Joán Álvarez is presented with the 2019 Ryan Award

Gretchen Larsen is a Ryan Fellow in her second year of the Fellowship. She leads a small charter school, Explore Academy, in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Explore chose to locate in a high-need area to serve students who didn’t have access to school options; in this ZIP Code, there are no schools with more than one star (out of five). Forty-percent of Explore’s student population receives free or reduced lunch, and 51% of the students identify as people of color.

Starting a school in the middle of a pandemic has not been easy...

Our staff was all hired via Zoom. There are students in school every day who I’ve never met in person. We started the school year 200 students short of our projected enrollment, which has a heavy financial impact for a brand new school. Amid all the chaos of being a first-year pandemic principal, though, there is one thing I know for certain: Thanks to Accelerate Institute, we are on track to meet our goals. 

When I attended my first summer planning retreat last June, I was already overwhelmed as a new school leader. I was recruiting, hiring, and clearing an abandoned school campus alone. It didn’t feel like I had time for two days of meetings, but I walked away with a clear plan for my school that I would later cling to when nothing else seemed stable or certain. Because of that plan and the things I’d learned at Accelerate Institute, I focused on culture in semester one. 

In August, I walked into the building one morning to find two homeless men in the cafeteria wearing school uniforms. I was working 16-hour days, seven days a week, waking in the night to send emails, then falling back asleep for a few more restless hours. We followed the plan I made in the summer, albeit stumblingly. My Accelerate Institute advisor checked in with me every couple of weeks, giving me feedback and support. 

In September, a sprinkler broke and caused a giant flood while I was alone on campus. I can now do some very basic sprinkler repairs, but we still got a $3,000 water bill. Accelerate Institute hosted our first cohort call—an opportunity to bring a problem for peer support. Since my strategic plan focused on culture, I’d kept close tabs on teachers and was concerned about burnout. My cohort shared their ideas, and I came at culture from new angles. At a staff meeting, a teacher cried and said he had never felt so supported by his team in any job.

In October, I conducted an overnight stakeout from Ms. Kumar’s classroom to try and catch someone stealing our astroturf. During daylight hours, I was struggling to implement some key parts of the Accelerate Institute Framework, and Accelerate Institute hosted our first forum to support first-year leaders with the Win the Month Growth Meeting, which was exactly where I was stuck. October was also our first school review, the assessment process through which Accelerate Institute evaluates our progress through the Framework. Because I had been tracking data for my strategic plan all year and meeting with my advisor regularly, I felt prepared. The process left me with detailed feedback, clear next steps, and a better understanding of my staff and myself as a leader.

Most of November passed in a blur. Accelerate Institute hosted our second forum, this time focused on effective tactical meetings. Our students met our academic goal this month! I experienced my first real days off since July, two of them back-to-back! For a moment, I entertained the idea that maybe I could do this job. 

In December, I changed my mind; the momentary freedom I’d experienced in the month before was elusive, so I worked. One of our teachers sent an email to the whole staff saying that he hadn’t felt this level of camaraderie since he was in the war. Accelerate Institute hosted their Mid-Year Strategic Planning retreat. I found new confidence in discussing the successes of the school, and support in our areas of need from the Framework, advisors, and school leaders. I spent winter break catching up and planning the rollout of my new strategic plan. I shifted focus from culture to instruction, leveraging PLCs and coaching, and I had measurable targets so I’d know if I veered off course. 

In January, I realized that everyone I knew must be tired of me talking about how much I work. I've aged 10 years since July. A hive of bees moved into the parking lot. Accelerate Institute hosted our third forum on student engagement during virtual learning, a topic of discussion in every staff meeting, PLC, and teacher coaching session at my school. It was helpful to see that schools everywhere were struggling with this, and to share strategies that were working.  

In February, we completed our second school review. I didn’t even have time to worry about it, and I was confident that I knew exactly what my advisor would discover because the Framework is clear. The action steps that come from the process are insightful, transformative, and customized for each leader’s unique context; they are the stair steps by which we achieve great heights. I’m so proud of what our students and staff have done, and I know exactly where to go next. 

Recently, we launched common rooms to build a sense of community for our staff and students. I was supposed to write this blog entry over the weekend, but I didn’t want to stop planning our common room reveal. It was worth it—kids were talking about which house they were in all day long! It’s March now and I’m pretty sure I can do this job, but I know I couldn’t have done it without Accelerate Institute. 

Gretchen has detailed her inspirational journey as a Ryan Fellow in an ongoing series of first-person blog entries for Accelerate Institute. Learn more about her work as a transformational school leader in her earlier posts below:

Ryan Fellow Blog: Yogi-Bear-Level Confidence

Ryan Fellow Blog: Setting the Stage for Principalship

Ryan Fellow Blog: ‘I’ve Got Your Back’

Ryan Fellow Blog: My Mini-Movement

Ryan Fellow Blog: Assessments Show the Tough Path Forward

Ryan Fellow Blog: Summer Institute and Beyond

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