NewSchools Venture Fund A non-profit venture philanthropy firm working to transform public education for low-income children Fri, 04 Sep 2015 15:30:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic: Moving Faster toward New School Models Tue, 01 Sep 2015 06:58:29 +0000 […]]]> Today, Diane Tavenner, Aylon Samouha, Jeff Wetzler and I released a paper called Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic: Moving Faster toward New School Models. Each of us has been working from different vantage points for a number of years to redesign schools for personalized learning by rethinking time, talent, and technology. Several months ago, we decided to try to write down what we believed in common about why better models of schooling are necessary, our vision for what they might look like, and a shared theory of change for how we might get there. “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic” is the product of our collaboration and the hundreds of conversations we’ve had with students, teachers, parents, school leaders, funders and each other.

One early question that helped accelerate our work was “When it comes to improving schools, what should we be less patient about or perhaps more patient about?” Here’s where we landed:

  • We must be far less patient about expanding our vision of what it means for students to be successful and developing effective ways of supporting and measuring this broader view. Doing well academically remains important, but young people need much more to realize their full potential in the short- and long-term. This includes building critical habits of success such as self-awareness, agency, drive, curiosity and empathy. Over the past few years, parents in many communities have become increasingly frustrated with a narrow focus on boosting reading and math scores, with many channeling their dissatisfaction as opposition to state tests.  Our schools must be designed to help young people develop a full range of skills, habits, and mindsets that are necessary for academic, career, and life success beyond high school. And we need reliable ways of assessing them so that educators can adjust and improve, and so that families, communities, policy makers and funders can hold schools accountable for outcomes in ways that go beyond a compliance mentality.
  • At the same time, we must be far more patient about the investment (time, money, and energy) needed to design, build and refine better models of schooling. There is compelling evidence from other sectors and our own that suggests a different approach will lead to better outcomes and economically sustainable models. Specifically, we need to make larger and longer investments in a small group of innovators and engage in a robust and coordinated set of activities to identify and support early adopters of the best designs that emerge from the work of the innovators.

We all came into the project believing that the industrial model of schooling wasn’t working well for anyone – our schools were designed for a very different time and purpose and are simply not able to prepare and inspire every young person to be successful over the course of their lives. Together we developed a common set of attributes for better school models based on our collective experience over the last five years. The schools of the future should:

  • Start with learning goals that are broad, deep, and interdisciplinary across academic, cognitive and social-emotional aims; and, hold the highest of expectations for all students to meet these ambitious goals
  • Give students the freedom and power to own their learning, choosing the pace and types of learning activities that work best for them, in service of their goals
  • Personalize the learning experience to meet every student based on where she is, what she needs, and her goals and strengths
  • Equip parents to be active partners with the school and with their children
  • Foster a community of togetherness, with diverse groups of students, educators, and parents constantly sharing and working together

The paper describes and explains in detail our theory of change for how we might accelerate the development and spread of schools with these attributes. We developed a graphic that sums it up:


We close with some recommendations for actions different stakeholders might take and some commitments of our own. We hope you find something thought-provoking among the various ideas in the paper.  If so, we would love to hear from you, either over email or in the comments section of this blog. We are eager to refine and strengthen the vision and theory in collaboration with many others working on fundamentally redesigning schools to help students reach an expanded definition of success.


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Building Diverse, Non-instructional Teams with Ops 360 Tue, 25 Aug 2015 14:00:51 +0000 0 A Next Gen Student Heads to College Thu, 20 Aug 2015 20:03:11 +0000 […]]]> As some of you might remember, Sofia Canela from Summit Public Schools joined Stacey Childress on stage at our closing plenary session at this year’s NewSchools Summit.  She shared her experience attending Summit Tahoma, a next generation school that promotes student agency and believes in an expanded definition of student success. 

Sofia starts college this week. I was able to catch up with her to hear more about graduation, her summer, and her plans for freshman year.  Below are highlights from our conversation.

Sofia still

Tell me about graduation.

