Published in Education Dive on September 15, 2015
In many ways, Gillian Quinn-Pineda took a typical route to the principal’s office. She spent years as a teacher, both in charter and traditional public schools, and got a chance to test out increased leadership before making the leap.
But Quinn-Pineda, now the founding principal of KIPP Northeast College Prep in Houston, TX, made an unusual move before fully taking the reins. Four years ago, she enrolled in an MBA program designed for educators, Rice University's Educational Entrepreneurship Program (REEP).
The program has graduated six cohorts, with over 200 schools now featuring REEP-trained leaders. But MBA programs are still unusual for school leaders and educators. Some, like Quinn-Pineda, have started to test them out as a way to build skills they might not build in a traditional leadership program.
Business-minded approaches tend to ruffle feathers or create anxiety in education, especially when schools are subjected to systems that operate similar to corporations. Quinn-Pineda has encountered that fear before, but she didn’t shy away from the idea of using business ideas in her school — especially for hiring and leadership decisions.
“We perceive business and education as very different sometimes,” she said. “The more I got into my classes, I started to see we weren’t as different as we think.”
Diving into topics like marketing and budgeting, she carried the lessons learned as she navigated the early years of her new school, now three years old and serving a predominately impoverished student population. Here are some of her key takeaways:
1. Businesses focus on being flexible — and so can schools
For better or for worse, schooling in the United States is in a state of flux. That change often comes on top of an already chaotic environment where school leaders juggle the various needs of the district, teachers, and students. Quinn-Pineda said the business-minded approach helped her prepare for the constantly shifting environment.
“Part of being an MBA is being able to adapt to changes in any industry,” Quinn-Pineda said. “Every year in my school, I see new challenges bubble to the surface. My school is only as good as my ability to respond to those.”
She still attends REEP’s summer institutes, which are a rare instance of ongoing professional development for school leaders. Quinn-Pineda said they helped her “think about how to put everything together to work for your school,” and respond to the challenges that arise.
2. Focus on group dynamics at the leadership level
This was a big one for Quinn-Pineda, who said, “My leadership team, they’re everything.” REEP helped her understand how group dynamics operate and how they can effect the business of the school: educating students. Now, she sees the beginning of each year as the starting point for an adventure her school team will navigate together. Quinn-Pineda ascribes to the model of “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing” as the four stages groups go through before they can succeed. She used to think of that as a more static process, one that was completed when her first school year was over.
“The lightbulb moment was that every time we add new people, we’re reforming,” she said. “There’s a perception in new schools that we should start the year by moving way far ahead of where we were last year. But every year, we need to redefine how we’re going to deal with the stress of running a school, our goals.”
That means having tough conversations that get beyond the surface level and focusing on making sure the group is working well together in order to support teachers and students and not interfere.
3. Money matters, and so does how you use it
REEP’s business focus helped Quinn-Pineda see her school budget as a lever, not just a button. “The school budget can be a source of mystery,” she said. In REEP classes, she and other students spent a lot of time learning about finance and budgeting, which helped her find creative solutions when money was tight.
“Every year, I spend time looking at how I spent my money and whether I spent it the way it would have an impact,” Quinn-Pineda said. Each month, she sits down with her finance manager for a few hours to make sure they’re on track and putting money where it matters. At the end of the year, she now does a comprehensive review and regroups for the coming year.
Sometimes that means stepping outside the traditional course. It’s not enough to say this is how other high schools do it at KIPP Northeast College Prep. Each expense must be backed by a sense of how it furthers the school’s mission.
Written by: Kate Schimel