podcast audio

Guest: Ellen Lin

Podcast: Charter School Superstars

Length of episode: 20 minutes 

Episode air date: September 16, 2020

 

Charter School Superstars: Tell us about the work that you do for Green Dot. In particular, can you reflect on the opportunities and challenges that you experience handling operations for an organization that has schools on the east and west coast?

Ellen Lin: First off, I just wanted to say thanks for having me Ryan. I’m really excited to be here, especially as Green Dot is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year!

Just a little bit about myself. I was fortunate to have joined Green Dot in 2007 and I’ve had the opportunity to support our schools in pretty much every aspect of operations and finance in one way or another. What operations looked like back in 2007 when we were serving 4,000 students in just the Los Angeles area has changed quite a bit now that we’re serving over 13,000 students in multiple states. For example, I remember in the early days, being entrusted with a power drill the week before school was starting and putting together classroom furniture. I wouldn’t be surprised if most charter folks working in operations have a similar fond memory. 

The fact that Green Dot operates schools in multiple states actually has not been challenging for that reason. The complexities come more from working with different authorizers and different structures. Across our Los Angeles and Memphis schools, we are authorized by 7 different local education agencies, commonly known as LEAs, all with different timelines and reporting requirements. 

We operate middle schools and high schools, independent charters and transformation charters, we are our own LEA in some cases, but a part of our authorizer’s LEA in other cases. Maintaining operations and compliance in these different scenarios is certainly complex, and you may ask, why not stick to just one or two authorizers. Even though having multiple authorizers is one of our biggest operational challenges, Green Dot’s focus is to serve the highest need neighborhoods and we are committed to doing just that even if it means operationally it’s a little more difficult. That being said, the opportunity everyday from the Green Dot operations lens is to help our educators focus on the most important work which is directly serving our students and families. 

Currently, the teams I work with are supporting our schools predominantly in technology and data, compliance, and human resources. So, if we can provide real-time access to formative data so our educators can adjust instructional practices accordingly, or offer physical, emotional, or financial wellness tools to our employees so they can take care of themselves in order to focus on taking care of our students and families, that’s what I’m trying to accomplish everyday.

You recently spoke at the National Charter Schools Conference about how schools can manage budgeting and procurement-related challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before we get into the substance of your presentation, I’m interested in talking about the presentation itself. Obviously, as a result of the pandemic, the National Conference was virtual this year. What was it like for you to deliver your presentation in a virtual format?

It was pretty easy! There was a little bit more prep than usual spending time making sure the tech worked but I feel like we’re all used to being online at this point. With that said, I missed engaging with an audience and being able to interact with my co-panelist. I feel like I now understand how some of the late night talk show hosts who have been doing their shows without an audience over the last several months feel - is what you’re saying resonating with the audience or are they just bored. But overall, it was easy.

Can you talk about why COVID-19 is making budgeting and procurement so challenging for schools?

As I mentioned earlier, our operational goal at Green Dot is to make sure our educators have what they need in order to focus on instruction. COVID is making this hard for several reasons, but I think the two biggest challenges are one, the plethora of unknowns and two, shortages in the supply chain. 

In terms of the unknowns, we’ve had to plan for all scenarios. What do schools need if they are fully implementing distance learning? What do schools need if they are in a hybrid model of distance learning and in person instruction? Once we start to get an idea of what we need, every other school district in the country is needing the same thing and then we are faced with a supply chain shortage. We’ve seen this most in the technology realm, as it relates to Chromebooks and mobile hot spots, but also in procuring PPE supplies, like disinfectants and face masks have been challenging as those supplies have been prioritized for the healthcare industry. On the budget side, we’re then faced with do we wait a month or two and get what we need at a pre-pandemic price or do we pay a premium so we can get what we need now.  

Can you reflect on any success stories that you have seen with particular charter schools that you feel have done a good job with procurement?

I think there are four things that are critical to being successful with procurement right now given the challenges with COVID. 

  1. Order early - as soon as you know that you might need something, start getting quotes. You may find that the lead times are longer than ideal so you might pass and try to find other options. I recommend putting that order in regardless, making sure you understand the cancellation policies. Most items can be canceled prior to shipment. This way, while you look for other options you’ve at least secured something in the event you can’t find a better timeline.
  2. Depending on your organization’s procurement policies and what funds you’re using (for example, federal funds tend to have more compliance attached to procurement), try to purchase from an existing cooperative purchasing program, like BuyQ or NASPO ValuePoint so you are in compliance in the event of an audit of those funds.
  3. You just have to be realistic that you may not be able to use your normal procurement channels. If you’re having a hard time finding something you need, start asking anyone and everyone that you know. Back in late March, we were struggling to find hot spot hardware that could get to us in less than 2 months. After asking around, we were connected with a third party provider that ended up having a stock of hot spots in their Vegas warehouse and we were able to get those into our hands in 2 weeks instead of 2 months. That meant our students who didn’t have internet access did not miss out on 6 weeks of instruction. 
  4. Lastly, especially when it relates to technology, be careful not to adopt anything that you might not be able to support in the long-term. It’s easy to say we could purchase home use computers rather than enterprise computers for your employees but the long-term ability to support and maintain a home use computer may actually cause more problems for both the employee and your IT team than if you maintained your minimum technology standards.

I feel like there’s an article in there, the four things that schools should be doing! When focusing on procuring protective equipment for teachers and students, what equipment do you find schools should be emphasizing. Are there certain big ticket items for you and your work?

Since none of our Green Dot schools are back in session, what we’ve procured is probably pretty standard. We’re making sure we have all of the basic PPE supplies like disposable face masks and face shields, hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays and wipes, additional handwashing stations, and plexiglass installations in our offices. Get them early and get more than you need. If you think you’ll run out in a few weeks it’s probably too late to start procuring. Other than that, I’d say don’t forget about putting up lots of signage to remind students and staff how to be safe on campus.

Are there any items that schools should be procuring as a result of COVID that you think are not discussed enough?

I would just emphasize making sure to poll teachers, especially during distance learning, to get feedback on what they believe they need as well as what their students need to be successful in delivering instruction. If your teachers are being asked to monitor students on Zoom but also be on Google classroom at the same time, they may need a 2nd monitor to effectively do their job. Zoom takes a lot of processing power and some of the laptops can’t handle a green screen background so, we’re getting our teachers Webarounds that they can attach to the back of their chair to have a neutral background. On the student side, it’s important to assess if they need things like external keyboards and mice, calculators, and/or headphones in order to effectively learn at home. So I would focus what are those materials moreso than the safety materials. 

It sounds to me like what you’re saying that procurement works best - especially today - when it’s a bottom up process instead of a top down. This isn’t you going to the teachers and saying this is what you need and here it is, you’re going to the teachers and saying what operational challenges you’re having and let that dictate the procurement process. 

Absolutely, they’re the ones on the front lines and they’re doing the work. They’re the ones who know what they need the most. 

If, with the snap of your fingers, you could make any change to the education system, what change would it be? (This is the final question that we ask all guests on the program). 

I would love to see more partnerships, collaboration, and exchange of information between schools, whether that’s between charter schools and charter schools or charter schools and district schools, or public schools and private schools. Green Dot’s been around for 20 years and we’ve had a lot of success, but we still have a lot of work to do to serve our students. It’s also clear that our nation’s public education system has a lot of work to do. So, what if it was the norm that educators shared our findings of what works and what doesn’t work, rather than what if feels like a lot of the time, which is that sharing best practices is actually an exception right now. I’d imagine we could reach our goals of helping to transform public education and preparing all students for college, leadership, and life much faster if we worked together.