Graduation felt like one of the biggest accomplishments of my life because it was one of my biggest goals. I was so excited for myself and my family.  It was also sad. It took me time to realize that all of the seniors in my class were going our own ways and were going to create our own lives. We are leaving our Summit family. I don’t think I fully understood that until it happened.

What did you do this summer after graduation?

After graduation, I traveled to Mexico to spend three weeks taking care of my aunt.  I have a lot of little cousins that live in my aunt’s neighborhood.  My cousins and their friends all wanted to learn English.  So every afternoon, I would create a mini-lesson and teach them English words and grammar.  That experience proved to me again that I love working with kids, and I am so excited to pursue my major in Biopsychology so that I can help young people.

You were involved in a Mills college prep program this summer. Can you tell me about it?

It was definitely the MOST challenging program I have been in.  It’s called the Hellman Science and Math program. We basically got to be college students for two weeks.  We lived in the dorms, attended math and science classes, and had to complete labs.  For the first time, I took block scheduled classes so I only had class three days a week, but for three and a half hours at a time!  I had study sessions with TA’s.  It was really tough because we had to learn how to use our independent time to complete homework and labs.  The experience taught me how to schedule my time and use it wisely.  The hardest part was studying and cramming for the end of course test.  I got to live independently in a dorm for the first time.  Being a first generation student, the whole experience helped me know what college would feel like.

What are you the most excited about? 

Because I already declared my major of biopsychology, the school gave me a list of all of the classes I need to take over the next four years. I already know what is expected of me. This fall I have to take chemistry, English and calculus.  I am also excited about all the resources and support I have at Mills.  The professors are so friendly, and the college has so many resources I can use.

What are you most nervous about?

I am most nervous that I am on my own now.  I am nervous about getting myself through all four years.

When you think about your experience at Summit Tahoma, what will you take with you?

It is going to be really helpful to know how to manage my time for projects and labs. In college they have homework and projects, but deadlines are far into the future. Summit helped prepare me to manage my time effectively. Also at Summit, most of our learning was project based.  Most of my learning in college will be project based, so that will be helpful. I will also take my connections to my Summit family.  I know that I can always ask for support from my teachers and mentors. If I am every struggling with something, I can call my mentor and he will answer the phone any time day or night. 

When you think about your experience at Summit Tahoma, what will be different?

I won’t have any of my friends. No one from Summit is going to attend Mills. Academically, the pace and content will be different.  At Summit, I was able to work at my own pace. On a playlist, I could skip a section and come back to it. I could take an assessment when I was ready.  At college, you have to learn the content when they want you to because you have to take the test when they tell you to.  You have to be ready for midterms and finals on the college’s timeline. At Summit you take many small tests along the way, but at college they test you once or twice a semester and the test covers all the content. The student body will also be different. Mills College is a women’s college. I am so excited to be around such a diverse and confident group of women.


All of us at NewSchools wish Sofia the best as she starts college this month!  

View the videos of all 3 students who joined us at Summit 2015 here.
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The New Teacher Center Re-Doubles Efforts Tue, 11 Aug 2015 14:00:16 +0000 0 NewSchools Catapult: 1 Week Countdown, Early Observations Thu, 06 Aug 2015 15:05:14 +0000 […]]]> Earlier this summer, we released NewSchools Catapult, an opportunity for innovative, new schools with plans to launch in Fall 2016 to apply for early-stage investment from us.  Its goal over the next several years is to propel successive waves of education entrepreneurs to launch new schools – the kinds of incredible, life-altering schools that can truly prepare our students to pursue their most ambitious dreams. In keeping with our mission and core values, our focus is on schools that serve significant numbers of underserved students in grades PreK-12 and will be operated by (a) early-stage charter networks for which this would be their first or second school or (b) district-operatedcatapult schools with sufficient autonomy and support to realize their vision.

