes even more important in a virtual school because you lose the face-to-face touch points, the informal relationship building moments, and the little stories teachers and students share with each other that fortifies their trusting relationships.

Additionally, for many of the students in the communities that our leaders serve, the basic physiological and safety needs from Maslow’s Hierarchy such as the school food program, a stable daily schedule, and heated buildings are lost when students are no longer coming to the building every day. And suddenly, forging even deeper parent partnerships becomes essential, not a “nice to have” for those that opt in but a must have if learning is going to continue in their homes. Along with the Aspirational Environment, its partner Constructive Environment is equally necessary for getting students ready to learn. A school’s Aspirational & Constructive Environment cannot exist without the staff, or High-Performing Team. As a leader in this time of crisis, getting teachers invested and prepared to do the work necessary to create a new school environment is a Phase I priority. In Phase I, a fully completed strategic plan was not in place. Accelerate leaders relied heavily on the Transformational Leadership Building Blocks to guide their team in the short-term: core strategic thinking and planning levers, get it, communication, resilience, and relationship building.

After the initial crisis hit, Accelerate Institute leaders sprang into action to meet the basic needs of students and teachers. Spring break gave many leaders a chance to regroup and strategize their Phase 2 response: a sustainable plan to take them to the end of the year. To do this, our leaders leveraged the drivers of Change Management. These drivers provide a structure for goal setting, buy-in, planning, execution, course correction, and time management. 

The “bookend” of Change Management is Black-Belt Teaching. Our leaders needed to crystalize a vision for their remote learning instructional model that was sustainable. Meaning, it meets the developmental needs of students, is manageable for teachers, and still provides whole group, small group, and special education services to all students. There were many expectations coming at leaders from the district or network and from parents on what remote learning should look like, often in conflict with research that said that students should not be in front of a computer for 8 hours. How do you balance needing to meet the needs of students, while also creating sustainable workloads for teachers and meeting the expectations of other stakeholders? 

Additionally, many teachers and leaders were fearful of remote learning due to a lack of experience and training. So how do you develop teachers’ confidence and skills on remote learning planning and execution? Our leaders leveraged the “Teacher Support Cycle” to create professional development experiences for teachers, leaning heavier on support and coaching rather than accountability. 

Read more about the specific ways that Accelerate Institute leaders are leveraging the Accelerate Framework to put students first during the current challenge:

PHASE 1: Focus on Maslow’s Hierarchy

PHASE 2: Reach Sustainability


Sharing the stories of the following leaders with gratitude and respect for ALL of the leaders who continue to disrupt the status quo in education by finding innovative ways to meet the needs of our students and families, especially in a time of crisis. 

Splash Splash, Baby!

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