Clairelise Rodriguez is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

Everyone loves a good story. So said Richard Barth, one of our board members and the President and CEO of the KIPP Foundation, when he kicked off his discussion with the 50CAN staff at campaign boot camp last week. To prove his point, he recounted the story of KIPP’s founding.

If you’ve heard the KIPP story before, you know it’s the kind that gives you goose bumps: Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, two young teachers frustrated with the rigid structure of the Houston school system, decide one day to start a program to help fifth graders “climb the mountain to college.” After some gentle persuasion of school administrators (i.e. sitting on top of the superintendent’s car until he agrees to help), they eventually get the resources and latitude they need to start a college prep program for inner-city fifth graders. Forty-seven students enroll in the Knowledge is Power Program, and Dave and Mike vow to each one that they will help them make it to college. The program is a success, but Dave and Mike realize that to keep their promise they must follow their students beyond fifth grade. So they open KIPP Academy Houston, a no-excuses charter school that quickly became one of the highest-performing schools in the entire city. Fast forward fourteen years later: the original promise to 47 fifth graders has led to the creation of over 100 schools that have helped 10,000 KIPPsters climb the mountain to college.

Cue the goose bumps.

During campaign boot camp last week, we spent a good portion of the week thinking hard about 50CAN’s own story, both the chapters written so far and the ones yet to unfold.

Boot camp was designed to help the four CAN executive directors (EDs) map out their 2012 legislative campaign, which will be a critical chapter in their own CAN’s tale. The EDs attended sessions by experts on advocacy and education policy, participated in (and were graded on) mock interviews with reporters and one-on-one meetings with legislators, and walked through case studies from past campaigns. At the end of the week, they turned in their final project: a rough draft of their legislative campaign plan.

While mulling over campaign boot camp this weekend, I reflected on how these individual CAN stories will merge to tell the larger 50CAN story, especially as we expand. I kept coming back to one question in particular that I asked Richard during his talk: As organizations that prize innovation (i.e. KIPP or 50CAN) grow, how can they continue to encourage their individual branches to innovate while staying true to the original model?

Richard answered by pointing out that the KIPP model is not about fidelity to a particular school design, but rather fidelity to characteristics that signal a healthy school. At the same time that KIPP schools are given the freedom to innovate with curriculum and school structure, they are also held accountable through a framework of six questions

1. Are we serving the children who need us?
2. Are our students staying with us?
3. Are KIPP students progressing and achieving academically?
4. Are KIPP alumni climbing the mountain to and through college?
5. Are we building a sustainable people model?
6. Are we building a sustainable financial model?

50CAN operates in a similar manner, pledging fidelity to flexibility when paired with accountability. The 50CAN model is not about turning out cookie-cutter state campaigns that adopt the same set of advocacy and policy best practices. Rather, it’s a flexible, evolving system for empowering each ED with whatever combination of communications, mobilization and research tools they need to effectively advocate for the children in their state. And ultimately every ED is held accountable for the success of their state’s campaign.

In my presentation on online communications, for example, I didn’t tell the EDs how they should write digital strategy into their campaign plans. Rather, I went through a menu of digital resources they have at their disposal, explaining the function, context and capability of each one. I provided examples of how we’ve used those resources in the past, but left it up to the EDs to select which ones to work into their broader campaign plans.

At 50CAN, everyone—not just the EDs—is simultaneously encouraged to innovate in their work while being held accountable for the outcomes. 50CAN U, and events like campaign boot camp in particular, are designed to provide staff with forums for innovation. And we use the outcomes of the legislative campaigns as one metric for gaging the success of our innovation. In the (admittedly cliché) words of Uncle Ben in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

As you get to know the CANs you’ll find that while each one has its own distinct flavor, all of them follow the same storyline: committed local leaders building local movements of advocates who know that great schools change everything.



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