Now that the application has been live for a month, we thought now might be a good time to reflect on the process thus far. We will know a lot more when the application closes on August 14, but in the spirit of being open and sharing our lessons learned in progress, here are our four takeaways thus far:

  1. Our expectation that applicants embrace an “expanded definition of student success” clearly has broad appeal. Everyone acknowledges the need for students to master core academic content in ELA and Math, but they also want their school to foster more in their students and are excited for the chance to name and find measure those other dimensions. Suffice to say, we’re excited to dig in further once we have the applications in hand and look forward to working alongside our portfolio members, and others with an interest and expertise in this topic, to continue advancing the state of the field over the coming years.
  2. NewSchools Catapult’s exclusive focus on those with plans to launch new schools in 2016 is a requirement that is an impossible bar for some to meet, particularly those in school districts and existing CMOs that embrace innovations like personalization and student agency but are not in a position to launch a new school. The good news is that we plan to release other opportunities in the future that will target innovation within existing schools. Stay tuned for more details this fall. 
  3. We have heard from a number of local and regional charter school funders they are focusing largely, if not entirely, on growing proven CMOs, either through new starts or by taking over failing schools (“restarts”). As a venture philanthropy, this singular approach concerns us. Make no mistake – we are strong advocates for growing high performers. But we believe that a balanced strategy should also include at least some incubation and support of promising new organizations. Just as the auto industry needs a Tesla from time to time, so too does public education need new innovators. To help make that possible in more places, we will gladly serve as a resource to other funders that want to develop a pipeline of new school entrepreneurs. And as promising entrepreneurs emerge through these pipelines, we are excited to co-invest alongside other funders.
  4. A number of entrepreneurs hoping to launch innovative, new private schools reached out to us to ask about whether we would consider them for this opportunity. At this time, the answer is no. This year, are only open to supporting non-profit charter organizations and public school districts. However, in the future, we may consider allowing applications from private schools that prioritize underserved students.

As a reminder, the application for NewSchools Catapult is due very soon – August 14. If you are planning to launch an innovative, new public school in Fall 2016, please take the time to review the application and consider applying. Once we have all of the applications in hand and have had a chance to reflect again, we will be sure to share our thoughts here.


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Introducing NewSchools Ignite: Accelerating Innovation in K-12 EdTech Market Gaps Thu, 30 Jul 2015 11:30:27 +0000 […]]]>

In the edtech world, there is no shortage of talent or ideas. In fact, here at NewSchools, we have had the privilege of supporting some of the brightest minds building innovative tools to support K-12 teaching and learning. Nevertheless, educators nationwide report that in certain sectors there is a lack of high quality digital tools available to support students’ growth in areas critical for success in the 21st century.

Today, we are excited to introduce NewSchools Ignite, a uniquely focused education technology accelerator that will support entrepreneurs tackling the most pressing gaps in K-12 education technology. Our first initiative, the Science Learning Challenge, is now open to companies and nonprofits building technologies that support students’ development of science and engineering skills.

Why science? It turns out that U.S. student achievement in science dramatically declines between elementary and middle school. By the time students graduate from high school, only 30% of them have developed the foundation they need to apply scientific concepts to the world around them. We know we can do better for our children. We must find better ways to ignite students’ curiosity for deeper learning across the sciences and empower more underserved students as explorers and creators. Through NewSchools Ignite, we want to catalyze product growth in specific areas—like the sciences—deemed crucial to teachers and students and where innovation in digital tools for teaching and learning is noticeably lagging.

We’ve structured NewSchools Ignite’s Science Learning Challenge as a grant-based philanthropic initiative with up to $1.5 million in grants to be distributed among a cohort of up to 15 challenge winners developing technologies to improve science learning. We will support challenge winners with a highly customized and flexible virtual accelerator program. Individual grants will range from $50,000 to $150,000, depending on each product’s stage of development.

