This post is part of our “Leadership in Challenging Times” blog series, which highlights the inspiring work of the HBS community in addressing the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, alongside the fight for racial equity and an especially polarized political climate. In this post, Shannah Varon (MBA 2009), Executive Director of Boston Collegiate Charter School, discusses the importance of transparent communication and how the HBS network and resources have helped her respond to challenges facing the education sector.
Tell us about your work.
I’m the Executive Director of Boston Collegiate Charter School, which is a 5th-12th
grade college preparatory public school attended by students from all over Boston. Our mission is to prepare each student for college, and 100% of our graduates have been accepted to 4-year colleges. We stick with them to ensure they not only get to college, but also through college to meaningful careers beyond.
I love this job because it’s a perfect generalist leadership and management role in a field I’m passionate about. I get to work with an amazing academics team, operations team, finance team, fundraising team, and diversity team to advance our students each day. I’m also very passionate about racial justice and our school has been called “the nation’s most interesting school integration story.” I get the opportunity every day to build bridges and understanding across difference. Very few people get to say that.
How has your organization and your role responded to this year’s challenges?
Across the field of education (and I suppose every other field there is) this year was monumentally insane. When we closed school on March 13th, 2020, we thought we were closing for two weeks! We then remained remote for all but our highest need students until February of 2021, when we began to reopen fully.
When COVID hit, I realized I needed to increase my communication with our staff, students, and families to keep them informed: the guidance from the state was changing moment to moment about what we could do in schools, the state of COVID and the way we were all metabolizing risk was changing, and the experience of students who were learning remotely was becoming clearer over time. Eventually it became clear that kids needed to be back in school, so I needed to work with my team to do everything possible to manage COVID transmission risk and make the return to school possible - from purchasing portable sinks, to getting our ventilation checked, to implementing a weekly onsite COVID testing program for all staff and students. This year of managing through so many emotions among the staff, students, and families, has been really hard, but I think I learned more this year about what people need to hear, how, and when than I did in my 9 previous years in the role. I also learned so much about when it is time for leadership by listening, and when it is time for leadership by setting and driving towards a vision.
What do you draw upon from your HBS experience in your current work?
My HBS alumni experience has been the gift that keeps on giving. From my network of HBS Boston Education colleagues—of which there are so many!—to my Alumni Circle of 7 of the most amazing colleagues who are fellow alums in my field, to the fantastic offerings that help me stay fresh in the insights I bring to my role… I feel lucky to be an HBS alum.
At no time was this more critical than last spring. I remember the dawning awareness I had that—"Uh oh, we are not reopening this school anytime soon!”—and I was struggling to get my head around what to do next and how I was going to make decisions about how to reopen the school. HBS offered an amazing series series, “Crisis Management for Leaders,” and it was exactly what I needed. I remember the first session, “COVID-19 as a Novel Event and Risk Management.” I was holed up in my bedroom on Zoom, furiously taking notes because everything was so incredibly helpful. Most specifically, I remember an insight about the importance of building flexible teams and task forces during crisis with folks from the right domains represented - people who may or may not always be in the room under normal circumstances. It was this insight that led me to spend so much time over the course of the year to come with my school nurse, who is a superstar and who launched our incredible COVID testing program and this week’s student vaccination clinic.
What has inspired you to keep going during these difficult months?
My work is great because there is built-in inspiration—I really believe in the mission of the school to prepare each student for college. And, as our teachers were working incredibly hard to teach remotely and then ultimately concurrently (to kids in-person and those who chose to remain at home simultaneously), our college team was hustling to do what they always do: get our kids into great colleges so all of our students would have an affordable, on-campus, four-year option available to them. In what has been the toughest year in the history of the school, our college acceptances were the best they have ever been, including acceptances to Harvard, Brown, Cornell, Morehouse, Spellman, Northeastern, and all of the great schools in the UMass system. In a moment of crisis, it helps to have a true north, and we had one.
How can someone interested in this area get involved or learn more?
I often hear from HBS grads who are interested in education but who don’t know how to break into the field. The reality is—there is plenty of room for smart, committed people in the education space! I’m happy to connect with those who are interested, and there are also great organizations like Education Pioneers that help folks find their way into education from other fields. If you want to learn more about Boston Collegiate Charter School, visit www.bostoncollegiate.org.