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Equitas Academy: Charter School Governance in Growth Mode

Since their founding phase, Equitas has prioritized governance. With BoardOnTrack, they’ve built a self-sustaining board and strong board-CEO partnership. But it wasn’t exactly this way from opening day.

With five schools, Equitas Academy serves more than 1,500 kindergarten through eighth-grade students in the LA area. And they’re growing.

Founding CEO Malka Borrego’s vision is to grow to eight schools, serving thousands of kids. In just one year, Equitas grew from a $15 million organization to $23 million organization.

She and her board are the epitome of governing in growth mode. What’s their secret?

Since their founding phase, Equitas has prioritized governance. With BoardOnTrack, they’ve built a self-sustaining board and strong board-CEO partnership. But it wasn’t exactly this way from opening day.

My board has been a rock for me throughout a very challenging 10 years of being part of the charter movement. I know a lot of people can’t say that. I feel very, very fortunate.

Malka Borrego, Founder & CEO
Equitas Academies

Launching a Mission for Education Excellence

One of LA’s most densely populated neighborhoods, Pico-Union has been underserved by the traditional public school system. Fewer than 10% of its residents hold a college degree. A third-generation resident, Malka is among that 10%.

She returned home from Stanford on a mission to bring education excellence to the kids who needed it. And stayed true to that mission.

Equitas has been named one of the Los Angeles area’s top ten schools closing the achievement gap for low-income students. And nearly 100% of Equitas students are on free or reduced lunch; 80% start kindergarten speaking Spanish only.

But her first teaching job, at Pico-Union’s Hobart Elementary, showed Malka just how far we have to go. She’d have to outside for the kind of educational excellence she knew her kids deserved.

The proof points at The Accelerated Schools led her to a Building Excellent Schools fellowship. Visiting the highest-performing schools across the country, Malka saw over and again that educational excellence is possible. In every neighborhood, across this country, excellence is possible.

Even having seen residents passionately push back against the charter schools opening up in LA, Malka knew to deliver on her mission, she would open her own charter.

Watch Malka’s Talk at OnTrack LA 2018

Equitas opened in 2009 with 100 enrolled kindergarteners and first graders.

But only 40 of those eager learners showed up for the first day of school. As Malka walked down the street, hoping to find nervous families waiting down the block, it became clear: growth would happen, but not on day one.

Following that challenging opening day, her founding board began to crumble.

“They started to doubt if we could do this. And I said, we’re going to do this.”

The founding board chair proved to not be aligned with the vision, or with the first-year hurdles to realizing that vision. So, within a month of doors opening, that chair stepped down and another trustee stepped up to lead.

The remaining founding trustees were passionate about the mission. Because some of them had come to this country to gain access to excellent education.

With the right person as chair, the board as a whole would strongly support Malka through the turbulence of the founding years. In fact, Malka says, “Those board members gave me the confidence to go on.”

Learn the Top 10 Mistakes of Founding Charter School Boards

Unlocking a Charter School’s Growth Potential 

Just two years in, Equitas emerged from those founding years with great promise. And a new obstacle emerged. The board’s capabilities weren’t evolving at the same pace as the rest of the organization.

I’m calling every board member — Who has the minutes? Who has the agenda? And I realized: the amount of time I’m doing this is ridiculous.”

Founding charter CEOs work late into the night, doing everything the organization needs, for as many hours as it takes, day after day. And each founding CEO realizes, at some point, that the board feels like yet another full-time job on top of the incredible workload you’re carrying.

When Malka hit that moment, she “knew that board capacity was key to our growth. And BoardOnTrack was how we’d build that capacity.”

At this early growth stage, funds were tight. But, they found a funder who wanted to help Equitas grow. And included BoardOnTrack as part of the grant award. And she unlocked Equitas’ true growth potential at a crucial moment.

“I saw that BoardOnTrack could help us be so much more. It gave our board an opportunity to really step into the driver’s seat.”

From Founding Board to Sustaining Board

With BoardOnTrack in place, the board was able to sustain itself and recruit its own members.

Malka was freed up to focus on opening new schools. And Equitas started to grow. With that growth came the next major transition. The board began to see that their backgrounds and expertise were perfect for founding trustees. But they weren’t what would be needed to govern a $30 million organization.

An organization that size and scale would need trustees who’ve run organizations at that scale. The organizational, leadership, and fundraising skill sets would be different.

“This transition doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be painful. It doesn’t have to be emotional.”

The transition from founding board to sustaining board is a milestone in any charter’s life.

It’s common for founding board members in this position to feel guilty, as though there’s some failing on their part. But it’s simply the natural evolution of a charter. At a certain point, it’s time for the founding trustees to give way to a new breed.

With the right data, the hard conversations are made easier.

