Case Studies

Accelerate Institute

Accelerate Institute’s goal is to close the achievement gap in urban schools. Its approach is modeled on one that is commonly used in Silicon Valley: examine which startups succeed and pinpoint what they do differently than those that fail. Accelerate identified what successful schools have that unsuccessful ones don’t: outstanding principals. So it devotes itself to training great leaders and placing them in schools that most need them.


“We’ve never seen a great school without a great leader,” says founder Pat Ryan, Jr. “But the fundamental problem is that there aren’t enough leaders.” To address that deficiency, Accelerate Institute recruits promising educators from across the country to participate in its Ryan Fellowship program. This rigorous, three-year program trains aspiring principals for the challenges of leading an urban school, focusing on “transformational leadership,” says CEO Nora Ligurotis. Fellows learn how to build a team, how to handle difficult conversations, and how to write a strategic plan—skills taught to business leaders that “sadly, aren’t part of the training for education leaders,” Ligurotis says.

The fellowship program begins over the summer with four weeks in a classroom setting at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Fellows then begin a field-study period during the fall semester as a member of the leadership team at an urban school. During field study, fellows devise a strategic plan tailored to the school where they will eventually be hired. (Fellows are heavily recruited and typically have a principal job lined up after their first year.) Thus, they begin their principalship already armed with a detailed road map for success.


The Ryan Fellows now work at urban schools that are exceeding expectations for baseline student performance in their area, says Ligurotis. Last year, students in grades 9 through 12 at schools led by a Ryan Fellow learned more than two years’ worth of information in one year, on average. And children in grades K-8 learned at an accelerated rate of 1.32 years, on average.

What’s more, Accelerate Institute expects those successes to multiply as more leaders complete its training programs and go on to mentor other educators at their respective schools. Dawn Sandoval, a Ryan Fellow and the founding high school principal of Catalyst Maria Charter School in Chicago, has trained her staff with leadership in mind.

“Now, three years in at Catalyst Maria, I can push my chair back and know that other leaders here now have the same mind-set and the same skills,” she says. With Sandoval at the helm, Catalyst Maria has retained 95 percent of teachers—a higher-than-average rate—halting the revolving door of teachers that is so detrimental to students’ success and to the school’s culture.

How The Satter Foundation Has Helped

The Satter Foundation was an early supporter of Accelerate Institute’s vision and approach. Muneer notes, “Pat Ryan, Jr. is a great visionary leader. When we heard his plans, we were very excited to contribute to such a high-performing organization.”

What's Next

“Because there’s a shortage of good leaders, a surprising number of principals are being prematurely placed ahead of their skill development,” says Ryan. That’s why Accelerate Institute is launching the Accelerator program, which shores up the leadership skills of current principals; it aims to roll out the program in 2016. More broadly, Accelerate Institute wants to change public attitudes about education reform. “We want to help more people understand that the money they’re investing to solve education reform isn’t going to achieve anything unless you have the right leader creating the right environment, and to start investing in things that will actually move the needle,” says Ryan.

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