By Stacey Childress, Chief Executive Officer
As NewSchools prepares for a new chapter under our incoming CEO, Frances Messano, I have been reflecting on the work our team has done over the last eight years to strengthen public education.
A key insight I had when I joined the organization in 2014 was that in order to spur more excellence and innovation, NewSchools needed the best ideas from everyone. At the time, however, our grantee portfolio, board, and team were overwhelmingly white, even though more than 90% of students attending our portfolio of schools were Black or Latino. This meant the organization was likely missing out on many innovators with ideas for serving students better.
Within the first six months of my tenure at NewSchools, we kicked off a new strategy that focused on investing in schools and organizations committed to ensuring students build a strong academic foundation and other important mindsets, habits and skills necessary for long-term success.
Today, not only are we reaching many more innovators with ideas to better serve students, but the results we’re seeing have exceeded our expectations. We have more work to do to fully realize our vision for education, but our journey so far demonstrates that a real commitment to diversity and inclusion can drive innovation and excellence. But it is not inevitable.
These are some of the key lessons I have learned along the way:
Align your goals for equity and inclusion to your strategy for impact
It was clear to me early on that strengthening the ecosystem of innovation to unlock educational excellence for more students would require a new, integrated approach. So we worked to create ways for many more innovators to get to know us through open funding opportunities and innovation challenges, while creating an explicit commitment to diversifying who we funded and on our internal team. In 2014, the year II joined NewSchools, 18% of our grantees were people of color. Last year, 70% of the innovators we funded were. We have made progress by diversifying our team and our board, going into communities that had not heard of us to be known and build trust, and making shifts to how we select and fund grantees. Combined, these efforts have led to an explosion of great ideas and renewed energy for expanding opportunity for students.
Diversity is good, and inclusion and equity make it great
The extraordinary and diverse talent on our team and board of directors has made possible the success we’ve had so far. Today, half the board and over half the team are made up of people of color — a stark contrast to the racial makeup of the organization eight years ago. Diversifying our team has taken time but it has made us a more innovative and effective organization. As we continue to build a team where everyone feels they can contribute to our success as their authentic selves, we have seen higher levels of staff engagement and satisfaction each year. In our most recent culture survey, 100% of our staff members said they would recommend NewSchools as a great place to work, and 94% reported they feel a strong sense of belonging.
Be intentional about cultivating a diverse set of leaders within your organization
My first year on the job, I hired a great leadership team, half of whom identified as leaders of color. I provided them with the latitude and support they needed to take ownership of their part of the organization, and to take risks and move our work forward. I am beyond excited that the board of directors recently named Frances Messano to be the next CEO of NewSchools. When I first thought about her for the role four years ago, she wasn’t quite ready to say yes. I decided we didn’t have to wait for her to make her decision — if she were up for it, we could work together to make sure she expanded her internal scope, build key relationships with our board and donors, and elevate her external profile — and that’s ultimately what happened.
Hiring and developing diverse talent has always been important to me. Being a white leader, I have approached the challenge of building a stronger, more diverse organization with humility, knowing that I didn’t have all the answers and that if I made mistakes along the way, I would try to learn from them and seek advice from those around me. Not only was it important for me at the start to bring people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to inform and improve the work we were doing, but I also had begun thinking about a potential successor. My advice to other organizations: be intentional and invest in developing diverse leaders by providing them with meaningful and authentic mentoring and leadership opportunities.
When I am asked if our focus on equity comes at the expense of excellence or as a trade-off for student outcomes, I point to our phenomenal results. Our funding has created opportunities for a more racially and ethnically diverse generation of innovators to reimagine learning all over the country. Between 2015 and 2021, NewSchools has invested nearly $140 million in 495 organizations. Half of the total dollars invested have gone to ventures led by Black and Latino trailblazers who are working with their communities to create better educational opportunities for all kids.
I hope moving forward we shift the conversation away from a scarcity frame that suggests excellence, innovation, and equity cannot go hand-in-hand. We can work from a sense of abundance, that together we know more, have more, and can do more to create learning opportunities that help every student reach their full potential.