Almost ten years ago, Washington, DC began a series of sweeping changes to dramatically improve public education. To complement the efforts of DC Public Schools, NewSchools Venture Fund saw an opportunity to launch the DC Schools Fund. We set out to expand educational opportunities for students and families in Washington, D.C. – particularly those who have been underserved – by strengthening the quality of the city’s charter schools.
At that time, 31 percent of students attended a charter school, but the quality on average was not much better than that of the district. We focused on increasing the number of high-quality charter schools by directly supporting schools, ensuring accountability for low-performing charters, supporting advocacy efforts and building an ecosystem to ensure school leaders had the necessary tools and support to drive quality.
Since 2008, we have invested $40 million and worked with 50 teams of educators, yielding the creation or transformation of more than 14,000 seats in public charter schools. Today, more than three times as many students attend a high-performing charter school than in 2008. More importantly, Washington, D.C. is the fastest improving city on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, improving twice as quickly as other cities.
As the DC Schools Fund began wrapping up, we were excited to launch a new phase of work through the creation of Education Forward DC, an independent non-profit which will work to advance quality and equity in public schools across the city. Building on the work of the DC Schools Fund, Ed Forward DC aims to double the number of underserved students who are college and career-ready in the next five years.
Learn more about Education Forward DC
We’re pleased to share this report with you, highlighting some of our successes and lessons learned across the last eight years. Thank you for your support and partnership.
CEO, NewSchools Venture Fund
Managing Partner, NewSchools Venture Fund
CEO, Education Forward DC
End of Fund Report
We have funded nearly 14,000 high-quality charter school seats since the inception of the DC Schools Fund. When we began, only 22,000 students attended a charter school and 33 percent of those students were in low-performing schools. We are proud to say that the percentage of students attending a high performing charter school increased from 18% to 44% between 2008 and 2015. During the same period, enrollment at tier-three schools fell from 33% to 6%.
Offering more high-quality charter schools to students and families has also meant closing low-performing charters. Since 2008, over 8,000 charter school seats have closed. Schools closures are disruptive for students, divisive for communities, and never the desired outcome. However, they are also a necessary part of building high-quality school options for every student.
At NewSchools, we’ve worked to ensure accountability and a high bar for excellence, while also seeking ways to minimize the disruption to students and families caused by school closures. We have selectively supported school restart — an alternative to school closures wherein a charter school’s operator and board changes, while the school continues to serve the same students.
In 2013, we commissioned a paper by Public Impact entitled The Role of Charter Restarts in School Reform: Honoring our Commitments to Students and Public Accountability. Subsequently, we convened school leaders and public officials connected to this issue, and supported three schools engaging in restarts. We learned a great deal from these efforts, although success varied dramatically.
While there is still much to do to expand quality choices in D.C. , early results show low-income students in the schools we serve are outperforming their peers in other district and charter schools across the city.
A stronger public education system means increasing the quality of students’ learning experiences while also ensuring equitable access to those experiences. We will achieve equity when every student in every school has what they need to be successful, regardless of gender, race, and family background. Across our DC Schools Fund work, we have tried to ensure equity is an essential part of the conversation.
The DC Schools Fund supported several projects and ventures that bring great school options to light for all students, especially those who have the most to gain from excellent schools – black, Latino, and low-income families, as well as those with special education needs and who are still learning the English language.
These projects included:
- My School DC, the citywide common lottery effort that helps families apply to any DC Public School or public charter school with a single application process, rather than 54 separate ones. NewSchools helped design the initiative based on national best practices, coordinated across many players, and worked closely with the team to ensure success.
- Equity reports through Learn DC – publicly available, transparent data on equity metrics on every school in the city, comparing the same data across all schools and by student subgroups. These reports capture important information that reflects how well a school is doing in providing an equitable education for its students.
- DC School Reform Now, which coaches low-income families on selecting a great school for their child, and runs virtual school tours so parents and students can see what a school is like even if they can’t visit during the school day.
High-quality schools draw on many local resources to recruit staff, board members, and families, as well as to drive great performance through continuous improvement and quality instructional supports. When NewSchools began our work, we asked DC school leaders what they needed to improve their schools. Based on their input, we invested in the areas of highest priority:
- Teacher recruitment and preparation – support for ventures which provide rigorous teacher preparation, recruitment and support to strengthen the teacher pipeline in DC charter schools, including the Capital Teaching Residency, Urban Teachers, and Teach For America.
