Education Competition to Target Principal Collaboration at San Francisco Schools

Helping principals at San Francisco public schools share information about new programs and best practices is a focus of the upcoming Education Leadership Case Competition at the Haas School Feb. 17 and 18.

The contest, now in its sixth year, brings together teams of graduate students from all over the U.S. to develop new solutions to problems facing public schools. Each year, the competition’s organizers choose a specific challenge a school system is grappling with, and design a business school case around it.

“We chose the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) because we felt it was open to listening to ideas from graduate students around the country,” says Bruce Dos Santos, MBA 12, who helped organize the competition along with Aaron Sokol and German Freiwald, also both MBA 12. The three students are co-presidents of the MBA Education Leadership Club, which currently has 83 members.

Like many other big, urban school districts in the U.S., San Francisco public schools have endured steep budget cuts in recent years. The system, which is comprised of 56,000 students in more than 160 schools, faces a projected budget shortfall of about $25 million through June 2012. In spite of this, the system has seen academic gains: for six consecutive years, SFUSD has outperformed the seven largest California school districts on the California Standards Tests.

“But right now it’s as if each of the principals is running an individual company,” said Dos Santos. “One school might be running an innovative program that’s having great results. But no one else knows about it because there isn't a culture of being collaborative.”

Dos Santos, a former teacher, said the goal of this year’s competition is to help San Francisco schools “change the architecture of their organizations so that successful innovations can be easily replicated.”

This year's participating business schools are Haas, Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, George Washington University, UCLA, USC, and Vanderbilt.

Students will work in teams of four; two of the team members must be MBA students, the others may be enrolled in graduate programs of any kind. After a kick-off lunch on Friday, teams will have 12 hours – from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. – to formulate a response to the case challenge. The following day, teams will give a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation to a panel of judges. A Haas team won last year’s competition, which focused on the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“The problems facing schools are the same problems that all organizations face: How do you allocate resources in the most effective way? How do you structure your organization? How do you manage your personnel?" says Dos Santos. "Schools need good leaders. And MBAs are starting to see that their expertise can be used to solve problems in education.”