Exponential Impact

June 01, 2023

School district leaders gave us a massive task: Design a more equitable student assignment strategy for thousands of students enrolling in a city school district’s elementary schools. The demographic makeup of the community had changed significantly in recent years. Some schools had long waitlists, others weren't even half full. Budget, transportation, and infrastructure had to be considered. More importantly, so did tensions between choice and equitable and integrative opportunities and between all those and the maintenance and improvement of school quality. 

We convened a diverse group of graduate students in law, policy, business, and education. Led by our professional project directors who are experts in their fields, the team did not hide behind academic theorizing. Our clients needed a plan informed by the dynamics and trade-offs they were encountering everyday, and we provided it. 

At the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL), these kinds of projects are at the heart of what we do. As part of our commitment to developing the next generation of systems leaders, this engagement taught our students the skills needed to foster inclusive, substantial, authentic participation from those closest to the change. 

People building together

Building skills for rewiring systems

Achieving this kind of participatory decision-making and the change it permits requires our students to organize diverse stakeholders around a shared purpose and engage them in a rigorous and ongoing cycle of learning and discovery. 

Learning to do that requires that they develop and exercise: 

  • Fast-paced knowledge ramp-up focused on learning new subject areas from and with team members’, clients’, and communities’ diverse knowledge and experiences.
  • Cultural and racial literacy and fluency to support communicating across disciplines and lines of difference and cultivating broad and consequential democratic participation in decision making.
  • Strategic multi-dimensional analytic skills and problem solving to navigate ambiguous and changing conditions, including quantitative and qualitative analysis.
  • System and design thinking to help leaders understand complex problems, reframe issues, and generate innovative solutions in a collaborative and human-centered way.
  • Client and project management for organizational clients and projects that are complex, constantly changing, and consequential.
  • Dynamic teamwork to produce high-quality work products by working effectively and efficiently with others.

Applying these skills, our students led district leaders, who then led diverse working groups of stakeholders through several cycles of inquiry to identify a set of core principles, collect information, design strategies, and rapidly test them to see what worked and where there was more to learn. They repeated the process until they agreed on and drafted policy recommendations.

The students quickly and thoroughly researched and analyzed existing policies, potential alternatives, and data on district student enrollment, transportation patterns, and school performance. They also immersed themselves in the neighborhoods, surveying hundreds of community members and speaking with them at events and in parks and playgrounds, public libraries, delis and pharmacies, and preschool programs. 

As with many of our projects, we helped the district build a set of authentic relationships across the community so that system leaders would have ongoing feedback loops in place to allow them to meet the changing needs of the community beyond this project. 

Ultimately, the district adopted and rolled out the working group’s proposed new policy, expecting it will help diversify elementary schools and increase access to nearby high-quality learning opportunities. 

Each year, we train 70 to 80 students through our seminars and projects like these. Since our founding in 2011, more than 600 aspiring graduate student leaders have learned to transform public sector systems by focusing not just on what you change, but on how you make change. Up next in our series, meet one of the leaders we have developed and learn how she is using her leadership skills to help rewire systems in education and across the public sector.