We believe that taking an educator-inspired and student-centered approach to product development is crucial to building useful and effective edtech products. With this in mind, we have partnered with the science education and research experts at WestEd. Science education experts like Steve Schneider, Senior Program Director of WestEd’s STEM program, will act as an extended part of our team, provide feedback from a research perspective, and collaborate with grant recipients to design small scale studies on product usability, feasibility and promise of learning. In addition to access to the latest research about what works well and what is needed in science education, grant recipients will have opportunities to learn directly from teachers and students who have a stake in raising the bar in science education.

Through this work, we intend to help educators, designers, researchers and funders better understand what it takes to develop high quality digital tools that benefit students and teachers across the United States – especially in underserved communities.

We hope you’ll join us in spreading the word about NewSchools Ignite and the Science Learning Challenge. Applications will remain open until September 4, 2015.

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Growing the Nation’s Best Charter Sector Thu, 23 Jul 2015 16:05:13 +0000 […]]]> In 2011, NewSchools Venture Fund launched its four-year, $12 million Boston Charter School Replication Fund. Led by Jim Peyser, the Boston Fund has helped double the size of the nation’s highest-performing charter sector: by 2020, the Boston charter sector will serve nearly 11,000 students and one in four middle schoolers. Meanwhile, we have focused on building an ecosystem that can support the ongoing growth of quality schools.

In order to capture the work we have done and the lessons we have learned – which we believe help articulate a vision for urban education reform that can inform future work in Boston and in other cities around the country – we have produced a report on the Boston Fund’s activities, results, and lessons learned.  We are appreciative to Graham VanderZanden and Tiffany Lee for their work to produce the report, and to Maura Marino, Jim Peyser, and Will Austin for their review. Below we summarize some of the findings from the report. We hope that you will read the report and share it with your networks. We look forward to hearing your reflections on our experience in Boston!

Investing in Excellence

The Boston Charter School Replication Fund (“Boston Fund” for short) invested $12M to support the growth of a group of exceptionally high-performing charter school organizations: Brooke Charter Schools, City on a Hill, Excel Academy, KIPP Massachusetts, Match Charter Schools, Roxbury Prep (Uncommon Schools Boston), and UP Education Network. In 2010, most of these organizations were single-site charter schools; today, each charter network operates three or more schools. Along with a few other single-site charter schools in Boston, these seven networks have made the local charter sector the highest-performing sector in the country, according to Stanford’s CREDO.

The Boston Fund has also helped develop an ecosystem that supports excellent schools. It has invested in key resources that are necessary for growth, such as growing the talent pipeline; supported district-charter collaboration, enabling greater enrollment equity across schools and sectors; and launched community engagement initiatives, increasing public support for policies that promote excellent schools. Collectively, these investments have positioned Boston for rapid change that benefits those students who have been traditionally most underserved within public schools.

Growth with Quality

Investments in quality schools and a supportive ecosystem have led to an intensive period of rapid growth. Support from the Boston Fund has helped add over 6,500 new charter school seats. This growth will help double Boston charter school enrollment, from about 9% of all public school enrollment in Boston in 2010, to about 18% in 2020. Simultaneous to this overall growth, high-need students are attending charter schools at increasing rates. Enrollment of low-income students, special education students, and English language learners have all increased as a percentage of total enrollment since 2010, with ELL enrollment increasing fivefold (from 2% to 10% of all charter school enrollment). 

Boston’s charter sector has grown rapidly.



High-need student enrollment has increased in all categories.


Boston’s charter schools have maintained high levels of quality throughout these changes. From 2010 through 2014, Boston charter schools have consistently outperformed local district and state averages on reading and math state assessments and in the rates at which graduates go on to college, especially 4-year college. These outcomes cannot be explained away as simple differences in enrollment between district and charter sectors. Rigorous research from MIT shows that attending a charter school actually changes the likelihood that any given student will achieve at a high level on MCAS, SAT, or AP tests, as well as improving that student’s chances of going to a 4-year college.

