Words Fail: Strategy

In Zen, we say, “The past is gone; the future does not exist.”

There is only the present. The rest is an illusion. 

Ram Dass, a friend of my beloved mentor, Bernie Glassman, wrote a book titled Be Here Now.

Bernie Glassman was my teacher. He challenged me to breathe, to be present. In true Zen Master fashion, he offered, “Don’t be here now.” Try to wrap your head around that one. 

What are we doing when we discuss strategy? Are we speaking about the future? 

A waste of breath.

Take a breath. 

The future will come. 

Strategy is our vision of possible futures. It can be complex. Chess is a relatively simple game compared to building charter schools and transforming education. Building charter schools is more like sailing. What makes it so complicated is that the weather is ever-changing. The future is unknown and largely unpredictable. Strategy is not a plan for the future. A strategy is a tool for thinking about the future in a way that determines what is to be done now. As we act now, we learn more. 

The near future may become more clear; however, the future is always beyond what is happening now. Strategy continually evolves as we learn from our experiences. 

Right now we are committed to the growth of more small schools to better serve the students who are ill-served by America’s large, urban education factories. More opportunities for great teachers to advance based on merit rather than seniority. Advancement depends on growth. Otherwise, great teachers get stuck. 

Success also depends on growth. Currently, we have two successful school designs: Lavelle Prep Upper Division and New Ventures. Both have achieved excellent high school graduation rates, meeting the standards of state performance criteria. They have succeeded in recruiting a mix of general and special education students essential for achieving our mission of leveling the playing field for the differently-abled. 

Three of our divisions, Lavelle Preparatory Elementary, Nicotra Early College and Richmond Prep (which has yet to open), have still to demonstrate viability. That is not criticism. It is only an acknowledgment of what is unknown. 

Lavelle Prep Elementary has not yet opened Kindergarten through Grade 2. We have sometimes struggled to reach threshold levels of SPED students in grades 3-5. We have not yet proven to ourselves with hard data that we have an elementary school design that achieves the results we are seeking. It is completely unknown if we can achieve these levels in K-2 or even if the students will come. 

In the event of failure, we will need to consider if the fault lies in the school location rather than the basic design. Maybe an elementary school won’t work in a corporate park. Should we try relocating to a “neighborhood” before abandoning the design? I hope so.

It is not clear that the Nicotra School will recruit its target population of students who can benefit from a real early college program but who are unable to access this opportunity in traditional selective designs. At the beginning of its second year, Nicotra students are looking pretty much like Lavelle students, struggling to reach college readiness in 7 years. Nicotra’s goal is to achieve this in three years, though it may not be possible. 

We have no experience with Richmond Prep yet. 

It could be that Nicotra, Richmond and Lavelle Prep will end up serving very similar populations, making them more alike than we anticipated. While we thought we were continuing to invent new school designs, we may have actually only been experimenting with alternative features and variations of our original. That is not necessarily a bad thing. 

However, if this is the case, having two of these schools on the same campus may not be ideal. It could be that we would serve Staten Island better by establishing three different locations. Which school relocates? The answer might depend on what happens with the Lavelle Elementary division. Has it moved from the corporate park into a neighborhood? Can we expand Nicotra to offer entry points in the 6th and 7th grades as well as the 8th and 9th? 

We don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but we will. 

Strategic thinking means to keep your mind open to all possibilities, not just those envisioned by our charter writers, including myself. Yesterday’s strategy is gone, now part of the past; however, today’s strategy does not belong to the future. When we strategize, we crystallize our thoughts. In the moment of speech, they are already past. We strategize to guide our actions in the present. Things will change, partly as a result of the actions that we take on the basis of these thoughts, consequences both planned and unplanned. 

When we strategize, we imagine scenarios. We can prefer a scenario, but we don’t always have the opportunity to choose. We can plan our sailing strategies for alternative weather, but we do not have a choice between rain or sun. Success for us depends on not becoming overly attached to the plans inscribed charter documents. After all, they were written before we had even met any of the children and most of the teachers. Attachment to our words assures disaster. 

Take a deep breath.

Let them go. 

Be here now. 

“Well, I don’t want to deal with this reality. I really want to deal with the reality that we envisioned when we were writing the charter. It’s such an inspiring document. I love its words.”

“Okay,” Bernie says. “Don’t be here now.”

Go ahead. Try it.