Groundwork: A True Story
Something extraordinary happened last week. I helped start a new school.
Last Tuesday, I attended my first Los Angeles Unified School District Board Meeting. I was there with twenty other people, all parents, all wearing the same light blue “VIVA CITY” t-shirts. We all had our fingers crossed. We all had nervous stomachs. And we all were waiting to hear whether LAUSD would vote “yes” on our proposed charter for The City Charter Middle School.
The families involved with The City School had been working nonstop for the past ten months, bringing the kernel of an idea to fruition. It all began when one frustrated mom said, “Let’s start a new grade 6-12 charter school in the mid-city/West LA area focused on diversity and public service that will compete with the best private schools in the area.” From that idea came an avalanche of interest.
Interested parents filled out paperwork, and some of us made the commitment to spend 200 volunteer hours per year as founding parents.
I thought, “How on earth can I log so many hours?” EASY! Between fundraising, letter writing, conference calls, meetings, event planning, outreach efforts and my involvement as chair of the Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment committee, I hit 200 hours within a few months. It helped that my particular founding parent role involved procuring donations, coordinating and facilitating large-scale furniture and equipment moves, and getting everything safely to our warehouse. These efforts filled up an entire warehouse and furnished almost the entire school before our charter was even approved… before we even had a school!
Some detractors said this was foolish. Why do all that work before the charter is even approved? During the charter approval process, LAUSD reviewed our budget and noticed that it had a significant gap. Luckily, our warehouse full of furniture and equipment more than made up for that gap. Our charter survived and we moved onto the next step of charter approval.
Other founding parents had even more important jobs. They wrote the charter, attended LAUSD Board meetings, wrote budgets, translated text from English to Spanish or Korean, networked with politically well-placed people, hob-nobbed with family foundation heads, ensured IRS filings were correct, kept the books, arranged for insurance, and made difficult decisions about the educational model of the school. They met individually with every single member of the LAUSD Board, threw fundraising events for political candidates and attended rallies. They met with community leaders and organizations, built the web site and tirelessly reminded the 90 or so other founding parents that there was always more work to be done.
We all dedicated countless nights and weekends to the idea of The City School, and LAUSD would have the final say on whether our dream would become a reality.
We waited with baited breath. To our surprise, there was no debate or dissention. Several people spoke in support of our school, and although we were warned there might be protestors, there were none. There was no yelling as there had been in a previous public hearing, and there were no further concerns about our school that the board wanted to discuss or debate.
Suddenly, we were approved! The City School was officially a new Los Angeles charter school!
As we filed out of the board meeting in total shock that it really, truly happened, we couldn’t believe how easy the final vote was. One my fellow founding parents mentioned this to our Chairman of the Board. He responded that it didn’t matter whether we showed up to the meeting or spoke eloquently or all wore the same t-shirts. What mattered was that we spent countless hours over the past several months laying the groundwork for success, and because we spent so much time laying that groundwork, failure was impossible.
The top ten lessons I learned from this experience will inform my work for the rest of my life:
- Don’t be afraid to have new ideas
- Study your subject matter
- Make a plan
- Ask for help
- Prepare for every possible scenario
- Lay groundwork in a multi-dimensional fashion
- Network intelligently
- Don’t get complacent
- Enjoy success in the moment
- Get back to work
These steps are instructive for any of life’s endeavors. I’m going to continue to follow them and will hopefully be at step #9 again this August when The City School officially opens its doors.
I’ve never been one to rest on my laurels, but this experience taught me that what I thought was good enough was literally only “good enough.” What we need to strive for is excellence. What we need to strive for is the idea that failure is impossible. Laying proper groundwork will help thwart failure and vault our endeavors into excellence.
Now, onto Step #10… get back to work!