Student outcomes have remained strong. (Click image to enlarge)

Click to enlarge

Lessons Learned

The Boston Fund demonstrated that growing what works is an effective strategy to increase the number of high-quality seats. Philanthropic intermediaries can play an important role in helping establish the conditions for this growth with quality.  These conditions include:

  1. a critical mass of high-quality school operators;

  2. pipelines for key resources, especially talent and buildings;

  3. cross-school and -sector collaboration, to facilitate best-practice sharing and to address common needs;

  4. a policy environment that supports quality schools; and

  5. community engagement to ensure public demand for a supportive policy environment 

The Boston Fund’s experience especially highlights the importance of a strong policy environment and community support for quality schools. After the recent rapid growth of charter schools in Boston, nearly all charter school seats have been allocated under the current cap. This cap prevented Brooke Charter Schools, which operates possibly the highest-performing K-8 school in the state and has over 3,000 families on its waitlist, from receiving a charter for a fourth school in 2013. The state legislature had an opportunity to change this in 2014, but instead voted down legislation to incrementally increase the charter cap. Going forward, we believe that growing community support for quality schools and the increasing momentum among leaders at the state and local level to support quality and collaboration lends great promise to future opportunities for more charter school growth, and more students with access to high-quality schools.

If you’d like to lend your voice, funds, or time to the effort to create more high-quality schools in Boston, we encourage you to follow the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, Families for Excellent Schools, Democrats for Education Reform, and the Boston Schools Fund

Read the detailed report on the Boston Fund


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The Expectations Project Sees Power in Faith Communities Tue, 21 Jul 2015 23:35:32 +0000 Faith leaders are trusted voices who can facilitate conversations and collaboration across political, racial and socioeconomic difference. They bring a deeply rooted sense of hope that educational excellence and equity can be achieved in our lifetime. As the impact of The Expectations Project grows, more faith leaders and their congregations will convene families and raise their voices in support of policies and practices that improve educational outcomes for all our children.

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Equity Reports: Transparent Data to Spark Change Mon, 20 Jul 2015 14:12:29 +0000 […]]]> Despite major changes in DC’s education reform landscape, the black-white achievement gap remains the largest in the country. According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the gap between white students’ proficiency levels and black students’ has widened since 2007 to 55 points, representing years of difference in academic achievement. A similar gap exists between Hispanic and white students, highlighting the issue that DC has struggled to provide an equitable education to its neediest students. Achieving equity in education means that all students receive an education that meets their needs, regardless of what school they attend or their race, ethnicity, gender, family income level, special education status or other factors. Equity goes beyond ensuring that students are performing well on tests, but also looking at how students are being served in a school.

In DC, we have made great strides in creating publicly available, transparent data on equity metrics through a collaboration across multiple organizations. For a long period of time, relevant information was siloed among different education agencies. In DC, where forty-five percent of students attend charter schools, it was especially difficult to compare schools across both district and charter schools. In 2013, DC Public Schools (DCPS), the DC Public Charter Schools Board (PCSB), the Office State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education, and NewSchools Venture Fund partnered together to tackle the task of producing equity reports for every public school in the city.

The result of this collaboration is a collection of equity reports, published for every school in the city, which compare the same data across all schools and by student subgroups.  Now in its second year, these reports are meant to capture important information that reflects how well a school is doing in providing an equitable education for its students. The reports include the following data, each of which is shown for individual student subgroups:

  • Performance: Student achievement as measured by proficiency on the state assessment, student academic growth and high school graduation rates,
  • Discipline: Suspension and expulsion rates,
  • Attendance: The average percentage of students attending school on a given day, and
  • Mobility: Month-by-month withdrawal and entry data.

This data, housed on the LearnDC website, has given educators and policymakers across the city new, more nuanced information to help shape not only our thinking about how schools are performing, but allows us to understand how different populations of students are being served. For example, our initial analysis of data from the 2013-14 school year looked at the rates at which students in different groups received one or more days of suspensions throughout a school year. In figure 1, we see that citywide, suspension rates are highest among special education students. Moreover, low-income and African American students also have higher rates compared to DC students overall.

Figure 1.


