Hrag Hamalian is the Chief Executive Officer at Bright Star Schools, a charter network that serves over 2,700 K-12 students in Los Angeles. The network’s 7 schools serve the neighborhoods of Panorama City, Koreatown, and West Adams. Hrag is executing on a growth strategy that will add 2 more elementary schools in the next few years. When complete, Bright Star will offer a contiguous K-12 (elementary, middle, and high-school) experience in each of its 3 neighborhoods.
Thriving Schools: We all know how difficult the teaching profession can be. Is it possible to create a strong work culture in an environment of long hours and demanding schedules?
Hrag: Well, let me start by saying we’ve been more mindful about hours and we have shortened up our school day where possible at different school sites. When we first started, we had teachers working 10-hour days, including after-school programming. A few years ago, we asked teachers what they needed from us to make this work sustainable. And based on the feedback, we shortened up the school day where we could and only required teachers to stay after on certain days for specific responsibilities.
Thriving Schools: I like your point about making decisions based on teacher input. How important is that in driving the decisions you make around staff culture?
Hrag: At the bottom of all of this is that people know that they’re being put first in our organization. And that’s forced us to be very intentional about everything we do. For instance, we have quarterly coffee chats at every one of our schools. In them, we talk about initiatives we’re putting forward and ask for feedback. “Hey, take a look at our academic calendar – what do you like? What do you hate? And how would you make it better?” Then during the last half of the meetings, we open it up and ask teachers what they need from us. Of course, we’re taking notes on all of this because teachers need to know that we’re going to take action and follow through with what they need.
Thriving Schools: Can you give us another example of something you’ve changed based on teacher input?
Hrag: We also asked teachers what we can do to improve Summer PD. They told us they didn’t just want us driving stuff at them and that they wanted a say in what they'd participate in. So we made a fundamental change to offer “choice sessions” in our Summer PD programming where teachers could sign up for what they wanted and attend what they needed.
Thriving Schools: Shifting gears a bit, I think we sometimes forget that teaching is supposed to be fun. What are some of the ways in which you infuse fun into your culture?
Hrag: We do a lot of fun stuff! The Chief Academic Officer and I do monthly staff videos where we introduce key initiatives, invite people to engage in raffles, and bring levity to the work by acting silly. We’ve also run several health and wellness challenges. So last year, we subsidized the cost of Fitbits for our employees and we had a step competition around that. Another activity was a wild goose chase, where we had different cross-site teams go out into the town and complete different activities. We’re doing a marathon in a couple of weeks. I’m doing it – I’m going to be lousy at it. But we’re doing different things that bring a lot of fun and energy into the organization with the recognition that our employees need to be healthy in order to be happy.
Thriving Schools: Let’s talk about work-life balance. How does Bright Star think about this?
Hrag: We asked our people what the top reasons were that they would leave our organization. And the two most common responses were: 1) how do I lovingly raise a child while working at Bright Star, and 2) how do I stay healthy? So we decided to do a grant proposal around those two concerns that will further help us improve retention. The proposal calls for adding lactation pods for mothers that have kids, creating flexible spending accounts (so parents can put money into child care), and providing health, wellness, and mindfulness classes on-site. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do all this stuff, but we’re going out there to get grants to see if we can try.
Thriving Schools: That’s all really exciting! How does this work-life balance look on a day-to-day basis?
Hrag: Site by site, it’s a little different, but we do a bunch of things. At some sites we have teachers that teach only one subject so that planning time is reduced. We offer our teachers different prep period times based on their needs. We partner with external organizations to do our afterschool programming, so our teachers aren’t required to stick around after the normal work day. To that end, at some sites, we use instructional aides, who come in and spend half their day with the school and half their day with the afterschool program. So they provide that crossover to the afterschool activities which means our teachers aren’t required to stay on site.
Thriving Schools: Let’s talk about your salary schedule. How did Bright Star develop its thinking here?
Hrag: We tried to take a look at all the information that was publicly available, focusing on other schools and organizations here in LA and organizations of a similar size. But we also took a look at some data from around the country too – Denver public schools, national organizations, etc. And we tried to see what they were doing with their salaries. We also thought about the structure of the scales and their level raisers, the things we liked and didn’t like. But more so than what the actual pay was, we were thinking: How is this set-up? How does a person grow in this organization? What do I see my path being in this organization? And this allowed us to create the framework from which we could create ours.
Thriving Schools: What were the constraints that you faced in this process?
Hrag: Of course, we had to look at what our revenues were and what we could afford to sustainably pay teachers. At the same time, we put a large focus on teacher retention. Just to be clear, we’re not using a churn-and-burn model here where teachers only stick around 1-4 years and nobody’s reaching the higher end of the salary schedule. We’re hoping people make a career at Bright Star.
Thriving Schools: Did you find any points of the salary schedule that needed special attention?
Hrag: Certainly. When we were designing the schedule, we were looking for those strategic points where we had experienced teacher drop-off in the past. Let me give you a few examples. For a teacher who’s making $80,000/year, the incremental gain or increase in their salary isn’t going to be what gets them to stay. It’s going to be development and growth opportunities. But for a new teacher, that looks very different. We noticed around 3-4 years is when teachers start to get itchy and they want to see if the grass is greener elsewhere. So that’s where we wanted to emphasize our efforts at keeping our teachers and putting the proper incentives in place to do that. And let’s not forget all the other things we’ve mentioned around improving staff culture and school climate – those also serve the function of driving people to stay with us.
Thriving Schools: What advice can you give to an educator or school leader who wants to improve school culture at their own school?
Hrag: It’s a really hard question to answer. Keep in mind that this has been my focus for over 10 years. So, I’ve never found a book that’s a how-to on this culture stuff. What I would say is go out and see models of other schools and pick and choose elements that you feel make those schools successful. Then, try to bring that back to your school, get your stakeholders involved, and build a process that makes sense for your organization. Again, the only way you’re going to do that is getting out and looking at other schools, talking to school leaders, and examining different models. 99% of what we’ve done around culture is not rocket-science. Maybe 1% of it is unique. So it was a lot of combining the right mix of things from people who are doing different things really well and getting our stakeholders invested in it. Let me mention one more thing. I put myself through part-time business school thinking that I was going to get this revolutionary change in how I thought about organizations. And what I realized is that I had been doing most of things I was learning for years. But what helped the most were some of these things around persuasion, influence, and motivating people. There’s stuff out there that I think people should really read, like some of Daniel Kahneman’s work. And it’s less how do I build culture at my school and more about how I invest people in the systems that we create.
Thriving Schools: I think you’ve given us a lot of great ideas around creating strong staff culture. Do you have any final thoughts on this topic you’d like to share?
Hrag: We are every day, in every way, thinking about how we can make Bright Star the best possible place for teachers! Because without them, we’re just not going to achieve what we know is possible!