Entrepreneurs Wanted

May 14, 2003

The NewSchools Venture Fund is looking for a few good entrepreneurs.

Part of a small genus of charitable organizations known as venture philanthropists, NewSchools offers money and management expertise to groups with innovative ideas about improving education. Some of its biggest investments in the past year have been to expand networks of charter schools. (Venture Fund Seeds School Innovations, April 24, 2002.)

Now, the San Francisco-based enterprise is putting new energy toward directly improving regular public schools. At NewSchools’ annual “summit” of education leaders, held May 1 in Palo Alto, Calif., fund officials announced plans to raise at least $20 million to finance ventures aimed at helping school districts become better- performing organizations.

The Performance Accelerator Fund, as the group calls it, will focus on four areas: efforts to recruit and train teachers and administrators; tools for assessing student progress; programs that increase instructional time, such as after-school tutoring; and curricula that are proven, by research, to improve student achievement.

Those were the top needs identified by district leaders interviewed as the venture fund planned its new project, said Kim Smith, the chief executive officer of NewSchools.

“Educators just don’t have the tools to do what we ask them to do,” she said. “So we need to go out and find entrepreneurs to provide those tools to them.”

Groups that win NewSchools’ support may come from either the for- profit or nonprofit world. As an example, Ms. Smith points out that some technology start-ups could have good ideas for helping teachers better gauge student learning.

Some ventures that NewSchools already has invested in could get additional infusions from the new fund. One of the earliest members of the philanthropy’s “investment portfolio,” for instance, was New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit that’s piloting an apprenticeship program for novice principals—an effort that also fits under the accelerator fund’s areas of focus.

Any group that seeks NewSchools’ backing must undergo its rigorous screening process. Like the venture-capital firms it seeks to emulate, NewSchools subjects potential investments to intense scrutiny to determine which seem likely to bear fruit.

Still, Ms. Smith expects that NewSchools will have plenty of good ideas to choose from. “The entrepreneurs emerge,” she said, “when they think there’s capital to help them grow.”