A similar analysis was completed for attendance rates by subgroup. In figure 2, the attendance rates by subgroup are shown and while the rates among all are relatively high (the overall citywide average is 90% for in-seat attendance), special education students have relatively lower attendance rates.

Figure 2.


The equity reports also show data on mobility, which measures students entering and leaving schools within the year. Figure 3 shows the change in withdrawal and entry rates of schools by sector during the 13-14 the school year.

Figure 3.


While the equity reports do not provide any information about why students are being served differently, they do provide a starting point for further reflection, potential recommendations, and goal setting. We’re hopeful that making this data transparent will help teachers and school leaders learn from the success of peer schools, and redouble their efforts to ensure equity for all DC students. 

The individual equity reports from each school are available on the LearnDC website at


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How to Win the Education Talent Game Wed, 15 Jul 2015 19:14:45 +0000 […]]]> Few educators would disagree with the statement that top talent is mission critical for achieving great results for students.

Yet the public education sector—school districts, charter organizations, nonprofits, intermediaries, government agencies, and foundations—chronically underinvests in developing highly effective and diverse system leaders.  With the pace of innovation increasing and complexity on the rise, why is that?  And what practical steps can organizations and leaders take to reverse the trend, build capacity, and reduce the kind of staff turnover that cripples success?

EdFuel set out recently to explore these questions with The Bridgespan Group, in partnership with The Broad Center, NewSchools Venture Fund, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and 50CAN.  We conducted a national survey of some 400 system leaders and extensive follow up interviews to get to the root of the problem.  The results are striking and the call to action is clear, but implementation will require true organizational commitment and a re-orienting of management priorities.  Read the full report here.

Survey Findings

The survey confirmed what many already suspect:  sixty percent of administrative leaders anticipate leaving their organizations within the next three years. This number is even higher at the middle manager level, with approximately 70 percent intending to leave within the next three years.

This “musical chairs” dynamic is not, however, a foregone conclusion.  Some staff report a strong affinity to their organization and a desire to continue developing in their role for the mid- to long-term.  What separates these organizational “promoters” from others?  The overwhelming answer is the amount of on-the-job career development and advancement opportunities their organization provides.  In fact, promoters are 5.5 times more likely to receive development support than their peers.


Educational organizations can stem the outflow of talented personnel by investing more in their professional growth—which builds organizational leadership capacity and promotes diversity. Our research pointed to four interlocking steps they need to take:

  • Adopt a development mindset: A talent-focused culture starts at the top and should be a stated priority of every senior leadership team and board.
  • Build muscle: Developing current and future leaders is a skill that can be learned, with practice and modest investment. Many tools and resources are available, including a set of K–12 leadership competency maps recently launched by EdFuel.
  • Prioritize diversity: Students of color constitute half the public school population, yet African American and Hispanic system eaders make up less than 25 percent of senior management roles in most systems. Closing that gap will require proactively providing development opportunities.
  • Measure, test, learn, and adapt: Leadership teams can get better over time by setting targets, tracking progress, and reflecting on results. Getting started means taking simple steps that promote learning and build a sense of momentum.   

A Path Forward

Reorienting an organization around talent development as a core competency is a long, involved, and often messy process.  But that is no excuse for organizations to delay the important work of getting started—quite the opposite, actually.

To advance this work, we outline a specific set of action steps for superintendents / CEOs, leadership teams, funders, non-profit intermediaries, and individuals to take towards a stronger talent culture and building much-needed leadership capacity.   

Please see the full report, Hidden in Plain Sight: Tomorrow’s Education Leaders Already Work for You, which captures our survey data and related recommendations.  We hope you’ll take a look, and that this work will catalyze increased commitment to develop and retain the leaders we need to achieve breakthrough student results in every school and classroom.

Jimmy Henderson is the founder of EdFuel, a non-profit that was created to address the need for mid- and senior-level education reform leaders in innovative schools and support organizations.  EdFuel’s mission is to attract, develop, and retain the next generation of education reform leaders, with an intentional focus on “beyond the classroom” roles.

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