- Talent development – investment in organizations that build and deliver professional development support to teachers, principals, and other education sector leaders. Ventures include TNTP, EdFuel, New Leaders, the DC Developing Leaders Initiative, Relay Graduate School of Education and Leading Educators.
- Governance – growing education organizations need the support of high-performing, diverse boards. Our venture Charter Board Partners has strengthened the membership, diversity and performance of local charter school boards so they can help schools grow sustainably and responsibly.
- Local instructional supports – enabling the expansion of national organizations like The Achievement Network and Reading Partners so they could serve DC schools well. Additionally, we helped LearnZillion, the cloud-based curriculum company, get their start by spinning out of local school E.L. Haynes.
Sustainable long-term change requires all stakeholders – parents, educators, students, school administrators, politicians and voters – to understand the key issues and participate in designing solutions. Eight years ago in DC, certain voices in our community were poorly organized to advocate for the changes they sought to make.
NewSchools’ role was to analyze the advocacy landscape in DC to identify what voices are not being heard, and fill the gaps so those groups can engage productively in helping DC schools make the kinds of changes that the community wants. We supported the following teams and investments:
- The Expectations Project, which helps channel the power of faith-based communities to focus on education changes that support students they care about
- PAVE (Parents Amplifying Voices in Education), which helps parents organize to advocate more effectively for policies and schools they believe in
- Education Reform Now’s new DC chapter. ERN educates political leaders to prioritize educational equity and excellence
- FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools), to advocate for policies that support charter school quality and sustainability
The result of our work is that the advocacy sector in DC is more robust, more focused on quality, and more aligned to collaborate to achieve common goals.
NewSchools has a long tradition of helping change makers from different organizations come together to learn from one another’s lessons and best ideas. We served as the facilitator for several distinct communities of education leaders, helping them tackle important and difficult issues together.
We regularly convened the following communities of practice:
- Charter school CEOs
- School principals and academic leaders making critical instructional shifts
- Organizations working to fill and support the pipeline of talented new teachers who serve all DC students
- Education philanthropists investing in DC schools
- Advocacy organizations working on the same issues, with different communities around DC
“I appreciated the opportunity to share my ideas and concerns with a thoughtful presenter and group of cohort mates. I am incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to undertake this important work with my staff. ” – Chief Academic Officer
Over the course of eight years and two funds, we grew from our mistakes, adjusted course, and learned a few things about what works in city-based efforts to improve public education. Here are some lessons we are taking into our next phase at Education Forward DC:
- Starting with transparency – making the disparities in different students’ experiences clear and factual – allows us to put quality and equity front and center in most stakeholders’ minds
- Coordinating and aggregating charitable donations from many funders allows our city to ensure the sector’s key needs are met in an organized manner
- We should focus initially on strategies that require a longer lead time to show positive impact – such as building a strong teacher pipeline – in addition to short-term wins that benefit students and educators right away
- Ventures value our management assistance almost as much as investment, and we need to staff with the appropriate number and level of professionals
- Raising a large investment amount early in our work enables flexibility to respond to new opportunities and change course when needed
Follow us on Twitter at @edforwarddc to keep learning with us as our work continues.
This work would not be possible without a community of people working incredibly hard to make a difference on behalf of students. We would like to thank our ventures—especially the entrepreneurs, leaders, and teachers who have built organizations and school cultures designed to help students thrive.
Check out all the ventures we’ve funded
We are supported by a network of donors who have provided not only financial resources, but their time, energy and wisdom in service of making our team and our work better.
Finally, we would like to thank our colleagues who have worked on the DC Schools Fund team over the last eight years, especially Jordan Meranus, Kim Statham, Lauren Kushman, Jim Peyser, and Melissa Kim.
Thank you to our funders:
- Bainum Family Foundation
- The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
- The Louis Calder Foundation
- CapitalSource Charitable Foundation
- CityBridge Foundation
- The Clark Charitable Foundation
- deLaski Family Foundation
- Michael & Susan Dell Foundation
- Terry and Lindsay Eakin Foundation
- Lois & Richard England Family Foundation
- Doris & Donald Fisher Fund
- Flamboyan Foundation
- Foundation for Maryland’s Future
- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- Robert Hisaoka
- The Andrew and Julie Klingenstein Family Fund
- Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation
- Larry & Melanie Nussdorf
- Perkins Hunter Foundation Fund
- The Manger Family Foundation
- The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation
- Robertson Foundation
- Silicon Valley Community Foundation
- The Walton Family Foundation