The CEO can simply say, “You were fantastic. You’ve been the right people for the first five years. And you probably won’t be the right people for where we are three years from now, and that’s okay. Let’s figure out what your role should be.”

The founding trustees created their own plan to progressively replace themselves over the next three years. They were purposeful about understanding the profile of the right people to bring in. And again, BoardOnTrack was there to help the board be self-sufficient. The three-year recruiting roadmap made it possible to build the right recruiting plan and put it into practice.

And the board continues this practice today. Malka and her board have a clear picture of the ideal future board members.

With BoardOnTrack, they’re even able to attend to their mission to maintain the right diversity on their board; to ensure the board’s makeup reflects the community they serve. They can be intentional about it because they’re using data, not assumptions.

Thriving in the Constantly Changing Role of CEO

“I always feel like I’m six months behind understanding my job; my job as CEO changes so drastically. I’m catching up and trying to learn it and I’m not very good at it for awhile. And then I finally feel like I’m getting good…and then it’s changed.”

In the founding years, Malka worked seven-day weeks. And as challenging as the role of charter CEO can be, the strong partnership she’s built with her board keeps her ahead.

The board co-chairs push her to focus on the strategy, the big picture. They’re disciplined about her role being high-level, not in the weeds. They can say to her, “That’s not chief-level work…Think about this and model what you want for your organization.”

How are they so clear about what the role should be, even as it changes?

It’s rooted in a CEO evaluation that’s more than a one-shot deal at the end of the year, but a true year-round evaluation and support practice. Learning how to get the CEO evaluation right has fundamentally changed how Malka and her board work together.

“We always did the CEO evaluation, but it wasn’t really meaningful to me.”

A 360 Review, followed by some discussion, was thoughtful and appreciated. But it didn’t change Malka’s leadership in any significant way.

And, like most charter CEOs, Malka wanted the board’s support to drive her growth as a leader. With BoardOnTrack’s CEO evaluation process and tools, that’s exactly what happened.

The governance team empowered the right board members to own this function. They developed a strong CEO Evaluation and Support practice that happens all year long, not just once a year.

All of Malka’s reporting structures, and what she talks about at board meetings, are focused on the measurable goals and clear direction set for her by this process.

Now, she actually finds herself waiting for that annual evaluation report. She eagerly asks when the next meeting will happen; when she and the team can start talking about her goals.

This process has brought about a major shift for Malka as an entrepreneur. She has a board who can guide to grow in the way that the organization needs; and how to support her board in the way that they need, too.

“My board does not cause me stress. We have clear roles, good communication. I like them. We laugh a lot. We enjoy our time. Our meetings are well run, we’re in and out in two hours. We get a lot of work done there. They are not my stressors. So I love board work and I’m getting better at it and not only adding to my own leadership but to the organization. I see them as true partners in our work.”

Maintaining the Board-CEO Partnership Through Growth

“We decided to add one school, and then another. The board chair was thoughtful about a true greenlighting process. So we were moving in the right direction. Then things got hard again.”

When the board-CEO partnership is so successful, and growth is going so well, it’s all too easy for a busy CEO to fall into a sense that the board can take care of themselves. After all, they’re doing a great job. They’re not the fire to put out on any given day. And there are so many fires.

In heavy growth mode, Malka’s focus was on finance and startup and replication and finding new talent and … a year or two in that mode, she realized she’d let the partnership stagnate a bit. The board even started to shrink in size.

“I thought that in the founding years, I set it all up and then they’re supposed to go do this governance stuff on their own. But that’s not how it works.

I needed to be in partnership with the board, from day one. And when I moved into a partner role, everything changed.

Partnering with the board doesn’t mean doing it for them. It means giving them access. To draft the agendas, run their committees, make sure the minutes are posted to the public. It really freed me up.”

When I stop partnering with the board, it stagnates. And it’s really hard to build up that momentum again.”

A true BoardSavvy CEO, Malka has learned that building and maintaining a strong board-CEO partnership takes careful thought and planning. When she’s clear on what their role needs to be, communicates how they can add value, and provides enough training and professional development, she has the board the organization needs and the partnership that she needs.

Growing Your Charter Starts With Growing Your Board

“It’s challenging to always be in growth mode. It takes a board who’s willing to put themselves in the driver’s seat — to help guide the constant change and growth.”

Whether you’re an ED starting a charter or a CEO scaling a CMO, the work doesn’t get easier. It just changes. In some ways, it becomes more manageable. And the right board-CEO partnership is what makes it more manageable, at any scale.

BoardOnTrack has been the fuel for the Equitas governance team, from the founding board finding its way to a thriving board of nine trustees, plus non-voting committee members, with several high-functioning committees.

BoardOnTrack has helped us think through the different stages we’ve been in; they’ve helped us see why we were feeling some tension and what the future landscape could look like.”

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